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Faith, politics not completely separable

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

The National Prayer Breakfast was held this month for 3,500 guests with President Barack Obama speaking.

President Obama was hardly into his speech when a Republican congressman from Georgia walked out, claiming the president had turned the breakfast into a political event. Various commentators chimed in, upset that President Obama linked helping the poor and advocated a more equal sharing of financial responsibilities with his understanding of faith. These critics employed one of the first rules of politics: The accuser charges one’s opponent of playing politics while claiming to be pure and untainted by politics himself.

Reading President Obama’s complete remarks, I discovered that the offending thoughts were a very small part of a very standard prayer breakfast speech. Obama recognized the rich religious fabric of our nation and acknowledged that people of faith must align their actions with their faith. Mother Teresa, Cesar Chavez, Jerry Falwell, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Heschel, Daniel Berrigan and T.D. Jakes are examples of religious leaders who have unhesitatingly acted out of their faith convictions for causes either considered liberal or conservative.

Reader poll

Who was the first U.S. president to participate in the National Prayer Breakfast, which is conducted on the first Thursday of February in Washington, D.C.?

  • Harry Truman 0%
  • Dwight Eisenhower 100%
  • John F. Kennedy 0%
  • Lydon Johnson 0%

1 total votes.

If the Georgia congressman had stayed for the entire breakfast, he would have heard President Obama describe finding Christ when he wasn’t even looking for him and being deeply humbled to have said a simple prayer in his home with one of the great leaders of the church, Dr. Billy Graham.

When it comes to public expressions of faith, one is faced with a number of different approaches.

Some in the faith community labor mightily to sever faith and public policy. This honorable and historic understanding of the faith is practiced sincerely and conscientiously by many evangelical Christians who are much more comfortable talking about the power of prayer and the need for conversion than linking such issues to public policy in a public, worship or devotional setting.

Other segments of both the white and black church take the opposite approach, believing that public policy issues and religious faith are inseparable. These groups recognize no clear line drawn between a person’s private faith and that person’s public actions and speech.

The last dust-up of this nature came at the Atlanta funeral of Coretta Scott King, where President Bush, who was present, was called to task by the Rev. Joseph Lowery. Some persons were outraged by this inappropriate politicizing, while others understood it to be appropriate, even in the context of a worship service/funeral.

Each group needs to acknowledge that the other group has a legitimate right to publicly express faith in his or her own way. Unless one confines his or her remarks to “I love people of all faiths” and sits down, it will remain impossible to avoid politics when speaking about faith in Washington, D.C., where everything is political. One day a Republican president will speak at the National Prayer Breakfast again and the Democrats will make the same tired accusations. Only the subject matter will change.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.

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