If Jonathan Edwards is America’s greatest theologian, then Abraham Lincoln is surely our greatest public theologian. Unlike many presidents who have used theological language for rhetorical flourish or to curry favor with religious supporters, Lincoln used theology to shape his political sentiments into powerful analytical and persuasive arguments. His appeal to divine justice in his second Inaugural Address provides a framework within which he interprets the Civil War as divine retribution for the nation’s sin of slavery (“He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came”). At the same time he invokes God’s justice in the hope “that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” By placing the events of the war into the larger frame of providential justice, Lincoln is able to generate a sense of shared responsibility and common hope within a divided nation. Lincoln eschews both cheap theodicy and false hope with this sophisticated employment of theological reasoning.
Although comparisons between Obama and Lincoln are surely overstated—our current president has not yet shown either the rhetorical or intellectual brilliance of Lincoln—they both stand in a long and distinguished tradition of public theology. President Obama seems acutely aware of this tradition in his own Inaugural Address. Like Lincoln, he uses theological discourse to gesture toward our common hopes and aspirations, and he invokes the divine not as the one who charts our “manifest destiny,” but as the one “who calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Obama’s public theology combines a sense of cautious realism with measured hope, as he calls the nation to greater maturity (“the time has come to set aside childish things”) and to a renewal of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” Biblical cadences and theological arguments are used not to advance American exceptionalism but to sketch an America in which “the old hatreds shall someday pass…and our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
In what follows I want to show how Obama stands in a tradition that includes not only Lincoln, but also John Locke, James Madison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin. If his high aspiration of using theology to inspire citizens beyond old hatreds and toward a common humanity is to succeed, he will have to engage in a careful and critical appropriation of this rich but varied tradition of public theology.
John Locke and James Madison are rightly considered two of the fathers of our constitutional “separation of church and state.” But their inclusion in the canon of Anglo-American political theory has often obscured the fact that both defended their notions of separation through explicitly theological arguments. Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration is as much a theological document as a political one. It opens with the theological declaration that “Toleration [is] the chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church,” and continues with an extended argument that the church is to be governed by faith and love, never by force. Locke’s footnotes reference not political thinkers but the New Testament, and his argument for toleration is theological in form and substance. “The Toleration of those that differ from others in Matters of Religion, is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine Reason of Mankind, that it seems monstrous for Men to be so blind, as not to perceive the Necessity and Advantage of it, in so clear a Light.” In like manner James Madison in his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” offers a theological rationale for “the free exercise of religion.” The reason, Madison argues, that religion “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man” is that religion is “a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him.” Thus “this duty is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of Civil Society.” For both Locke and Madison, then, freedom of conscience, free exercise of religion, religious toleration, and the separation of church and state are founded upon explicitly theological arguments. Thus when Obama invokes the “ideals of our forebears…our founding documents…and our founding fathers” his appeal may well embrace their theological reasoning as well as their political conclusions.
But such reasoning comes with its costs. Locke famously excluded both Roman Catholics and atheists from the doctrine of toleration—the former because they acknowledge the prior authority of “another Prince” (the Pope) and the latter because they cannot be trusted to fulfill “promises, covenants, and oaths.” While Madison made no such exceptions to his doctrine of toleration, he deeply feared the power of factions to undermine the tenuous union that held the colonies together. He worried that citizens’ “zeal concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points…rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other rather than to co-operate for their common good.” With his founding confreres he devised a system of representative government which trusts the virtues of elected officials over those of the ordinary citizens, thus undermining, some have argued, the very democratic principles on which the nation claims to be founded. If President Obama hopes to invoke the ideals of the founders for the sake of our common humanity, he will have to account for the blind spots in the very theologico-political reasoning he seeks to employ.
Finally, President Obama stands in the tradition of African American intellectuals who freely employ theological reasoning in their political and public arguments. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. he uses biblical quotations and theological gestures to appeal to our common humanity and the hopes and aspirations we share. But like King he recognizes that such speech is “ideal” and does not simply correspond to the facts on the ground. King could write, “we will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands,” even as dogs and fire hoses assaulted freedom riders in the Jim Crow south. What I have called Obama’s “cautious realism” and “measured hope” combine utopian ideals and sober assessment in equal measure in a way characteristic of the best of African American political reflection. Moreover, President Obama attends with exquisite care to the particularity of the persons he describes in his addresses. His thoughtful account in his recent Notre Dame speech of his exchange with a doctor who opposed his position on abortion reminded me of Dr. King’s remarkable ability to evoke a deeper understanding within his diverse audiences by personalizing his accounts of racial discrimination. His powerful description of the look on the face of his six year old daughter when she was told that “Funtown is closed to colored children” still brings tears to my eyes whenever I read it. There is an emerging aesthetic in President Obama’s speeches that resonates with James Baldwin’s remarks about the responsibility of the novelist:
[The human being is] resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity…we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at one ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.
Perhaps it is also the business of this particular public theologian who serves as the 44th President of the United States.
Public theology is a complicated vocation, especially as practiced by one who represents the entirety of an increasingly diverse nation. But President Obama seems, in these first months, to be carrying on the task in critical continuity with a range of inherited traditions. These traditions are both noble and flawed, but the President seems aware of both dimensions. How and whether his theological reflections will assist him in grappling with issues of immigration, racial and economic inequality, and worldwide economic peril is uncertain, but more than any president in recent memory he seems to be engaged in a genuine and serious attempt to be a public theologian for the whole nation.
Jesus warned that pouring new wine into old wineskins threatened to burst the skins asunder. President Obama seems, by contrast, to be putting old wine into new wineskins, a much more hopeful but still perilous enterprise.
[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]