Reporting on Barack Obama’s sermon at Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God yesterday, the Chicago Tribune‘s Jeff Long and Christi Parsons write, “The theme of fatherly responsibility is important for Obama, especially now that he is the presumed Democratic nominee for the White House. While his dogma is decidedly liberal, his talk about personal responsibility crafts an appeal to religious conservatives and political centrists.” But it’s important to recognize the extent to which this is not only not a newly crafted message for Obama (see this reader’s comment to Andrew Sullivan) but also an absolutely characteristic expression of the black church.
The sociologist Stephen Warner, in an article in the forthcoming (in a couple of weeks) issue of Religion in the News, puts it this way:
In February, the Chicago Sun-Times found it worth a headline that Obama should tell a mostly African-American crowd that parents need to help their kids do better in school: “Obama to Blacks: Shape Up.” That’s something you will hear from black church pulpits every Sunday. It’s in the ideologically polarized climate of white America that a black politician who argues that black families have responsibilities for the educational chances of their children is typed as a conservative.
In his March 18 speech on race in Philadelphia, Obama insisted not only that parents bear responsibility for their children’s welfare but also that society help them do that by providing jobs and good schools. In the view of the conservative syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg, that amounted to the “same old baggage” of reliance on “big government.” In the white world, calls for individual responsibility or collective obligation tend to be mutually exclusive.
Some secularists hear otherworldly fatalism in God talk and calls for prayer, but in the black church tradition, people both expect miracles and know that God needs their help. A motto above the choir loft in the black Baptist church I researched a few years ago reads P.U.S.H. (Pray Until Something Happens), but another motto facing the congregation sits on the pulpit and reads “If It Is To Be It Is Up To Me.”
The black church works in this world but is convinced there is also a better world.
Here’s how Obama expressed both sides of the equaltion in his sermon: “And by the way – it’s a responsibility that also extends to Washington. Because if fathers are doing their part; if they’re taking our responsibilities seriously to be there for their children, and set high expectations for them, and instill in them a sense of excellence and empathy, then our government should meet them halfway.”
If there’s a consensus on how a candidate’s religion ought to be relevant to the electoral process, it’s that voters deserve to know how the person’s public values have been shaped by his or her faith. For Obama, it seems to me, this is where the action is.