Barack Obama and the Grace of God

by Dr. Gary S. Smith

President Barack Obama’s remarkable eulogy for Clementa Pinckney
President Barack Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney has again called attention to the president’s often misunderstood faith. In this fascinating article, Dr. Gary S. Smith examines President Obama’s complex faith and argues that when evaluating his faith, “we should carefully consider all his words (including those inspiring ones delivered in Charleston) and his varied actions.”

The Center For Vision & Values

Grove City, PA -( President Barack Obama’s remarkable eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, one of the nine victims of the recent tragic shooting there, has again called attention to the president’s often misunderstood faith.

Obama’s singing of the venerated Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” and focus on the theme of grace has been widely discussed.

Sadly, Obama has been called upon to play the role of our national pastor, our comforter-in-chief, numerous times in his six and half years in office—in the aftermath of shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Boston, the Washington Navy Yard, and Fort Hood, Texas; tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri and Moore, Oklahoma; and an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

Despite his repeated testimony to his Christian faith (Obama has shared his personal faith journey more than any other president), many Americans either profess confusion about his religious convictions or consider them to be irrelevant. It is well known that numerous polls, especially during his first term, report that only half of Americans consider him to be a Christian. The other half either do not know what his faith was or think he is a Muslim.

Undoubtedly speaking for many, James Fallow asserted recently in the Atlantic Monthly, “if asked to describe Obama,” he would probably use many other adjectives before he employed “‘religious’ or ‘Christian.’” The president is “much more likely to explain his views” by referring to history, literature, economics, or jurisprudence “than to the teachings of his faith.”

Obama has rarely used faith language or Biblical passages to support his signature health program. He has, however, frequently employed religious rhetoric and scriptural phrases (most notably “my brother’s keeper”) to promote many other policies, including ones pertaining to poverty, immigration, the environment, and gay marriage. Obama even named his 2014 program to create “more pathways to success” for Latino and African-American boys and young men “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.” Obama has strengthened the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, frequently solicited the advice of religious leaders, called on religious groups to help solve the nation’s most urgent problems, and asserted that his faith “informs who I am—as a president, and as a person” and guides his actions.

Granted, Obama’s faith is complex. It has been shaped by various streams—the African-American church, the Social Gospel movement, mainline Protestantism (especially through his long involvement at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago), and evangelicalism. Moreover, he has rarely attended church while president. Because they disagree with his policies on abortion, gay marriage, poverty alleviation, and other issues, countless religious conservatives question whether Obama’s faith is genuine. These factors help explain why many Americans are perplexed about the nature of his faith, how much it means to him, and how much it influences his policies.

Given his background and repeated use of Christian language, Obama’s eloquent and moving focus on God’s grace at the funeral service at the College of Charleston is not surprising. The president used his eulogy to urge Americans “to put our faith in action” by working “to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless” through both doing charitable acts and creating a more just society. He hoped that this tragedy caused Americans to ask “how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty,” “attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.”

Obama’s central theme, however, was grace. He lauded Pinckney for understanding “the power of God’s grace” and emphasized that Christianity taught that God’s “grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.”

While some commentators seemed befuddled by Obama’s emphasis on God’s grace, it was not new; he has repeatedly accentuated this theme in speeches at national and Easter prayer breakfasts, proclamations of national days or prayer, eulogies, and numerous other occasions. Obama has stressed how God’s grace can help people cope with tragedies, resolve their differences, and work together more effectively.

Obama’s primary focus, however, has been on God’s grace in forgiving people’s sins and deficiencies. At the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast, Obama shared that as he reflected on through a “period of doubt and confusion” and finding “Christ when I wasn't even looking for him,” he was overwhelmed “by the simple grace of God.” God’s “magnificent grace,” His “Amazing Grace,” Obama declared in 2013, “calls me to ask God for forgiveness for … those times that I've fallen short.” On other occasions Obama has thanked God for sending Jesus to earth to atone for human sin. At a 2014 Easter breakfast, he celebrated “the grace of an awesome God” Who “loves us, so deeply that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him.”

Americans will continue to debate the nature of Barack Obama’s faith for the remainder of his presidency and for years after he leaves office. Many conservative Christians are understandably very upset about Obama’s long-standing support of abortion and his more recent enthusiastic endorsement of gay marriage.

Obama has used Biblical rhetoric to justify his positions on these issues, but his stances clash with traditional understandings of scriptural teaching. In evaluating Obama’s faith, we should carefully consider all his words (including those inspiring ones delivered in Charleston) and his varied actions.

Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and his most recent book is “Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents” (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values and the author of “Faith and the Presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 15 thoughts on “Barack Obama and the Grace of God

    1. “if asked to describe Obama……”

      How about lying, cheating, anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Israel, anti-capitalist, pro muslim, illegal alien usurper?

    2. If there is one thing I’ve learned about our president is to not listen to his words but watch his actions. He made a lot of campaign promises that a lot of voters fell for but have yet to come true. He talks a good game, which is how he got into office, but actions speak louder than words!

    3. The only thing that can be said about obama, Is that he is the one who may have destroyed this great nation. I feel that will be his thing. He has no faith. nothing good will ever come out of this man. I will be so happy to see that fool gone.

    4. I really doubt that he has religious faith of any kind. He sees himself as the savior. The media has built him up to a godlike entitie. I think he believes the undeserved praise. This man suffers from a god complex. Do you really think he believes in God? I really doubt it.

    5. Dr. Smith quotes words of Mr. Obama. I believe his actions speak volumes with regards to his “Christian” beliefs. This is the most anti-Christian administration I believe this country has ever experienced. “Government” is the religion of socialists/communists, and that is who we have in the White House.

    6. Dr. Smith equates words with belief. A truer test of one’s beliefs is through one’s actions. Mr. Obama has attempted to isolate Christian beliefs in every segment of society, from the banning of Christian prayer at military funerals, restrictions on military Chaplains, pro-abortion (late term and even post term) , absence from National Day of Prayer breakfasts because he didn’t want to offend anyone. Attending a large Muslim gathering shortly after was apparently OK. When he finally did attend a prayer breakfast he offended Christians by equating current Muslim atrocities with the actions of the Crusades.
      Trinity United Church was a church that emphasized hate and entitlement. Mr. Obama lied about his attendance because it would have been politically embarrassing. After his election he began attending a church in the DC area but stopped when it was revealed the nature of that church was similar to Trinity.
      I believe Mr. Obama’s true religion is the religion of Government, with a fondness for Islam. He talks the talk Dr. Smith, but I would challenge you to show me where he has walked the walk.

    7. Many think he is Muslim? Ok I can understand that, I also understand that in Islam it is well within the right of the Muslim to lie to Infidels as they are impure and slated for death.

      1. Sheikh Hussein of Obamastan practises “taqiyyah,” under which Allah blesses and forgives a Muslim who dissembles (translation: lies) to unbelievers, if that act promotes Islam.

    8. Well if the republican conservatives/patriots/religious evangelicals and whatever else they call themselves these days ever get their collective heads out of their butts and find a candidate that can win, maybe we would have something other than this obsession with the president. Why do responders fail to realize that while their hate and vitriol is focused on Obama, congress is forcing all of us down a black hole from which we will never recover. And as long as we continue to re-elect the same people over and over and over again, nothing will change, regardless of who holds the office. Of all of the candidates that have announced their bid for the Whitehouse not one of them will make a damn bit of difference. They are all currently part of the problem and not part of the solution. Washington is playing “hide the pea” and we keep trying to find it.

    9. The man(?) ‘b. obama’ is a LIAR and a TRAITOR! Anything he says should be heard with a very large questioning and investigation of his true ulterier motives. He was installed as President only to try and destroy America. He has done enough damage to America that it will take YEARS to repair HIS damage. ‘b. obama’ and his goons need to be removed from ALL public Offices. They need to LOOSE any and all termination money, benefits and salaries. Most of the co-conspirators should sit in jail cells for their UNLAWFUL actions. COERCIVE USE OF GOVERNMENT POSITIONS IS UNLAWFUL!!

      1. Laddyboy, that’s exactly the stuff I expected to read about Obama. He was installed? Looks like 60% of America “installed” him and not once but twice. Destroy America? Unfortunately it was our last president that was doing that not Obama. Obama did a lot to bring us back from the brink. Why do you think so many voted for him? I was a Republican myself prior to Obama, now I moved more toward the middle where I can see both sides. I guess Me and the other 60% of American’s are his co-conspirators. We conspired to help make America better, and the country is much better for it. You may not like the newer America but it’s still the best place on planet Earth.

        1. Installed by use of electronic voting machines. Do you trust those? A district in Ohio reported 19000 votes, not a single vote for the opposition. Oops, someone forgot to fudge it and got greedy. I believe that is statistically impossible, to have 19k votes without a single opposition vote. Yes, installed might be a suitable word.

    10. It does not matter what platitudes one uses in proclaiming something that benefits themselves, such as being a Christian does in the USA. Obama has authored envy, jealousy and greed by others to seek so called economic justice. Obama has stated, that Religion ends at the steps of the Church, and only uses religion when it helps to receive backing of his proposals. He has stated that “White People” are the problem in the USA and throughout the world, and that reparations have not been made. This openly makes guilty 95% of White People who never owned slaves, have never endorsed racism or played a part in racism. Racism does not mean “White People” as Obama has suggested many times. A Christian is not the author of Confusion, chaos and lies. Obama sold Obama Care, based on lies, distortions, envy and jealousy. The same things he states cause laws that keep minorities in jail. Such things as murder, rape, armed robbery. He subjugates religious freedoms by supporting Gay Marriage and not supporting Christian teachings. He is the ONLY Christian in history to state “MY Muslim Faith”. A person is not a Christian based upon going into some building hosting Black Liberation Theology. A Christian is one that follows the teachings of the Holy Bible, and not the Prophet Muhammad. Rhetoric can be spilled by anyone, and anyone can make false claims of belief’s when they cannot be proved. No Liars will be found in Heaven, and Obama is undoubtedly a compulsive Liar. See Obama Care, Benghazi, Ferguson, Trayvon, etc… A Christian does not mock the Holy Bible. See Obama’s statements on Youtube about the Sermon on the Mount. Christian? pfft. No need to claim such when you share the ideals of the Ungodly, and put them first in your job and all areas of life.

    11. Wow, can’t believe I’m the first to leave a comment or maybe just the first to leave a printable one? I appreciate the article. It is truthful and highlights the side of Obama that we are allowed to see. Is it his true side? Personally, I do think he’s setting a good example with his words. He’s publicly shown more reverence to god than most any other president I have lived to see. I bet he sings better than 80% of our past presidents (smile). In my state I can and sometimes do, legally carry a concealed weapon and in the past that might not have possible. We sure could have done worse. God bless the USA and our president whoever he may be.

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