President Obama spoke at the White House on Tuesday, April 6, to an invited assembly of religious leaders. The occasion of his remarks was the annual White House Easter Prayer Breakfast. Since then, news outlets, the blogosphere, and social media have erupted with claims that the President “condemned” Christians whom he characterized as “less than loving.” One headline read: “Obama BLASTS Christians at Prayer Breakfast.” Having taken the time to listen to all of the President’s remarks, I believe most of these criticisms are unfair.
Before I defend the President, let me agree with one very serious criticism of his remarks, which is that he declined to mention the slaughter and persecution of Christians taking place in the world today. During his Easter remarks, he does take the time to “veer off” (his words) to briefly address some of the “less than loving” rhetoric coming from Christian circles, but says nothing about the persecution and wholesale slaughter of Christians in Africa and the Middle East. This was very disappointing. And even in the President’s previous expressions of sympathy for the victims of overseas atrocities, he repeatedly declines to acknowledge when the victims were Christians targeted by radical Muslims. This is indeed very disappointing, and I join with others who have expressed their criticism of President Obama on this point. However…
The criticism that Obama “blasted” or “condemned” evangelical Christians at the Easter Prayer Breakfast is frankly overblown. It’s not fair, and if we (as evangelicals) are to have any credibility, we need to be fair in how we handle such situations. We should give credit where it is due and be very tempered, reasonable, and godly when we feel the need to offer constructive criticism.
Sadly, many conservative Christians have been conditioned to frankly detest and despise President Obama to the point that anything the man says or does is viewed as suspect (at best) or sinister (at worst). Too many people have a knee-jerk revulsion to the man. The fact is that not every single thing President Obama says is wrong. Some of what he says is right and good. And I feel I must remind many of my fellow Christians that Barack Obama is a human being fashioned in God’s image – and for whom Jesus died on the cross! We are commanded, my fellow Christian, to love him and to pray for him. And we should be fair toward him when it comes to our criticisms.
The President spoke for several minutes during the prayer breakfast, and most of his comments were very good. Some of them were pretty funny, in fact. (I love what he said, for example, about the slim menu at many prayer breakfasts. And what parent can’t relate to his remarks about his girls growing up?) But the comments drawing the most attention were from when he (by his own admission) veered off script. And what were those off-script comments? Here they are….
“On Easter I do reflect on the fact that, as a Christian, I am supposed to love. And I have to say that sometimes, when I’ve listened to less than loving expressions by Christians, I get concerned.”
There’s no condemnation in these comments. He uses the word “concerned.” He says nothing about condemning anyone. And, contrary to the headlines from several news articles, he doesn’t call any Christians “less than loving,” he characterized some of the “expressions” coming from some Christians as being “less than loving.” This is an important distinction. And here’s the biggest point of all…he’s right. Some Christians have been “less than loving” in their “expressions” on certain issues. That’s a fact.
Now, it’s possible that President Obama may have a wider net in mind than some of us do in characterizing certain expressions of belief as “less than loving.” When a North Carolina pastor talks about putting gays and lesbians behind a fence until they die off, that’s certainly a “less than loving” remark worthy of condemnation. But is the President going beyond that? Is he implying, for example, that it’s “less than loving” to oppose (even politely and respectfully oppose) gay marriage? Is he suggesting that it’s “less than loving” for Christian wedding photographers to politely decline to service gay weddings because it is against their biblical convictions? If so, then I would say that President Obama is overstating things. It’s not “less than loving” to disagree with someone. You can truly love someone and yet not agree with or support everything that person says or does. But….while I would like the President to better define his remarks and give some examples, I will reserve any criticism of them for the time being. The fact is that President Obama did not give any specifics, and it would be speculative for us to do so. I’ll simply take President Obama’s comments at face value – and move on.
What I find the most interesting about the President’s remarks is how so much of what he said is being ignored by evangelical critics! At the breakfast, President Obama sounded a bit like a preacher when he said: “With humility and with awe, we give thanks to the extraordinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Savior. We reflect on the brutal pain He suffered, the scorn He absorbed, the sins that He bore, [and] this extraordinary gift of salvation that He gave to us.” President Obama reminded his audience that the “story didn’t end on Friday,” but continued on Sunday “with the glorious resurrection of our Savior.” If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to admit that’s good stuff!
I don’t know the President’s heart. I don’t know the specifics or nuances of his personal faith, but his remarks (as quoted above) are very much appreciated. Let’s not ignore or dismiss them. I for one am glad that the President of the United States publicly acknowledged that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. No matter the President’s faults (and I disagree with him on a lot of things), let’s give credit where it’s due. In these comments, President Obama aptly described what Easter is all about. If only more people did so.
**You can watch the President’s remarks at C-Span.org by clicking here.