Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

Obama and Versions of America: How to Affect Social Change

Social change is a constant need due to the reality of the inexorable encroachment of sin in a culture. A civil society must have the rule of law or the sinfulness of man will go unchecked. Justice provides a sense of fairness and redress. Liberty keeps the government and citizens from controlling the lives of others. People are free to make their own way in the world, worship as they deem best, and the gospel is allowed an entrance into the market-place of ideas. Of course, the gospel is the only message that is the power of God unto salvation and the resulting society ordered by limited government, the rule of law, liberty and justice for all, an exalted work ethic, and personal responsibility.


Those who see social change as necessary don’t all agree on what that social change should be. One need simply scroll through a number of social issues in the news every week to affirm that state of affairs. Moreover, not all agree with how social change should be brought about. For example, the Washington Post is reporting that President Obama is making empathy a requirement for service on the Supreme Court. “Obama, preparing to nominate a successor to Justice David H. Souter, has often said that the best judges take note of the real world. By making empathy a core qualification, he is uniting his own eclectic experience as a community organizer and constitutional-law professor while demanding what he has called ‘a broader vision for what America should be.’”


It is this “broader vision for what America should be” and how to get there that is of concern for the believer. With reference to the Supreme Court, “Obama has said that 95 percent of Supreme Court cases pose no great controversy, and that rulings typically result in no great divisions. ‘But it's those 5 percent of the cases that really count,’ he told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2007. ‘And in those 5 percent of cases, what you've got to look at is: What is in the justice's heart? What's their broader vision of what America should be?’” Further, “Obama connected his worldview to the bench in 2005 when he opposed the nomination of California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He said Brown was trying to create ‘a version of America’ by siding with the powerful.”


In his comments concerning his looming first appointment to the Court, the President would have the Court ignore current law deemed to be unfair. He cited a case involving Lilly Ledbetter, “the former Alabama tire company worker who learned through a furtive note from a colleague that she had long been earning less than her male counterparts. When her discrimination case reached the Supreme Court, five justices denied her claim, ruling that she sued too long after the pay decision was made. Many conservatives welcomed the ruling as a strict and proper interpretation of the law: The statute of limitations had expired. But Obama considered the ruling heartless and said Ledbetter had been treated unfairly. ‘The court has to stand up,’ he said, ‘if nobody else will.’”


On the other hand, Obama has often described his version of America. “He said people of all backgrounds ‘want a nation where we share life's risks and rewards with each other.’ ‘And when they make laws that will spread this opportunity to all who are willing to work for it,’ he went on, ‘they expect our judges to uphold those laws, not tear them down because of their political predilections.’”


There is a glaring contradiction in the President’s statements: “The court has to stand up if nobody else will,” and “they expect our judges to uphold those laws, not tear them down because of their political predilections.” The President is actually urging the Court to tear down laws based upon political predilections. Such contradictions are not uncommon for President Obama. On numerous occasions he has stated that government decisions will be based on science and not ideology with reference to embryonic stem-cell research, the Swine Flu, the environment, etc. The glaring reality is that his decisions are based on ideology. Further, Charles Krauthammer noted with reference to one such occasion, “Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the ‘false choice between sound science and moral values.’ Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the ‘use of cloning for human reproduction.’” Krauthammer pointed out that Obama’s last statement was a choice of ethics over science.


The point here is that social change is always rooted in ideology. The question then becomes two-fold: how do we determine whose ideology is right and whose ideology will prevail? Of course, ideology that is not rooted in a source of authority outside of oneself will always be filled with inconsistencies and contradictions as the President’s is. Ideology that is always changing will lead to a society filled with self-focus, a demand for government assistance, injustice, and a waning commitment to liberty and the rule of law. Government is viewed as the savior for a while but the true result is tyranny. That reality is why a biblical ideology, more specifically, a New Covenant ideology of civil society, must drive our civil society. It is the only ideology that leads to liberty and justice for all.


The larger question for the Christian then is how do we go about affecting social change? There are thousands of Christians active in the political process of our nation. Consider this encouragement from a Christianity Today article entitled, “The New (Evangelical) Mainline: “We enjoy a significant position of authority — contra Meacham — in moral and political issues. Pastors Rick Warren and Joel Hunter, both of whom have had access to President Obama, exemplify this kind of standing in the culture. Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family notes that the existence of laws or constitutional amendments opposing the redefinition of marriage in 43 states would be hard to explain absent the massive presence of pro-family evangelicals. Facing little competition from the old mainline, growing and dynamic megachurches, Pentecostals, and immigrant churches also have a great opportunity to appeal to the spiritually curious and open.”


However, part of the point of the Christianity Today article is that according to the American Religious Identification Survey, those who claim to be atheist, agnostic, or have no religious preference have doubled in eighteen years. Mainline denominations and even the Baptists are declining in membership. Yet, the author’s of the survey note that other trends “suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.” Christianity Today suggests that evangelicals are becoming the new mainline. If the old mainline is now the sideline, as some are calling it, the question raised is “how do we, the new mainline, avoid becoming like the old mainline and present an authentic faith to our American neighbors?” How do we keep from becoming the sideline?


Christianity Today notes that “theological compromise in a misguided pursuit of relevance at all costs played a major role” in the sidelining of the mainline. A “rigorous and public recommitment to the unchanging truth of the gospel is essential.” Further, “spreading the gospel, not seeking social or political relevance, is the heartbeat of evangelicalism. More often than not, cozying up to the culture has been a ticket to later embarrassment. To be sure, we also must remain engaged in the larger culture. . . .Our future as a movement depends on that which is in our name, the evangel, the good news of Jesus Christ.”


The point is that Christians should be involved in the political process and indeed every area of civil life. But, we must never see the government as our savior. If the gospel does not permeate a culture, not only are people not saved, but political victories will be fewer and farther between until they are gone completely. Political victories are rooted in worldview as President Obama demonstrates. At the same time, if we focus on political victories apart from the gospel, what have we gained? We have gained a temporary victory based on what we want America to be. That’s all Obama wants: an America how he wants it to be. So, we go back and forth trading victories without really affecting change at the heart level both in terms of political ideology or salvation. If we continue on a course of political activism divorced from the gospel we may win a few victories in the short term, but the overall victory in the long term will be lost both in terms of the nation and the souls that need to be saved for eternity.


“Politics and legislation are the main engines of social change in Obama's view, said University of Chicago law professor David Strauss.” Sadly, many Christians and indeed Christian leaders hold the same view.


In the much talked about Newsweek story, “The End of Christian America,” Jon Meacham noted, “While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago.” In that statement, Meacham has unwittingly done us a favor. He is right. And, the solution is in the statement. Believers must realize that social change ultimately comes about by “arguments of an explicitly Christian character.” We battle in the realm of ideas. Paul said, “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4-5).”


Let’s go one step further than Christianity Today’s proper assessment. The reality is that our future not only as a movement but as faithful representatives of Christ and the advancement of His kingdom in America depends on that which is in our name, the evangel, the good news of Jesus Christ.


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