Every American president has a defining moment that shapes his presidency. Washington had the American revolution; Nixon had Watergate; George W. Bush had 9/11.
I would argue that Barack Obama’s defining moment was getting elected as the first African-American president. After eight years of war, an economy in shambles, and deep partisan bickering, many people believed that Obama would bring healing to our nation because of the very nature of his election and the broad appeal of Obama’s presidency. But, with the five-year anniversary of Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans looming, Barack Obama has yet to play the role he seemed destined for: Pastor-in-Chief.
Although I do not intend to stereotype, I think Obama was destined for this role because so many African-American political leaders in our nation’s history have also played important clerical roles. Whether it is Frederick Douglas, Al Sharpton, Cornel West, or Martin Luther King, Jr., these public figures are more than just transformative players on the public stage, they are pastoral leaders deeply rooted in Christian social ethics. We assume that Barack Obama is no different.
If you listen to many critics of Obama (especially progressives/liberals), their one complaint is this: He simply is not present. And when he is present, he appears cold and aloof. In 2008, Obama’s even-keeled personality allowed him to rise above the partisan, media-saturated fray; but now that same even-tempered demeanor is disconnecting him from both his constituents and the American people.
In the face of tragedies such as the West Virginia mine and “Deepwater Horizon” oil rig accidents, and a New Orleans still in deep disrepair, we can’t help but ask: Where is our president? This is an implicit question of, “Where is our pastor?” No wonder people think that President Obama is a Muslim; Muslims are not known for providing a pastoral presence either. (And with this gaping emotional, pastoral vacuum growing, America is turning to the likes of celebrities–Glenn Beck, for instance–to fill that “pastoral leadership” gap.)
Not all people would agree with this assessment. Friend and local pastor, Rev. Leonard Perryman of Living Stone Church, argues that Obama’s strength as a leader exists precisely because he is not a pastoral civil-rights leader.
According to Perryman, “Obama never ran as a religious civil-rights leader. He is a politician and a well-informed one. The historical elevation of the preacher being the primary spokesperson for the African-American community has been waning for years and may have been put to rest with the election of Obama.
“I don’t think we have nor should we desire a pastor-president. As a pastor, I like my sacred space as an opportunity to call President Obama into question as both citizen and pastor advocate. Let’s not give him both roles.”
In other words, the fact that Obama was not a religious figure was one of the reasons why he became president in the first place. Unlike civil-rights leaders in the community, Obama garnered a broad range of support during his election because of his political appeal; if he were a religious leader, the sectarian nature of his leadership would have threatened his very character and skill as a legislator.
Nevertheless, a personal anecdote may be appropriate here: My daughter takes piano lessons in the home of an elderly woman, Mrs. Mable (not her real name), in the Chapel Hill area. While my daughter learns piano, I usually relax in Mrs. Mable’s parlor.
One of the pictures in Mrs. Mable’s parlor is of the First Family with the caption, “A family that prays together stays together.” It’s an important picture for Mrs. Mable because it communicates a significant aspect of Obama’s leadership in the midst of a secular, and many times ambivalent, society.
Almost two years into his term, Barak Obama might still be following through on his legislative promises, but I question whether Obama is failing Mrs. Mable and so many Americans by not doing the one thing that he seemed destined to do: Be a healing, stable presence in a time of division and uncertainty.
Editorial postlude: After publishing this article, I had further conversations with friends and garnered some important feedback.
One of the things I must note is that one should not confuse “pastor” with “pastoral presence.” A person can exhibit pastoral presence without being a pastor or being in ministry. Some one said, “I never heard anyone ever refer to President Obama as ‘pastor-in-chief.” I went on to explain that I was the one coining that, not because he is a pastor (or should be literally), but because many people would like for him to function as such.
One of my main intentions in writing this piece was to express that there are expectations upon Obama that address pastoral presence. In fact, I decided to write this article after I heard an interview with veteran journalist, Llewellyn King, who quipped that Obama was not “present” to people who are suffering most in our society.
The feedback I have been getting–mostly from progressive friends–is that Mr. Perryman is spot on: We do not want nor should we expect President Obama to be pastor. Fair enough; however, if that’s the case, then some folks must reframe their criticism of him (and when I say, “folks,” I am referring to people on the Left here). (By the way, I’m still trying to get Mr. Perryman to write an article fleshing out his own ideas about this because he has a lot more to add to this conversation that is both informative and rich. My words alone will never do him full justice!)
Also, if progressives do not want Obama to be “pastoral,” then there must be a greater push to keep the “Right” accountable for their criticism of him as well. They, too, are blaming Obama for things related to expectations of this nature, namely, that Obama is too “soft” or multilateral on foreign affairs, and too secular on domestic cultural issues. If Obama is not expected to be “pastor-in-chief,” then these criticisms hold little to no water.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve learned that both sides–the Left and Right–want an Obama that speaks softly and carries a big stick. My only word of caution here is that sometimes swinging that big stick creates collateral damage that is not necessarily in the best interests of the United States, both within and without her borders. Having a leader who does make a better attempt to be present is not out-of-bounds in an era that prides itself on compassion over indifference.
Keep thinking. Keep responding. In all things, keep praying!