Most voters did not pay very close attention to the Presidential Civil Forum held last Saturday at the 23,000 member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Those who gave it any consideration at all generally concluded that the sheer presence of both presidential candidates at a megachurch was an obvious breach of the supposed separation between church and state. Others who tended to this historic forum felt the whole conversation was largely uneventful as both candidates provided predictable answers to easy questions from Rev. Rick Warren. Obama was characteristically thoughtful and articulate in his attempt to woo undecided conservative evangelicals while McCain was a bit dry and less thoughtful, yet somehow more direct as he played on his evangelical "home turf."
While I agree with both of these insights, upon deeper reflection I think this event marked a watershed moment in black politics. In fact, in many ways, those of us who watched it may have actually witnessed the final closing of the era of Black civil rights politics. I make this claim mostly because Obama clearly, consciously and carefully articulated a shift from black prophetic politics to an evangelical politics.
Obama has appealed to his background in the black prophetic tradition of Trinity United Church of Christ by stating that it inspired him to bear Christian witness to the social conditions that negatively impacted the lives of human beings. This typical Black prophetic witness always has a twofold aim: it focuses on alleviating the social conditions which produce despair and healing the broken souls of both the disinherited and the powerful. This prophetic understanding of Christianity — based on the tradition of the Hebrew prophets (namely Isaiah, Amos, Hosea) and Jesus — and most poignantly engaged in the work of Martin Luther King Jr., has been a driving force behind black political engagement the last forty years. Thus, we have seen the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton, amongst others, on the national political stage defined by this prophetic worldview.
Yet his past Saturday, in the face of a powerful mega-church pastor and his flock, as well as a national audience, Obama articulated himself not as a prophetic Christian, but as an evangelical one. To Rev. Warren’s question of "what does it mean to you to trust in Christ?" Obama responded: "As a starting point, it means I believe in — that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. Yes, I know that I don’t walk alone. And I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. And it means that those sins that I have on a fairly regular basis hopefully will be washed away."
This is coded evangelical language. Against the Liberal Enlightenment tradition of "rational religion," and over the prophetic African American Christian tradition Obama made his pitch to the evangelical crowd by affirming two key historic evangelical emphases. First, he emphasized religion as personal; he made religion into a condition of the heart that yearns for repentance for one’s sins and hopes for personal salvation. Second, he implicitly appealed to a sense of Biblical infallibility, the notion that the Bible is normative and should be the starting point for religious experience or reflection.
Evangelicals — even of the progressive stripe — primarily affirm personal relationships with God through Christ. While they sometimes emphasize a "social gospel" their goals are not fully compatible with a prophetic politics or social gospel because they do not put social issues before saving people’s souls. They interpret social realities solely through a Christian lens and believe that the final answer to political, social, economic problems is having more Jesus in one’s heart.
The problem with Obama taking up such a strident appeal to the language of the evangelicals is not only that it flies in the face of his so-called prophetic background, undermines his appeal to global religious community (e.g. like George W. Bush), makes him sound far more provincial in a religiously pluralistic world, reflects a more traditional theology (God as male, all-powerful, etc.), but also, and more importantly, it marks the first time a national Black political figure has appealed to (white) evangelical standards of Christian stewardship. Gone are the days when having the R-e-v in front of your name and being a Black politician set the tone for religious/political engagement. Obama’s appeal made it clear that the religious standard bearers are no more neither black nor prophetic, but evangelical whites. This, in many ways, suggests that Obama’s clever strategy to secure as many voters as he can might also bring Black religion and politics full circle: from slave worship under the master’s gaze, to the black independent Christian freedom movement, back to a kind of black religion that assuages white elites.
It remains to be seen as to whether prophetic Christian politics are fully dead. But Obama — who never mentioned race or ethnicity last Saturday (although he did mention evangelical T.D. Jakes) — made it clear that change has certainly arrived for Black faith and politics.