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Bill Maxwell

Obama scales back message of pluralism

Today is Easter Sunday, the holiest day for Christians. As Scriptures state, it marks the Resurrection of Jesus who died for humankind's sins, making salvation possible for believers.

Easter should be a time that brings people together, when pastors should beseech their congregations to heed the wisdom in Jesus' sermons, especially the wisdom in the Beatitudes, and to practice the compassion, understanding and forgiveness Jesus lived during his short time on Earth.

Over the years, I have seen few Christian pastors earnestly ask their followers to rise above the sectarianism, the racism and bigotry that divide people. Instead, they squander Easter Sunday, the ideal moment to teach.

I was pleased, therefore, when during his weekly radio address of April 4, 2010, President Barack Obama focused on the potential efficacy of Easter. Acknowledging the effects of war in many places and the crippling partisanship in the Beltway, the president asked for civility and promoted global inclusiveness. I know enough about the United States to know that Obama's message stood little chance of catching on in most of our pulpits.

Examples of the president's pluralism are expressed in the following comments:

"This is a week of faithful celebration. On Monday and Tuesday nights, Jewish families and friends in the United States and around the world gathered for a seder to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt and the triumph of hope and perseverance over injustice and oppression. On Sunday, my family will join other Christians all over the world in marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"And while we worship in different ways, we also remember the shared spirit of humanity that inhabits us all — Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, believers and nonbelievers alike.

"Amid the storm of public debate, with our 24/7 media cycle, in a town like Washington that's consumed with the day-to-day, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the eternal. So, on this Easter weekend, let us hold fast to those aspirations we hold in common as brothers and sisters, as members of the same family — the family of man."

I had hoped that Obama would continue in this vein in future speeches. But no sooner had he gone off the air than the political right wing and Christian blogosphere lit up. The president was denounced for lumping Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, believers and nonbelievers together in "the family of man."

How could there be a "shared spirit of humanity" inhabiting disparate Christian and non-Christian groups? How could believers and nonbelievers be "brothers and sisters" and "members of the same family"? Vince Haley, vice president for policy at American Solutions for Winning the Future, accused Obama of "editing Christ out of his 'holiday greetings.' "

We now are in 2011, the next presidential election cycle has begun and Obama has to hone his faith bona fides. As Easter approached, I suspected that Obama would not be as pluralistic in this year's address to avoid another drubbing by conservative Christians. He certainly would not embrace nonbelievers. I was right. This time, instead of using the impersonal medium of the weekly radio address, Obama used the annual National Day of Prayer Breakfast, in the East Room, to express the kind of personal religious rhetoric he always had avoided in public.

Attendees included a who's who of high-profile conservatives who rarely agree with the president, including National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson, the Rev. Tim Kellor of New York's Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

Below are some of the comments that pleased many conservative Christians:

"I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason — because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there's something about the Resurrection — something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective. …

"This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this 'amazing grace' calls me to reflect. And it calls me to pray. It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I've not shown grace to others, those times that I've fallen short. It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior."

I listened to the president's address and read the transcript of it. I am disappointed. Given America's adoption of many far-flung military actions, diplomatic missions and international aid programs involving believers and nonbelievers, the leader of the world's most powerful nation should encourage pluralism at every opportunity.

But, then, the 2012 presidential election is not that far away, and Obama must avoid giving his enemies any anti-Christian sound bites to be used against him.

Obama scales back message of pluralism 04/22/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 25, 2011 7:52pm]

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