Why Obama?

I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and half-way through this term I am more confident than ever that America and I chose well. From the night he gave that televised speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I have thought that this man has a vision for America grounded in some of the noblest hopes that this country has offered to its people, to immigrants, and to its admirers around the world.

I find President Obama’s vision and policies to be moderate and sensible on their face, but can I identify any features or tenets of Christian faith that seem particularly to commend these policies? On reflection I think I find two.

First, and relevant particularly to foreign policy, is the relationship of the sovereignty of God to security. In a cruel world national security must be critical to any government’s agenda. If atheism is true, it is easy to imagine that wisdom must incline us to obsess about security, because life seems to depend on our doing ever ything possible to protect ourselves. But sanity reminds us that life is not for the sake of security alone, that mortal f lesh cannot cover all the bases, and that our anxiety cannot extend our lives by one “cubit.” The craving for security may impel us to sacrifice other values, but even taking every conceivable security measure cannot guarantee our safety while it would certainly cost us our soul. Craving security makes us vulnerable to every fear-monger peddling a xenophobic, paranoid vision of the world. It inclines us to trust nobody and to overlook our global interdependence.

In contrast, our faith teaches that true security lies in God alone: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps. 20:7). We are not forbidden to rely on the brakes of a car as we approach a stop sign, nor to recognize and address real dangers; we may use the things of this world, even armies, to enhance our security. But ultimately we belong to God, and if God wants to use or bless our lives or our country, God does not need our inordinate fears to do so. And if God does not intend to bless us in such ways, no obsessing about security or weapons will help.

To take but one example, it is popular now to cast control of our border with Mexico (admittedly a desirable thing) as a major security issue. We are told that the porous border explains the uptick in violent crime along our southern border, and that it is inviting to terrorists. However, lurid anecdotes notwithstanding, no such uptick in crime has been documented, nor has the border’s putative appeal to would-be terrorists. Nevertheless, to address these fears, measures are proposed that promise us more security but which apart from those fears must look gratuitously inhumane and insulting. Although critics have charged President Obama with messianic delusions, his foreign policy at least shows a keener sense of the limitations of military might and “bold measures” than some other leaders have shown.

A second Christian teaching to which I would draw attention is that God loves the world, especially His image-bearers. Indeed, God is angr y at both the abuse and exploitation of people, and failures of compassion towards people in need. Obama seems to me to see such injustices pretty much for what they are, and to seek to put this country in the right. Consider these two classes of injustices in turn.

First, “abuse” is for us a paradigmatic injustice, and mostly we are against it. But when powerful corporations take irresponsible risks with the lives and welfare of others and then have costly “accidents,” their defenders warn of the evils of regulation and insist on the wisdom of “free” markets. Today’s Tea Party in particular preaches self-reliance and regards Washington as being as out-of-touch with American life as George III was with the Stamp Act. In George’s day arbitrary government was arguably the major threat to the liberties of citizens, but today corporate lobbyists are more adept at shaping laws to shift costs and risks onto consumers and taxpayers. Yet we find it tendentious to regard DeCoster Egg Farms, Massey Energy, purveyors of dubious bundles of home mortgages, etc., as abusers or exploiters until (as with BP’s oil spill) the social costs become staggering. Recall that, even after this last incident, the habit of defending downtrodden corporations led a tone-deaf congressman to apologize to BP for the White House’s “shakedown.” President Obama seems to be on the right side concerning the regulation of industries in defense of the public interest.

Second, compassion sounds to many like a personal virtue at best, and presumably not the business of government. In an enlightened, market-driven society, some imagine, an invisible hand should guide personal choices into national prosperity, define distributive justice, and remain “neutral” concerning the interests of economic classes. The Bible, in contrast, writes compassion into the law, as with the jubilee in Leviticus, the requirements (Deut. 24:19ff ) to limit har vests for the sake of gleaners, to “open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (Deut. 15:11), and so on. In short, the Law does not leave material human well-being utterly to the vagaries of markets and personal desires, but honors God by particularly upholding the cause of the most vulnerable. The prophets warn of national calamity in case God is not so honored, and they hold rulers and private citizens alike accountable. If a nation’s treatment of its least advantaged is a fair indicator of how God is honored, I think President Obama owes no apologies to Republican critics on this score. At least, a party that opposes extending unemployment compensation for breadwinners that lost jobs in the recession but insists on extending tax cuts for the very highest-income households has no business kvetching about Democratic “class warfare.”

I admit that all virtue does not lie with one side. Thirty-seven years of Roe v. Wade do not validate America’s dependence on abortion to “fix” things. I cannot believe our national reliance on abortion honors God. But considering the pro-life members of the Supreme Court, neither can I believe that more such conservatives as a Republican might appoint would be good for America. The four champions of the unborn, always standing with the little guy, also champion the person hood of corporations, as in their rejection earlier this year (with Justice Kennedy) of limits on corporate campaign spending (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). Today this decision seems to reduce elections unabashedly to market commodities. If America ever has a real pro-life party, I promise to look into it.

A. Chadwick Ray teaches philosophy at Central College in Pella, Iowa.