2009 Archives

Texas Faith: Is the White House a place for divine certainty?


The following is from the Jan. 27, 2009, edition of The Dallas Morning News. Robin Lovin, SMU's Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics, and William Lawrence, Dean and Professor of American Church History in SMU's Perkins School of Theology, provided expertise for this story.

January 30, 2009

Welcome to Texas Faith, our weekly discussion of politics, religion and culture.

As president, George W. Bush was praised - and pilloried - for a faith-based certitude that guided his decision-making. Even as he prepared to leave office, he invoked in his farewell address the divine drama of good and evil on earth - and America's role in that battle. And he did it, as always, with a confident clarity.

That's not Barack Obama's style. And yet, Obama is no stranger to expressions of faith. In his inaugural address, the newly minted president said: "This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape our uncertain destiny."

The question: Is there a place for divinely inspired certainty in the governance of the nation? What's the difference between Obama and Bush on this point, and how will that difference be reflected in decisions to come?

Weighing in on this weighty subject, our panel of experts, after the jump

ROBIN W. LOVIN, Cary Maguire University professor of ethics, Southern Methodist University

Human certainty and divine inspiration don't mix. In divine inspiration, there is a place for trust, and for a sense of calling. There is even an appropriate kind of confidence that President Obama articulated in his inaugural address, a confidence that the human tasks before us have ultimate meaning.

What we are shaping is not a random current of events. It is our destiny. But confidence that we have been called to choose and act must not be turned into certainty about our choices. Knowing that God is our judge is no reason for a responsible government to refuse to answer to its own people, or to the world.

The point where confidence shades over into irresponsibility is difficult to see, except perhaps in hindsight. If President Obama discerns it more clearly than President Bush did, that may be because he reportedly reads my favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr wrote an essay in 1957 that seems to anticipate where we find ourselves today (except, of course, that Niebuhr didn't envision that so many of our leaders would be women): "We are men, not God; we are responsible for making choices between greater and lesser evils, even when our Christian faith, illuminating the human scene, makes it quite apparent that there is no pure good in history; and probably no pure evil, either. The fate of civilizations may depend on these choices between systems of which some are more, others less, just."

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology

The key difference between President Obama and former President Bush may be clear in the words attributed to each of them.

Mr. Bush has tended both in matters of faith and in matters of public policy to take the approach that he seeks good advice, he makes the best decision that he feels capable of making, and then he acts with a sense of "certainty" that his is the best possible course of action to take.

The quote from President Obama uses the word "confidence" and refers to the "source" of the confidence as "the knowledge that God calls on us to shape our uncertain destiny." Mr. Obama recognizes, and is comfortable living with, the ambiguities inherent in complex matters of policy and in mysterious matters of religious faith. Mr. Obama appreciates nuances. Mr. Obama does not insist that issues are divisible into a binary world of good/evil, or control/fear. Mr. Obama, finally, respects that there is no certainty about our national destiny, as if it be predetermined that America will prevail in its dealings with international or domestic challenges. Rather, Mr. Obama understands, we are in the process of shaping our destiny. And we can only do that in partnership with the rest of the world, not in imposing our will upon others.

It is the capacity and courage to do so that engenders confidence.

Read the full story and readers' comments.

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