When Barack Obama was running for president, an outfit called Matthew 25 helped him get elected. Through ads and outreach, this group convinced legions of moderate evangelicals that Obama represented them. He was a family man, a Christian who sought to perfect the world even as he knew that earthly perfection was unattainable. Drawing on Niebuhr, Lincoln, and King, Obama created a vision of America as a place where people took care of one another because it was the right thing to do.
In Matthew 25, Jesus promises his disciples that they will be rewarded in the next world for feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. "Whatever you did for one of the least of these," he says, "you did for me."
Count the moderate faithful, then, among those palpably disappointed in the president. Part of this is inevitable, the bruising differential between courtship and marriage. But part of it is a legitimate frustration that the thing Obama once did so well—articulate American values as a matter of conscience and community—he seems today not to be able to do at all. His State of the Union address last week was not corrective: more pedantic than inspirational. Health care, centrist clerics say, would have been better if framed strongly from the outset as an issue of social justice. The economy, they continue, is also a values crisis, a failure on the part of the banks and government to respect our collective inter-dependence. "Not my problem" is exactly the mindset that Matthew 25 warns against. "I am my brother's keeper, my sister's keeper," Obama would say on the campaign trail.
I reached Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical leader whose new book is called Rediscovering Values, as he was leaving for Davos. Wallis has been close to the president, advising him early on about whether to run and exchanging e-mails with him amid the Jeremiah Wright turmoil. "We need a leader," Wallis told me, "to call not for incremental change but transformational politics. The president could do that. I think he still has it in him, but the American people don't perceive it."
Other faith leaders are more pointed. Obery Hendricks, author of The Politics of Jesus, used to dial in to regular conference calls between the administration and prominent clergy, but recently he's stopped, citing frustration and fatigue. "Is he listening [to religious leaders]? Frankly, I don't know. They have the influence of window dressing." The White House, he adds, is "patronizing and condescending," especially to black clergy. "Many of the ministers feel that way."
Insiders say that the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships—an advisory panel on values that the president launched last year to much fanfare—is all but a sham. Its members, two dozen faith leaders from diverse backgrounds and traditions, can't agree on anything but the most watered-down positions; some doubt that their policy recommendations—on global poverty, fatherhood, and interfaith dialogue—due out this month will get any kind of hearing inside the West Wing.
You've got to love Washington, though, because optimism there is as perennial as cynicism. Richard Cizik, the erstwhile lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, has just emerged from hiding after being fired for telling NPR's Terry Gross that he voted for Obama in the primary and supported civil unions. Now, together with David Gushee, an evangelical theologian who has written against torture, Cizik has founded the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which aims to redefine the Christian agenda. Cizik first met Obama at a June 2008 meeting with evangelical leaders. "I came away exceedingly impressed. But that person, the person I first heard articulate his values—I don't think it's come through as it ought."
Simultaneously, the progressive think tank Third Way is publishing a handbook for Christian pastors called Come Let Us Reason Together, a guide to discussing culture-war issues like gay equality and abortion in church. Joel Hunter, another centrist pastor who has served as an Obama adviser, is the project's theological underwriter. People are less divided than politicians and pundits, the thinking goes; with the right tools, they should be able to find common ground.
But former Republican senator John Danforth, a longtime Obama critic, believes it's the president's job to bridge the values gap. "He's the leader. He's the person who should be able to identify and articulate common ground," says Danforth, who recently launched a faith-and-politics center at Washington University. I think Matthew 25 is a very good place to start.