Last week, as President Obama was announcing his pick for surgeon general—a Roman Catholic African-American and MacArthur "genius" award winner who has spent her career caring for the poor on Alabama's Gulf Coast—I was on the phone with the Princeton professor and public intellectual Cornel West. He was reiterating his complaint, which he had aired weeks earlier to Bill Moyers, that Obama is too much in the thrall of what he calls the "neoliberal elites" (by which he means primarily Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner) and, as such, his economic reforms have not gone far enough to help the poor. This is a disappointment to West, who campaigned avidly for the president. "The moment of euphoria is over," West told me. "We need intense pressure on [Obama]. Poor people are suffering. Working people are suffering."
One moment, two religious realities. During his campaign, Obama said he would set a new tone in the American conversation about values, and as he's governed he has artfully tapped religious leaders and believers of all persuasions to help him do that. He is nothing if not methodical and purposeful in this regard: his selection of Francis Collins, a geneticist who is also an evangelical Christian, to run the National Institutes of Health reflects an insistence that belief in God and in science are not mutually exclusive. His more recent choice of Regina Benjamin as surgeon general makes good on his pledge to support altruistic work on behalf of those the Bible calls "the least of these." In general, though, these moves appear designed—as did the selection of Rick Warren as inaugural invocator—to placate those on the right who continue to fear an insidious liberalism on the part of the president. At a recent meeting of Catholic reporters, the president addressed those fears. When asked whether he would protect health workers' rights not to perform abortions in a "conscience clause," he said he would. "I think that there have been some who keep on anticipating the worst from us, and it's not based on anything I've said or done, but is rather just a perception somehow that we have some hardline agenda that we're seeking to push."
The religious left, which initially swooned over Obama-the-community-organizer, is growing restless with such com-promise and incrementalism. Its leaders—West is not the only one—are beginning to speak out, saying the president should be pushing a harder line. Unemployment among African-Americans is 15 percent, 6 points higher than the national average; black and Hispanic workers are between one and a half and three times as likely as whites to be uninsured. America's crisis is not just economic, these leaders say, it's a crisis of values, and half-measure compromises with self-interested corporations won't fix that. "My tradition tells me that social institutions should be judged not on how they maximize money and power but on how they maximize love and caring and kindness and generosity and awe and wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe," says Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish journal Tikkun and co-chair (with West and Sister Joan Chittister) of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. He recently added his name to a list of religious leaders who supported Obama's health-care platform—and then he sent his friends in the media an e-mail titled "Why I Signed This Very Weak Statement." His colleague, the Washington, D.C.–based pastor Graylan Hagler, is organizing rallies in support of health care "as a basic human right." "When anyone talks about reason, they talk about ratcheting down," he says. "We're not called to be expedient. We're called to be unreasonable."
Pragmatists will say such naive posturing gets you nowhere. Better to work with the president to improve health care and employment for some than allow reforms to be scuttled by infighting. And that's right, of course. But principled religious dissent is crucial to the framing of American values, and our history is full of provocative characters who take unpopular stands on behalf of the people on the margins. Their hard line forces the rest of us to reflect and revise. Martin Luther King Jr. is the most obvious character here, but less beloved prophets work as well. Malcolm X and Jerry Falwell served as lightning rods for American social and religious values. Even Christopher Hitchens (who will be aghast to discover his name on this list) has rescued the nation's atheists from the sidelines, forcing politicians like Obama to acknowledge them in speeches. Principled provocateurs—whether artists or ministers—challenge us. Without them we are all worse off. No one knows this better than Obama him-self, whose religious awakening coincided with his friendship with Jeremiah Wright, the flawed preacher who always saw it as his job to speak truth to power. In Dreams From My Father, Obama ponders the harm that may befall a community if its church "refuse[s] to engage with real power and risk genuine conflict." What harm indeed.