The Myth of the Fading Role of Faith in American Society
Michael Wear, who served as a faith leader in the White House, talks about the president's faith.
The press and the cameras had left the room, and the program was over, but the President of the United States had something else to say. So President Obama walked up to podium, expressed his thanks to those who attended and participated in the Easter prayer service that had just taken place.
Spending his morning in prayer and worship strengthened him, he said, and helped carry him not only through that day, but the rest of the year. As I sat in the East Room of The White House—the same room where Presidents typically hold press conferences with visiting heads of state—I could not help but think of what this event might mean for our culture, and for us as Christians.
This was actually the President’s fourth Easter Prayer Breakfast, though I would not blame you if you had never heard of it before. The Easter Prayer Breakfast is a tradition the president started in 2010 to bring Christian leaders to the White House to celebrate and recognize their most important holiday. In prior administrations and the current, there had been events for people of other faiths—Passover Seders and Muslim Iftars—but the president, as a Christian, thought it was important to mark Easter. Although this was the first breakfast I attended as a guest, I helped to organize each of the previous three Easter events as a staffer in President Obama’s faith initiative during his first term.
The event was always moving to me. It was special to be in that place, and to see so many different leaders in the Church come together. This year, Natalie Grant—a Christian music artist and anti-human trafficking advocate—led the entire room in a rendition of “It Is Well With My Soul.” Other leaders read Scripture, and Bishop Vashti McKenzie delivered a stirring sermon that had even the more reserved leaders in the room nodding and saying, “Amen.”
Such a faith-filled scene in the White House is probably surprising to some—especially if you have heard the claims that religion is on the outs in America.
It is true that the religious and cultural landscape has shifted significantly over the last decade. The Rise of the Nones, the growing number of Americans who have no religious affiliation, has now been well-documented. Many young people view Christianity negatively, and many young Christians are hesitant to identify as such because of those views. Some leaders warn that Christianity is becoming marginalized in the United States, and that our right to have a public faith is diminishing. Indeed, there are data points that should cause us to think about the future of the Church in this country as we move deeper into this century.
Yet, it seems to me that the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast provides here a startling counterpoint. Each year for the last three, the leader of the free world has hosted a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pinnacle of the Christian year, in the most powerful building in the world. This doesn’t seem to grab the attention of mainstream press outlets (perhaps it doesn’t provide enough conflict?), but I must admit I am always bewildered by the lack of attention the breakfast received from Christians—particularly those who repeatedly warned that liberals, Democrats and Barack Obama were “taking God out of America.”
There are certainly areas for debate on issues of faith and public life, such as the HHS contraception mandate and issues of human life and dignity. But why are we not as loud about the good things as we are about the challenges? If we’re going to sort out what the relationship between Church and state, or faith and country, we need to reject hyperbole and present a full picture of the landscape. It often seemed to me that many of the prominent recent controversies—from the silly (“taking God out of the Democratic Platform”) to the outright false ( “canceling the National Day of Prayer”)—were more about partisan politics, than living out genuine faith in the public square.
I, for one, am thankful to God that we live in a country where Easter can be celebrated with no fear and with no respect to position or status—from our own homes to the home of our president. And if we do find ourselves concerned with a culture that has grown in its antagonism toward religious belief, then we ought to make sure to lift up those moments and events that make much of Him.
What the Easter Prayer Breakfast suggests about the state of faith and public life in this country is consequential, but so is what it suggests about the president who hosts it, and our Christian obligation to him as our governing authority.
While we worry about a shrinking role for faith in public life, the president’s own faith has often been demeaned or marginalized. When I worked in the White House, it was often personally troubling to me to read news reports after the president talked about his faith. They would often note how “rare” it was for him to open up about it, disregarding the numerous occasions he has spoken about his faith. These reports would usually then turn to the political implications of the president’s words. Such slicing and dicing of a man’s Christian faith may be expected from secular news coverage, but too often it comes from Christians themselves. I wonder if we sometimes get drawn into thinking about the faith of public figures in a way that ignores their souls, viewing them as part of the institution they serve.
But we’d learn differently if we listened to them talk about their faith in their own words. The President opened the Easter Prayer Breakfast by reflecting on his visit to the Holy Land, saying:
And this year, I had—I think was particularly special for me because right before Easter I had a chance to feel that spirit during my trip to the Holy Land. And I think so many of you here know there are few experiences more powerful or more humbling than visiting that sacred earth.
It brings Scripture to life. It brings us closer to Christ. It reminds us that our Savior, who suffered and died was resurrected, both fully God and also a man; a human being who lived, and walked, and felt joy and sorrow just like us.
We can choose to be cynics. We can choose to question the president’s faith on Twitter, which as we’ve seen recently will definitely get you some retweets. It’s a lot easier to criticize and rebuke someone you don’t know personally than it is to pray for a friend.
This country is changing. Christian beliefs are no longer assumed in national debates and conversations. Our public square is growing more and more diverse. However, the Easter Prayer Breakfast is just one cultural moment that suggests Christianity can retain a robust space in the public square. How robust a space it is may be determined in part by how gracious we are to other Christians as they seek to grow in their faith, and follow Jesus in their lives—whether they are sitting next to you in Church, or across from you in the Oval Office.
Let’s not invest our energies into perpetuating the conflict-driven cynicism that is prevalent today. Rather, let’s come together as brothers and sisters in Christ to live out our shared commitment to grace and truth in our interactions with one another and in the public square.