Newsweek Religion Editor Chides Obama to Fight 'Mean Certainties of the Religious Right'

The "On Faith" page in Saturday's Washington Post contained an editorial from Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller lamenting how Barack Obama has disappointed his liberal base by not being more vocal against "the mean certainties of the religious right." The headline was "Believers wonder: Where is the old Obama?" As if there aren't a lot of believers who never thought Obama was really into religion -- as opposed to the 75 rounds of golf as president.

Miller complained "The longer the president stays silent, the more he gives the ideologues on the right the opportunity to fill the gap, claiming to be working on behalf of God himself." For support, Miller turned to leftist Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church in New York, who didn't want to pile on Obama, as Miller claimed, because of the "racism that undergirds to much of the criticism."

Miller isn't really standing up for religion, just for liberals. She explained that Obama once upon a time came as a relief:

On the trail, his favorite biblical paraphrase came from Genesis: “I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.” Unlike some of his tea party foes, Obama rejected the idea of American exceptionalism — that God has special plans for this country. Like his hero, moral theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he loathed any absolutist claims to know what God wants. “I believe that [God’s plans] are a little too mysterious for me to grasp,” he said in 2007, “and so what I try to do is, as best I can, be an instrument of his will.”

What a relief this was for millions of believers exhausted by the mean certainties of the religious right. Here was a man who would strive for perfection even as he failed to achieve it, and who would use government as the instrument of that striving.

Where is that man now?

Liberals don't believe in American exceptionalism. They merely belief in governmental exceptionalism, that no institution can improve society more rapidly and efficiently than government. Miller applauded using the government to strive to make up for personal imperfection. Then she turned to Reverend Forbes:

The Rev. James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York, hesitates to pile on, sensitive as he is to the assault under which Obama suffers and alert to the racism that undergirds so much of the criticism. That said, Forbes pleads with the president to be clear about which of his values are non-negotiable.

For it is the ability to say, as Martin Luther did, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” that separates a statesman from a politician, Forbes says. “Those of us who supported you, we feel we need to know. Can you find a venue where you can tell us what your philosophical, foundational, existential value system is? Could we know what are the principles embedded in your heart and soul?”

The longer the president stays silent, the more he gives the ideologues on the right the opportunity to fill the gap, claiming to be working on behalf of God himself. Thirty thousand people showed up to hear Texas Gov. Rick Perry pray to Jesus in Houston.

Last year, in an interview on her book Heaven with the liberal blog Religious Dispatches, Miller admitted that she was a "progressive" who didn't believe in a religion of "arbitrary rules," but complained that conservative believers have a faith that really moves people to action.

I am a progressive in my heart and I don’t like conservative visions of heaven that exclude; I don’t like notions of earthly “righteousness” that separate people based on accidents of birth or arbitrary rules. I don’t believe, for example, that only people “with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” will get to heaven. (I’m not alone here, by the way; a growing number of evangelical Christians agree with me.) At the same time, the most moving and culturally important visions of heaven are those created by the conservative believers. These are the visions that move people to action: to be faithful to One God, for example, or to martyr themselves.

Couldn't that be Obama's problem, too? Liberal believers can't be moved to action if there aren't any arbitrary rules to obey, or gates of "exclusion" in Heaven? That's different from the problem that he hasn't done much to convince the public he's religious.

James Forbes Lisa Miller
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