Recently, Senator Barack Obama preached up a storm of controversy preaching about a storm from a church pulpit in New Orleans. Part of the attack can be dismissed as a disingenuous double standard from Republicans who have not objected in the past when members of their party followed the campaign trail to churches on Sunday mornings. But another part of the attack was theological. Some Evangelicals objected to Obama's use of Jesus' metaphor of building a house on a rock. They insist that the only genuine understanding of the rock is to see it as Jesus himself and/or his teachings. Obama used this image to imply that the government's response to Katrina provided a foundation of sand, not rock. He told the congregation that their response following the storm of taking in those who lost homes was the true rock.
Two years ago, President Bush used a different biblical image to offer hope to the Gulf Coast. He spoke of how God once provided an ark to save people from a flood and that God never leaves anyone totally abandoned. He conveniently neglected the part of the story that the flood came as God's judgment of the people, but there was no similar outcry at that time about his incomplete use of scripture.
Faith and scripture should be employed in the service of inspiring hope. Both of these politicians did just that. Obama told the church, the Body of Christ, that by doing Christ's work they were building a foundation of rock. Bush told the suffering that God was their last refuge, their best hope. Appeals like these to Christian charity are a much better use of religious language than, for example, the divisive, even sometimes hateful, campaign to deny equal marriage rights to homosexuals.
Two years ago, standing in a deserted New Orleans addressing the people of America, Bush had the opportunity to appeal to the demands of faith to rise up and meet the need. He didn't ask us to roll up our sleeves, instead promising government assistance. Now we see that he failed to deliver on his promises. Obama has yet to be tested on this issue and may likewise fail to deliver, but at least he understands that the power of faith lies in the action that accompanies it.
Mixing religion and politics must only be done with great care. It is much too easy to fall into the self-serving justification of “God is on our side.” Religious language also has the power to become code to indicate who is in and who is out. But throwing faith out of the public square would silence the prophetic voice that speaks truth to power. As a person of faith, I am compelled not just to care about, but to work for the common good. As a religious leader, I call on all people of faith to join their voices in public debate and not just “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk.”