President Obama's Greatest Act of Hope

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

For more on President Obama's legacy, particularly on issues of faith, check out Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.

           We were reminded last month of the stark, unvarnished evil that visited Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in the Summer of 2015. In the sentencing phase of Dylann Roof’s trial, we learned that six weeks after his arrest he wrote in his journal: “I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed. I do feel sorry for the innocent white children forced to live in this sick county. I do feel sorry for the innocent white people that are killed daily at the hands of the lower races. I have shed a tear of self-pity for myself.” He was given the death penalty, which indicates our society’s judgment that he committed an act so profoundly evil, Roof himself was irredeemable. 

            Many have been lulled into thinking racism is no longer operative in American society because when racist actions are made public, they are almost always accompanied by expressions of shame and contrition. And while these expressions of shame often function as a misdirection, the very existence of shame about these matters represents progress in the story of our nation. So to witness evil absent shame as in Roof’s statement is shocks us, rattling our bones. We shudder at the human heart’s capacity for hate, self-deception and sin.

            It was into this encounter with evil that President Obama--his presidency then more burdened with racial division and controversy than ever—had to speak. The eulogy he delivered at the service for the Charleston Nine was, in its creativity and potential offensiveness, a singular moment in American history

            I was not shocked to hear President Obama quote scripture or even sing a hymn. I had worked in the White House for President Obama, where I helped him and his Administration navigate religious issues and work with the faith community. I also led religious affairs for his re-election campaign and second inauguration. I’ve attended church with him dozens of times, worked on speeches he delivered to faith audiences and at churches, and prayed with him. And while, according to polls, many Americans do not know or even misidentify his religion, I was not surprised to hear him quote from the New Testament or invoke broad religious themes. But how he spoke of God in Charleston, while familiar to the Old Testament Prophets and those in church pews every Sunday, was almost entirely unprecedented for any modern political leader--especially the leader of the free world.

            After “giving all honor and praise to God,” Obama opened with a theological claim: “The bible calls us to hope,” he said. “To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.” He spoke of State Senator Reverend Clement Pinckney, noting that he was “often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant.” The president, who had been accused in his previous campaign of leading a “war on religion,” responded to the question not just for Pinckney, but for himself: “As our brothers and sisters in the AME church know, we don't make those distinctions. ‘Our calling,’ Clem once said, ‘is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our congregation resides.”

            The President went on to recognize the unique, irreplaceable role of the church as a “foundation stone” in the story of America, and the “center of African-American life.” It was in the church, a place of God’s creation, where the dignity of African-Americans was “inviolate.”

            This, he argued, was what “the killer” meant to attack. Roof’s actions were not just an attack on a race, but on a people who believed in a God who created all people equal, all in His Image. The killer was attacking people who dared to believe in a God of justice who chose sides in the argument of whether there was a “lesser race,” in a God was and is with those who were slain. The killer thought he could overturn God’s judgment on the question, that his murderous act would “incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion.” 

            “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” the president proclaimed. “God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.”

            These might be the most audacious lines of presidential oratory to have ever been uttered. And in this century, only Barack Obama could have said them. Only Barack Obama, the first African-American president, baptized in the black church, could have made the claim that God might use the deaths of nine black citizens for His glory and the nation’s good.

             Imagine for a moment if George W. Bush had wondered aloud if God might be working in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. The partisan mockery would have been relentless. Accusations that he was using “God talk” to distract people from his mismanagement of the crisis would have boomed. Or consider when Prime Minister Theresa May said in response to a question that she prayed when faced with important decisions, and some in the British press were so offended you might have thought she had prayed the UK into a theocracy. The idea that God should or could have anything to do with human affairs is increasingly an absurd offence in politics. 

            There has been and will be much discussion about hope and Barack Obama’s presidency. His 2008 campaign claimed hope as its mantle. Over the course of his presidency, the idea of hope became distorted and conflated with this or that policy victory. At times, it seemed as though the “moral arc of the universe” depended on every executive order, every vote, every press release from Senator McConnell’s office. This false conception of hope fits comfortably in our politics, because it is contained by politics. A hope in political machinations will always lead to disappointment.

            But in the face of the evil visited upon Emmanuel Church, President Obama offered a different kind of hope. The killer, “blinded by hate,” could not fathom what Pinckney “so well understood—the power of God’s grace.” Out of this terrible tragedy, these senseless murders, God was providing a grace to allow us to “find our best selves.”

            The president went on to explore what it might look like for America to “prove itself worthy” of the grace God offered. He suggested the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina statehouse would be an appropriate and worthy response. “But I don’t think God wants us to stop there,” Obama said, and proceeded to urge Americans to use the opportunity of grace to consider how we might address the injustices of racial bias and discrimination, poverty, inequalities in education and gun violence. People of goodwill would disagree about the solutions, but surely we could act, he urged. This hope, this grace, was not grounded in politics, but certainly it could find expression there if we allowed it.

            Obama told the congregation he was learning the proper response to grace was an open mind and an open heart, open to receive what God was offering. He quoted the popular American novelist--a devout, white, protestant Christian--Marilynne Robinson, who defined grace as “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.” 

            Hope is often reduced to a nicety, a way of wishing and a distraction from the important work of struggle and material improvement. But as the South African theologian Allan Boesak wrote, “the poor and the powerless cannot ever let go of hope; that luxury is for the rich and powerful.”

            Hope is about acknowledging and acting on what is most real at the precise moment it is most unbelievable.

            Hope is the expression of forgiveness in the presence of your loved ones’ murderer. Hope is the foolishness of the Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world speaking of God’s mysterious ways. Hope is a mourning congregation’s affirmation of racial equality and shared human dignity while seated in front of the casket of a black man slain by an avowed white supremacist. Hope is a song of amazing grace in front of the casket of an innocent.

            The unrepentant killer of the Charleston Nine walked into their meeting place like Judas, profited from their fellowship with a kiss on the cheek, and betrayed them with no just cause. The words of his journal should remind us of the reality of evil. But as President Obama boldly asserted, they should also point to the reality of God’s grace, even today. The choice is still ours as to how we will respond. 


Reclaiming Hope: Week of October 24th, 2016

Can Trump Help Us Bridge the 'God Gulf'?

Nicolas Kristof notes that while there is plenty of evangelical support of Trump, we shouldn't ignore the fact that there is a striking number of prominent evangelicals who are denouncing Trump. He is hopeful that "the crisis among evangelicals this election year creates an opportunity to build bridges across America's 'God Gulf.'"

2. Joe Biden wants to make sure Democrats don’t give up on Trump voters

The Democratic Party is slowly drifting away from white working class voters and towards pedigreed elites, a movement that Biden is actively trying to combat. 

3. From Burma to Buffalo

The Buffalo News reports on how an influx of Burmese refugees has affected the city. This extensive reporting provides a window onto what is occurring in communities all over the United States, and a moving portrait of individuals and families striving to make it in America.

4. A Reading Guide for Those in Despair About American Politics

Regardless of who wins come November, America has a lot to grapple with -- police shootings, hate crimes, and fraying political coalitions. Emma Green has compiled a list of recommendations from academics, activists, comedians and more on books that provide a deeper look into our issues. 

5. What Does the 'Enneagram' Have to Offer Christians?

The Enneagram is an increasingly popular personality model in many contexts, including churches. Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile are interviewed in a Christianity Today podcast about the connections between the wisdom of this ancient personality typology and the church's rich spiritual tradition. 

Michael has several upcoming speaking engagements. This week, he will be speaking at Skyline Church in Oklahoma City and in a MyFaithVotes tele-townhall with Dr. Alan Noble. OnNovember 6, Michael will speak in Nashville at Christ Presbyterian Church with Pastor Scott Sauls, Governor Bill Haslem and journalist Samantha Fisher. To inquire about these events, or invite Michael to speak, email


Reclaiming Hope: Inaugural Edition

Most Evangelicals Are Not Voting for Trump
“Evangelicals” tend to be described as a monolithic voting bloc. But while Trump does have a slight edge over Clinton among evangelicals at large (45% to 31%), the opposite is true among evangelicals of color who make up 40% of all evangelicals and who favor Clinton (62%) over Trump (15%). 

Even if Trump loses big, the anger will remain. Here’s how the left can address it.
EJ Dionne Jr. asks all the right questions that we should be asking after November's election and provides at least some of the answers. 

How long can evangelical women stay behind Donald Trump?
Laura Turner profiles several evangelical women's mixed reactions to recent revelations about Donald Trump's sexually aggressive comments. Michael is quoted in this piece about the growing dividing lines among evangelicals. 

The Politics of Posting: How social media shapes our political culture
Phillip Kline, a student at Wheaton College, analyzes how social media platforms biases us towards receiving positive feedback, creating an echo chamber that feeds into our national political discourse. "When the litmus test of our online reputation becomes how forceful of a stance we take, truth and understanding get lost in the cracks," he writes. 

A Future Pro-Life Movement
Janet Kelly, one of the founding members of Public Faith, asks some hard questions for the pro-life movement: “Have we made our justified revulsion of abortion an idol at the expense of a consistent pro-life worldview?” The future of the pro-life movement may not be rooted in any political party, she writes. 

Last Week, Today: Speak truth to Trump

Essential Reads on Faith, Politics & Culture

Update: For those of you in Atlanta, Michael will be speaking tomorrow night in Emory University on "The Politics We Need: Faith, the Presidential Election and the Choices Ahead," as part of Emory's lecture series on faith and politics.

Speak truth to Trump

Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, lays out in stark terms why the choice to vote for Trump out of "reluctant strategic calculation" is an idolatrous act. "Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence," he writes.

Evangelical exiles: How Trump is driving some believers away from the GOP

Jon Ward profiles two examples of a new generation of evangelicals: Jim Daly, the new president of Focus on the Family, and Michelle Higgins, an Urbana evangelical speaker and Black Lives Matter activist.

Standing by Donald Trump, Pat Robertson calls lewd video ‘macho talk’

Although some evangelical leaders and theologians, such as Wayne Grudem, pulled back their support of Trump after the leaked recording, several leaders -- James Dobson, Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Pat Robertson -- are justifying Trump's behavior.

The deep disgust for Hillary Clinton that drives so many evangelicals to support Trump

Sarah Pulliam Bailey digs into the archives of the '90s to explain why many evangelicals have a long-bred, visceral aversion to Hillary Clinton. Michael is quoted in this article.

Turning 40 while single and childless

Bethany Jenkins pens a poignant reflection on what it feels like to desire children as a single, childless woman, as well as the spiritual family that a church can provide.

Thank you for reading!

If you haven't already, sign up for this weekly newsletter.

Michael’s book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America is available for pre-order now on Amazon, IndieBound, Books-A-Million, and Barnes & Noble.

Last Week, Today: America's first post-Christian debate

Essential Reads on Faith, Politics & Culture

Update... Michael is interviewed by Christian Today, a UK publication, on his thoughts on Trump: "He does not contain an ounce of the grace or thoughtfulness of the man he wants to succeed, the understanding of the job and the aspirations to service of the woman he is running against, or the character and commitment to conservatism of the Republican Party's previous nominees.'

America's first post-Christian debate

Presidential candidates in debates have always appealed, if not directly to religion, then at least to America's "civil religion," defined by sociologist Robert Bellah, which drew heavily from Judeo-Christian values. This past debate was unique, Yoni Applebaum argues, in that both candidates largely abandoned the rhetoric of America's religion.

How decades of divorce helped erode religion

A new study from Pew reports that divorce may be a predictor of whether children become religious or nonreligious as adults. Thirty-five percent of the children of divorced parents say that they are nonreligious, compared with 23 percent of people whose parents were married when they were children.

Torn over Donald Trump and cut off by culture wars, evangelicals despair

The NYT provides a nuanced portrait of the internal conflicts that conservative evangelicals, particularly those who care about religious liberty, face when it comes to Trump.

How the Iraq war warped Obama's worldview

President Obama was right about the Iraq war. Shadi Hami asks: But does that necessarily make him right about Syria?

Our two political options in a post-Christian nation

Ross Douthat, in a talk at Messiah college, framed the two political options that Christians now face. They can either rely on political strong men to protect them from the forces of secularization. Or they can rejigger the two-party system and promote a political approach that is decidedly Christian in orientation. John Fea, professor at Messiah College, narrates the story.

Thank you for reading!

If you haven't already, sign up for this weekly newsletter.

Michael’s book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America is available for pre-order now on AmazonIndieBoundBooks-A-Million, and Barnes & Noble.