Dispatches from Europe #3 (UK): My Remarks on Faith, Government and Society

Below is the text from my remarks here in the UK. Variations on these remarks were given at Above Bar Church in Southampton, UK, and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church at Trafalgar Square in London, and at several private events in London with government and religious leaders. These remarks have been edited for clarity, and to adjust for sections of my remarks that had been committed to memory. In the interest of getting these remarks posted, they have not been fully edited for proper punctuation and grammar, and so further edits may be made in the coming days as time allows. I typically do not share speech transcripts like this, but I am making an exception in this case per the requests of event attendees, as well as my belief that the ideas present here, however adequately or inadequately articulated, are important for the church and society. Thanks for reading.

Street View of the historic St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church

Street View of the historic St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church

We are gathered here in this beautiful church, a haven of sorts in the heart of one of the world's most historic and grand cities, a place we can go to pray and worship and learn about God. This is important anywhere, in a city like London or Washington D.C. where I live, cities where the whispers of God can be lost amidst the hustle and bustle, the pure busyness of it all. 

But we do not go to church to escape the here and now. The church is not just a haven, but an embassy. It is from a place like this, a community like this, that we can be sent out to our neighborhoods, to be salt and light for our nation and for the world.

This public potential of faith has not always been fully lived out by people of faith, nor has it always been fully appreciated by secular institutions and, principally, government.

It was out of this sense that government wasn't properly working with and tapping into the potential of faith communities that the office I worked at in The White House was created.

I served in The White House for the first three-and-a-half years of the Obama Administration. Previous to that, I was a part of the faith outreach team for the 2008 election, and I had the honor of leading faith outreach for the President’s re-election campaign. From those five years at the center of power in our nation’s politics, I was able to see up-close some of our nation’s finest minds try to tackle some of our most pressing policy challenges. I was inspired by much of what we were able to achieve, and humbled by the moments, opportunities and accomplishments that I was able to be a part of bringing to fruition. Getting the adoption tax credit finalized, and helping the Administration bolster the fight to end modern slavery; the election of our nation’s first African-American President, and the President’s various remarks on the intersection of faith and American life.

President Obama has his own deep history working with faith groups. In fact, it was the Catholic Campaign for Human Development that gave Barack Obama his first job working as a community organizer on the Southside of Chicago. It was there that the President not only learned how faith, so close to people's lives, so woven into the fabric of communities, could help people make it through the worst of times with not only spiritual support, but concrete, practical supports. It was with these churches that the famous community organizer did his organizing. He carried these experiences with him.

So it was no surprise to those who knew him that in August 2008, in the heat of his presidential campaign, that he delivered a speech on these issues where he committed to continue the faith-based office in The White House. This is what he said:

You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who’ve come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they’re particularly well-placed to offer help. As I’ve said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

That’s why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today – from saving our planet to ending poverty – are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.

All hands on deck.

And so when Barack Obama entered The White House in January 2009, this is the approach that we took. I had the honor of serving in The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the President's first three-and-a-half years in office.  

We came into a pretty impressive and unique structure. The White House faith-based office is the only office in The White House with a direct management relationship with staff in other federal agencies. 

Now it is important to note, and it was important to remind some critics back in the States, that none of the faith-based offices have grant-making authority. These Centers provided information and technical assistance to groups, faith-based and secular neighborhood groups, to apply for grants. 

But the faith-based office always did this. For just a bit of history, the faith-based office was created by President Bush to unleash what he called America's "armies of compassion." The Office played an important role in "leveling the playing field" for faith groups when it came to partnering with the federal government. 

But the office was not without controversy, some of it legitimate. The faith-based office under President Bush concentrated, in perception absolutely, and in practice primarily, on financial grants. This had the effect of focusing public/private partnerships with faith groups on the most fraught area: financial partnerships.

 As the Pew Forum has confirmed, media reports on the Bush faith-based office were overwhelmingly negative. And the office created tension, not just with proponents of a hard church-state separation, but within the faith community, as the questions of who received funding stoked some suspicion.

Under President Obama's leadership, the faith-based office has made some important changes in direction that I believe have solidified the office's place regardless of which party takes control of The White House after him.

First, the Office expanded its vision of what faith-based partnerships can look like beyond just providing access and awareness of federal grants by creating a new class of partnerships: civic partnerships. Civic partnerships provide ways for the faith-based office to help organizations meet pressing challenges in their communities outside of direct financial partnerships. So, based on strong social science evidence that one of the drivers of unemployment is a lack of a social network, we created a job clubs program through our Center at the Department of Labor that has helped over 2000 local congregations set up and expand employment ministries without a federal grant connecting unemployed folks to work and to hope. Our Department of Education and the Corporation for National Community Service run the Together for Tomorrow program, that equips local groups and public school districts to partner together to turnaround failing schools. 

The Faith-based Center at the Federal Emergency Management Agency works with faith-based groups to provide them with the technical assistance and other resources that help them serve others when natural disasters or emergency situations hit their communities.

Through these civic partnerships, and others like them, lives have been transformed, families healed, communities strengthened. 

Another innovation is the creation of the President's Advisory Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This Council was formed by executive order in President Obama's first weeks in office. The Council, managed by the White House faith-based office, brings together 25 of the nation's top experts on faith-based services and partnerships with government and other sectors to provide recommendations to the President on issues he tasks them with. So the first council provided recommendations on issues ranging from strengthening the constitutional footing of the office, to how government and faith-based organizations can partner to address domestic and global poverty, climate change, fatherhood and inter-religious cooperation. The vast majority of the council’s recommendations have been addressed and enacted by the Obama Administration. The President's second council focused on anti-human trafficking efforts per the President's request, the council recently delivered its recommendation to the president.

The work of the faith-based office, even under President Obama, has not been without critique or controversy. Some question whether there is any appropriate way for government to work with faith-based groups through a misreading of the establishment clause, and what often seems to be an obsession with removing religion from public life entirely.

But in my time at the intersection of faith and government, I've found that these ideological debates mean little to the little girl who is able to eat healthy meals in the summer because of a US Department of Agriculture program that provides food to civic organizations to distribute to school-aged children who would usually receive school lunches. These debates are afterthoughts to the man who is able to provide for his family through a job he was connected to through one of the Department of Labor's job clubs.

When government and people of faith can partner together for the common good, when both sides are focused on that, many of the scenarios in which such partnership would be improper are negated. 

I do want to take a few minutes to talk about the realm of politics and the culture of politics and religion, which is where I focus much of my time and work. In my country, we are in the midst of what I think is a time of dramatic transformation in how faith interacts with American life. 

The first idea that is important to understand is that we have seen historic demographic and cultural change in this country when it comes to religion: we are now a post-Christian nation.

In short, a post-Christian America is one in which Christianity, its language and its ethical assumptions, are no longer the dominant, default narrative in American culture. Christianity no longer provides the backdrop as we wrestle through our most important public questions.

As controversial as that statement might appear on its face, it is fairly well-accepted, across the political and religious spectrum. From a demographic perspective, we have seen, of course, the Rise of the Nones—those who do not claim adherence to any religious tradition. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, according to the Pew Forum, the highest on record. In 1972, only 7% of American adults were religiously unaffiliated. In the same survey, today, 66% of Americans agree that religion is losing influence in the United States, including 63% of the unaffiliated. In other words, this isn’t just a matter of hysterics from the devoutly religious.

Apart from the numbers, you need only watch an hour of primetime television, or the changing nature of our political and policy debates, to understand how significantly the ground has shifted.

This is new for us. 

But it is not new for Britain. It is not new for many of you in this room. As American believers of all faiths are trying to figure out faith in this new nation, without the crutch of a generally supportive civic religion, I believe that we might find ourselves looking here for guidance. The opportunity for Britain to show leadership in answering these questions is real, and the time is ripe.

As you continue to lead well in this context, I would like to close by sharing with you three qualities of religious engagement in politics and public life that will be important in the American context as we just begin to figuring out our post-Christian, post-secular age, and may be of some assistance to you in your work.

First, we are seeing broad institutional distrust and disengagement, from politics, from church, from familial commitments.  In politics, for example, among American adults, approval of Congress is at 9%, an all-time low. 89% do not trust government to do the right thing. In our two-party system of government, the number of Americans registered as independents is at a historic high.

In the church we see that the ideas of justice and compassion are embraced as never before, but too many Christians do not view politics as a way of addressing those issues. 

I am intimately familiar with the failures and frustrations of our political system. But at the root of many Christians disengagement of politics, but perhaps even extending to other Americans as well, is a faulty theology or worldview that suggests our morality is tied not only to how we conduct ourselves, but for the end product or decision that derive from our politics. At the Brookings Institution last month, I referred to this as a "distortion of holiness," a belief that our righteousness as people is best preserved by staying in the black-and-white, and not getting our hands dirty. And for many, government and politics is dirty. 

But government only works with the people’s involvement. And for Christians, we are called to “seek the welfare of our city,” and to be a participant in the affairs of our nation. Politics is not the only way to do so, but it is a critical responsibility. Our efforts to advance the common good are incomplete without political involvement. For instance, our individual actions to help an adoptive family are good, necessary and Christian, but what about protecting the Adoption Tax Credit, which needs the support of political parties? We neglect the common good when we reject our political institutions.

This is the weakness and the worth of our political institutions: they are built for our participation, but they do not require it. If religious people do not commit to investing in their political institutions, they will be left out. So we must recommit to our institutions. 

Second, when I started in politics, I knew that I, and others like me, brought something unique to the Democratic Party at the time: a knowledge of the faith community. At the time, I thought that what was needed was knowledge of the various circles of influence in the faith community, and to help draw some extra attention to the concerns of the faith community. This was all true. But as Generation X has matured, and is taking the reins of power, and as American culture becomes more secular, what we’ve found is that in a way what was uncommon just decades ago, there is a disconnect between some elites in politics and other streams of influence that is terribly important. 

Here is why I bring this up. There is a polemic narrative we hear from some that there is a vast conspiracy of elites that have it out for religion and religious people. During the 2012 campaign, there was talk of a “war on religion.” But what is clear to me as someone who has been in the thick of these debates, is that while there certainly are some extreme individuals, I did not come across them very often. What I have come across more often were people with a lot of power who have little understanding of what it means to be religious.

The first job of religious people as they enter the public square then is to find creative ways to explain and educate their fellow Americans on what it means to be religious. This will require deep humility and patience. Remember, we cease to live in a country where the rhythms and nuances of faith are learned through osmosis. We cannot reasonably expect people who are not religious to understand what it means to be religious. Public  approaches need to at least be considered, but the primary way religious education will occur is through personal initiative, both on a one-to-one basis with our neighbors, our colleagues, our coffee shops. 

But the primary way religious education will occur is through personal initiative, both on a one-to-one basis with our neighbors, our colleagues, our coffee shops. But we have yet to fully understand and take advantage of the transparency of social media as a way of living our religious lives online. Through social media, we can authentically and seamlessly allow others to follow, and even participate in, a religious life in an intimate way. By sharing our convictions, our prayers, our routines, our hopes online, it offers people a window into a lived-out faith they might not have otherwise. All of these tools, social media, personal interaction, and formal education campaigns will all be integral in post-Christian setting.

Separate from religious education in the sense I’ve described it so far, as sort of a reactive measure, we have also seen that because Christianity is no longer dominant in popular culture, there are new opportunities to tell religious stories in a captivating way. One example of this should come to mind to everyone in this room immediately: Pope Francis. Now there are many factors that have contributed to the burgeoning interest in the new Pope, but I believe a central factor is just how unexpected he is. The average American could not have foreseen that the quote-unquote “out of touch” Catholic Church could be led by  a Pope who expresses such love and grace and mercy as Francis does in a way that strikes at the very sentiments of popular culture. He washed the feet of a Muslim girl, and hugged a man with severe boils. He’s expressed humility and humanity when responding to questions that in the past the mainstream culture has only heard, and reported back to us, bombast and judgment. I have seen people, atheists and religious folks, joke that the headline for these stories should be “Christian makes news for Acting like a Christian,” but this is exactly the point: because Christianity is no longer dominant, just one ray of light can be seen clearly.

Finally, I would like to touch on is the importance of diversity. Diversity in our politics makes sense practically and it is essential politically. It makes sense because our political system works best when it is guided not by the power of specific interest groups or slices of the population, but by a consensus reached across divisions grounded in what is best for the nation. When support for an idea comes only from a monolithic subset of the population, it usually means that others are being left out or discounted. When we do not have diversity in thought and support, our approaches will be incomplete. They will be insufficient. This applies in social service as well. When I was at The White House, churches and non-profits would ask often about how they could best position themselves for a certain grant—to feed hungry people or to provide after-school programs—and my first piece of advice was always for the organization to do their best to include diverse partners in the proposal. It signals that the effort is about the community, it is a sign that the proposal is more holistic, and it helps prevent stoking division. These same principles are true when it comes to diversity in politics.

I believe that for religious actors in politics, diversity is more essential today than ever. When large swaths of the public view Christians as judgmental and intolerant, diversity suggests something different. The time has long past when religious groups who agree on a common goal, can work separately and expect to achieve it. This is particularly true on the issue of religious liberty. If efforts to advance religious liberty are fought by only Christians and for only Christians, it will be both substantively incoherent and politically ineffective. Religious liberty is an inclusive principle, and therefore must be advanced by an inclusive coalition. 

It is a common religious saying that we are to be “in this world, not of it.” The common sort of interpretation of this is to view the first clause “in this world” as a statement of the obvious, the natural and the inferior, which is then followed by the alternative, holier “not of it.” But this is not the way we are to look at our faith or our political engagement. I would suggest that the most appropriate use of this phrase is not to position the two clauses as opposing one another, but as mutually essential aspects of a faithful presence in the world. We are to be “in the world” AND “not of it."

John 3:16 does not say that God so loved the world that he created it. Or that he created heaven. It says that God so loved  the world that he sent his Son into it, to live in it fully, to deal  with our mess. The idea of incarnation is relevant and helpful  here.

Faith does not drive us to avoid darkness, but to confront it. Faith does not excuse us from participation in the difficult processes of citizenship, faith calls us to a higher exercise of our duties as citizens.  

One of my favorite songs in all the world was actually written by an englishman based on the poem of an englishman. The poem appeals to my sentimentalism, my love of the nostalgic. Linden Lea was written by Vaughan Williams, based on a poem by William Barnes, who was a minister.

As a brief aside, I would note that though this is one of my favorite songs, my lovely wife Melissa, who is here with us today, thoroughly despises it for a legitimate personal reason. And that is that very early in our marriage, I told her that I wished for this song to be performed at my funeral. The association of this song with my death has led her to dislike it very much, though we have only been married for three years so far, and so I do expect there will come a time when she might start playing it in our home as a bit of a hint.

On our first day in London on Sunday, we visited the Churchill War Rooms, which was a moving experience for me as someone whose grandfather served in the second World War. But I was also struck by a peculiar similarity I found, probably one of the few similarities, between Prime Minister Churchill and I, and that is that we both apparently share the desire to plan our own funerals.

Kidding aside, there is something about this poem that has forced itself so deeply into my heart. In the poem, Barnes is reflecting on this place, as the opening words of his poem suggest, "within the woodlands," which so properly arouses in me and perhaps other people like me this great vision of something that is hidden, something that can be owned and made one's own, even though it contains such majesty and simplicity as the "oak tree's mossy moot" and the "shining grassblades." But most of all, as the refrain goes, Barnes speaks of the "apple tree" that waits for him, hanging low in Linden Lea.  

The poem makes me think of this home I have never had. Of this longing I have that I can hardly explain. 

I used to believe that the final stanza was to be taken literally, where Barnes proclaims "let other folks make money faster in the air of dark-roomed towns. I don't dread a peevish master; Though no man may heed my frowns, I be free to go abroad, Or take again my homeward road

To where, for me, the apple tree, Do lean down low in Linden Lea.”

But in recent days and months, as I have reacquainted myself with this song, I have come to read it as a hopeful remembrance and anticipation. A looking back and a looking ahead to quieter times, when the duties and calling of the here and now may no longer apply, and rest under the fruit of the apple tree might become reasonable. It might even be one's calling.

As religious people we have at times given into the temptation of retreating to Linden Lea before our work is done. But our faith ought not lead us there prematurely, but to carry bits of that hope with us wherever we are. We may not find an apple tree, but that is no cause to dismiss it. Let us plant a tree here, in this place, for the welfare of our city.

I am honored to visit with and learn from you this evening. Thank you for all of the trees you have planted where you are. Let us encourage each other in our work, watering what we have planted, so that we might find a new Spring in our time.

MP John Denham, one of Labour's strongest voices (right) who was my debate partner at this forum, and Dalton, from Texas, who attended the event, is adorable, and is likely a future president. 

MP John Denham, one of Labour's strongest voices (right) who was my debate partner at this forum, and Dalton, from Texas, who attended the event, is adorable, and is likely a future president.