Obama and the Sermon on the Mount

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In our sermons, we just finished Matthew 1-7 followed by the Ten Commandments. Matthew 5-7 contains the Sermon on the Mount, and doing that right next to the Ten Commandments is pretty convicting. It's hard to imagine anyone who has carefully read and studied the Sermon on the Mount coming away from it thinking that it's easy to follow Jesus' teaching there. In the light of the full teaching of Jesus, anyone who does so is like the Pharisee who thanks God that he's not like those sinners, someone Jesus roundly condemns. The person is indeed a hypocrite of one of the worst kinds. In one of the last few sermons in the series, one of our elders pointed out exactly this response as one of the many ways people have responded to the Sermon on the Mount that miss the point, in this case violating several other major teachings of Jesus in the process.

I've been trying to find a good interpretation of Barack Obama's 2006 words that have recently gotten a lot of attention. (I first saw the complete quote in context here. although I won't endorse everything in that post, which also seems to me to be focused in the wrong direction.) I'm not having an easy time being charitable.

And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?

There's a lot in there that worries me, quite deeply in fact. I've seen a lot of comment about these words, and a lot of it isn't entirely fair, which amazes me given how many things could be fairly criticized. I do think it reveals some lack of understanding about the New Testament's presentation of how Christians should see the Old Testament, but some very smart biblical scholars make those same mistakes, and in the theologically liberal churches whose well Obama drinks from, I'm sure he gets most of his understanding of the Bible from such people (probably very indirectly).

I've deliberately put off commenting on it, but I still haven't seen anyone point out the aspect of this statement that most disturbs me. (The closest is Collin Hansen's Christianity Today article, but that only gets to the beginning of my worry.) This isn't the only time I've seen Obama try to use the Sermon on the Mount as a method of sticking it to someone whose sins he doesn't happen to commit (or at least not in the way they do). It's very strange to use the Sermon on the Mount that way, though. The Sermon on the Mount sets some pretty tough standards, ones that no one really could meet.

You don't survive the Sermon's application if you're ever angry at your brother or if you ever lust after someone you're not married to. You don't meet its standards if you ever lie (and don't believe his rhetoric about doing politics differently; he signs his name to ads that misrepresent his opponents as badly as any other politician). Does he ever judge people on issues where he's more guilty than they are (Google "Obama earmarks")? Does he do to others what he would have them do to himself? (Hint: look at his unconscionable and heartless tolerance of, indeed even deliberate extensions of, the abortion status quo.) Does he lay up treasures in heaven by seeking above all to win non-believers to Christianity? Is he ever anxious? Most importantly, is every decision, every motivation in his life built on nothing less than a whole-hearted and uncompromising commitment to Jesus as the Lord of the universe?

Now I won't pretend to meet such standards, not even remotely. But I'm also not going to claim that it's impossible to teach them simply because some people don't meet them. That's a very strange claim. I'm also not going to minimize its radicality in terms of sins that only other people commit. Obama doesn't go as far as the Pharisee who goes into the temple and thanks God that he's not like that sinner over there. But it's very hard for me to see his use of the Sermon on the Mount here as anything like what Jesus uses it for. Jesus said in the Sermon that the path is narrow. It's indeed very narrow. Yet Obama seems to think it would be wrong to teach it in a school just because the one branch of the government he has the most problem with couldn't keep it perfectly. Well, duh. Of course it couldn't, but there's no reason to think he could either. Regardless of whether it's good policy to allow teaching of the Bible in schools, this is not a terrible argument against it.

What's worse is that he publicly challenges the integrity of the Bible in the process, without defending God's word from these arguments that he's raised.There's nothing wrong with raising these arguments, but he isn't thinking them through carefully enough if he can just leave them out there to undermine the law of God while affirming the Sermon on the Mount, which includes Jesus' very strong statements about not even a jot or tittle of the law of God ever passing away. You don't put Jesus up against Leviticus or Deuteronomy. Jesus would never stand for such a thing. He fulfilled Leviticus and Deuteronomy and fully endorsed their content as God's holy revelation.

I'm puzzled at how someone who claims to know the Bible and wants to follow it could end up where Obama is on these matters. I can understand having questions about how parts of the Bible fit together. I can understand the view that the Bible is unimportant for how you should live your life. What I don't understand is taking it seriously and calling yourself a Christian, yet undermining it and contradicting even the sections you talk about as the ones that most influence you. Evangelicals are flirting with Obama, but he's trying to woo them by acting like them, and that's not very easy when you've got statements like this on the record. You have to understand evangelicals to do what he wants to do. He's not as bad as the NPR host who called evangelicals "the evangelists", but he clearly doesn't have much of a grasp of any nuanced understanding of the Bible, and this sort of thing is just going to offend evangelicals if he continues it.

3 Comments

Jeremy, I can't help feeling that you have completely misunderstood these words. You seem to assume that Obama is rejecting the first few alternatives in favour of the last one. But that is not how I read it. This is my take on it: Obama is deliberately listing several diverse interpretations of Christianity, each in an exaggerated stereotypical form, to make a simple point that there is no one agreed version of Christianity which could be taught in schools. He is not endorsing any of these caricatures, far from it.

Actually, I think it's pretty obvious that he's listing a bunch of options that he doesn't want taught in government-run schools, including the last one. My objection isn't that he favors the last over the others (although he does did do that more recently with the homosexuality issue, as the earlier post I linked to discusses). It's that he takes there to be different Christianities according to which passages you accept and that he doesn't think you can accept all of it. Both occasions involved exactly that kind of attitude, of thinking different passages in the Bible are irreconcilable and thus forcing us to pick the ones we happen to prefer.

It's the external evidence that leads me to the conclusion that he does favor the Sermon on the Mount over passages he calls obscure like Romans 1 or Leviticus 18. As far as this speech goes, my problem with it is that (1) he thinks the only way to teach scripture to kids is to pick and choose atomistic passages without any sense of how they fit together, as if they conflict with each other and (2) he puts in a jab at the part of the government he likes the least for not meeting standards that there's no way he'd be able to meet himself.

"What's worse is that he publicly challenges the integrity of the Bible in the process, without defending God's word from these arguments that he's raised.. nothing wrong with raising these arguments, but he isn't thinking them through carefully enough if he can just leave them out there to undermine the law of God while affirming the Sermon on the Mount, which includes Jesus' very strong statements about .." I only came across this recently and think you've made some really good points here-
Regards,
Regina

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