Who Is Humble? Who Fears God?

The New York Times‘ Sarah Wheaton reports on the president’s remarks at today’s National Prayer Breakfast:

President Obama delivered a contemplative call for humility, driven by faith and abiding respect for those who disagree, at a national prayer gathering Thursday morning in Washington.

Amid fierce political debates often marked by partisan rigidity, the president used the National Prayer Breakfast to call for a more humble approach.

“While God may reveal his plan to us in portions, the expanse of his plan is for God and God alone to understand,” Mr. Obama said.

Unfortunately, Wheaton also continues a common mischaracterization of what Obama had to say at the event last year:

Mr. Obama’s speech to the bipartisan gathering of political and community leaders at the Washington Hilton was less overtly political than it was last year, toward the beginning of his re-election campaign, when he tied Jesus’s teachings to his call for higher taxes on the wealthy.

Yeah, that’s how Politico reported it at the time, under the stunningly stupid headline of “Obama: Jesus Would Tax the Rich.” And of course conservatives, both religious and secular, gleefully piled on. But that didn’t make it true, as I argued then:

[M]atter of fact, Obama did not claim Jesus as co-author of his policies: He merely suggested that they are influenced by the values taught by Jesus, as he understands them. He went far out of his way to try to make that clear, saying: “Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us.”

This has been a central theme of virtually every major utterance by Barack Obama on the subject of religion and politics, most notably in his famous 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame: a warning against the arrogance of those who presume to speak for the Almighty in pursuit of their highly secular political agendas. It’s an idea that used to be called “the fear of God,” though it is almost entirely lacking among the noisy ranks of Christian Right leaders.

So today Obama was saying what he has always said about the perils of anyone presuming to speak for “God’s agenda,” a tendency that is rather more noticeable on the Right than the Left. Compare the president’s attitude with that recently expressed (in my interpretation of them) by Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), who is a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014:

The Bible, he says, is a “manufacturer’s handbook,” that shows “how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches…how to run all of public policy and everything in society.” What an astonishingly, depressingly unspiritual way to look at the Good Book; what an appallingly illiterate way of understanding it, particularly if you get that the only scriptures people like Broun want to use to control the lives of everyone in the world just happen to reinforce the kind of smug white conservative patriarchal world-view from a bygone era they consider ideal.

And to think people like Broun have the temerity to question whether Obama is actually a Christian! It’s too sad to fully express in words.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.