We are Each Other’s Keepers: The Political Theology of Barack Obama
November 5, 2012 1 Comment
There has been much speculation about the political theology of President Barack Obama. Some of this speculation emerged out of his words and actions, and some has been invented out of ignorance or lies (such as the belief that he is a rabid postcolonial Islamist). For example, he famously named Christian social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite political philosopher, and was baptized by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a pastor deeply influenced by Black Liberation Theology. The former admission inspired numerous editorials (overwhelmingly positive) about “Obama the realist” and the latter revelation spurred much denunciation from conservatives. Obama’s subsequent denunciation of the most controversial of Rev. Wright’s sermons birthed even more speculation about what Obama’s actual political theological beliefs are.
However, very little attention has been paid to the actual theological arguments Pres. Obama has used in speeches and interviews. A survey of his public statements regarding the motivation for his policy pursuits quickly reveals an abiding commitment humans should be their “brother’s keepers,” a phrase that comes from the biblical book of Genesis. Indeed, the phrase “brother’s keeper” has become a go-to phrase for Pres. Obama when defending his approach to policy-making from health care reform to international affairs.
For example, during this year’s National Prayer Breakfast Pres. Obama said the following,
When I talk about giving every American a fair shot at opportunity, it’s because I believe that when a young person can afford a college education, or someone who’s been unemployed suddenly has a chance to retrain for a job and regain that sense of dignity and pride, and contributing to the community as well as supporting their families — that helps us all prosper.
It means maybe that research lab on the cusp of a lifesaving discovery, or the company looking for skilled workers is going to do a little bit better, and we’ll all do better as a consequence. It makes economic sense. But part of that belief comes from my faith in the idea that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper; that as a country, we rise and fall together. I’m not an island. I’m not alone in my success. I succeed because others succeed with me.
And when I decide to stand up for foreign aid, or prevent atrocities in places like Uganda, or take on issues like human trafficking, it’s not just about strengthening alliances, or promoting democratic values, or projecting American leadership around the world, although it does all those things and it will make us safer and more secure. It’s also about the biblical call to care for the least of these –- for the poor; for those at the margins of our society…
Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need. These values are old. They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many non-believers. And they are values that have always made this country great — when we live up to them; when we don’t just give lip service to them; when we don’t just talk about them one day a year. And they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey. (emphasis mine)
This excerpt is a clear example why Pres. Obama’s political theology is so important: it is a direct challenge to the Libertarian political theology of the Tea Party and the most right-wing faction of the Republican Party. Against an Ayn Rand-influenced individualism that denies the moral responsibilities of human interdependence Pres. Obama insists that we are bound to one another and that this fact carries moral and political responsibilities.
The phrase “brother’s keeper” comes from the biblical story of Cain and Abel. In this story, which occurs sequentially after Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden, Cain murders his younger brother Abel because Abel’s sacrifice offered to God is more pleasing to God than Cain’s. After the murder God asked Cain where Abel was and Cain replied, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” God does not provide an explicit answer to the question, but Pres. Obama explicitly affirms what the text affirms rhetorically: yes, we are the keepers of our fellow human beings.
Importantly, this story contains the first mention of the word “sin” in the Jewish or Christian scriptures. In what may be a surprise to some Christians, the word “sin” is not used in reference to Adam and Eve violating God’s command not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. Rather, “sin” does not enter the story of humanity until human beings begin hurting each other (and, as Obama points out, especially the “least of these”). Barack Obama recognizes this and infers that not to “keep” each other is to commit sin, a view that many of his opponents reject, especially in the political sphere. They describe such a stance to be paternalistic or a dictatorial and socialistic intrusion upon the liberty of individuals. Their vision of sin is one of private acts that offend God and not as public acts that injure others and the common good. Obama has consistently pushed against this theological vision with one of human interdependence.
Thus, Obama insists that we cannot let others endure sickness and die without recourse to the available medical resources simply because of the amount of money one has. Care for the sick is not a commodity to be purchased by individuals with enough wealth but a responsibility of those who “keep” one another. And one cannot watch others about to be massacred by a dictator in Libya when the means are available to prevent its occurrence. No, even national sovereignty can be violated when one is faced with the responsibility to “keep” one another. More recently, these contradictory visions have been pitted against one another in how the separate campaigns of Pres. Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney have talked about FEMA and federal responsibilities in the wake of disasters. Obama insists we must be each other’s keepers when others do not.
Pres. Obama has espoused, in the face of political opponents fervently opposed to such a vision, a political theological vision of social life grounded in responsible interdependence. In being each other’s keepers, Obama might say, we are rejecting sin and pursuing righteousness. Whether he has always lived up to his own ideals—his use of drones and targeted killings come to mind—is up for debate, but the theological vision he has cast is clear. We are, he continues to preach, each other’s keepers.