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US/ Obama: How I became a Christian

May Wed 20, 2009

obama_santo_R375.jpg (Foto)

President Barack Obama is back in Washington after his controversial appearance at the University of Notre Dame and the nation’s attention has moved on to other subjects. For a couple of hours last Sunday the spotlight was shining on Notre Dame as the stage where the drama of the divisions in American Catholicism was manifest for all to see, and in all probability the event changed nothing from how it was before Obama’s visit. (Of course, the changes brought about by encountering Jesus Christ start almost invisibly, like the mustard seed’s growth.)

 

The debate about whether the President should have been invited and given an Honorary Doctorate will probably continue without any publicly noticeable change. The problem is that it is not a discussion about what it means to be a Christian, it is a discussion about ethics and politics. From that perspective, the President’s speech and his invitation to dialogue offers a few points of entry for a theological debate, for example, Obama’s reference to the consequences of original sin, and the relation between faith, doubt, and humility. (Obama’s view is typically that of liberal Protestantism.) Even his insistence on the need to find a common ground for cooperation to reduce the number of abortions while could lead to a discussion similar to the dialogue between Pope Benedict XVI and Jurgen Habermas. It would be interesting to see how the President would react to the Holy Father’s discussion in his book about “Truth and Tolerance.” The President also offered some gestures that addressed Catholic concerns about freedom of conscience and education. It will be important to see how he follows through concrete legislative proposals.

 

However, the most important part of his speech was his account of how he became a Christian as a result of his work as a community organizer for the poor. This is what he said: “Perhaps because the church folk I worked with were so welcoming and understanding, perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals, perhaps because I was really broke and they fed me. Perhaps because I witnessed all of the good work their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn not just to work with the Church. I was drawn to be in the Church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.” (I did not hear any of the other speeches, but I would not be surprised if this was not the only time in the event in which the distinction was made between knowing Christ and admiring his “ethical values.”)

 

These words of the President recognized the method through which the Christian faith spreads and bears fruit, namely through the witness of someone in whom we are struck by an attractive “different humanity.” Indeed it was at this point that he recalled the witness of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Archbishop of Chicago at that time. (Some have said that this was an offense against the current Archbishop who is also the President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, but instead if President Obama would get to know Cardinal George personally, he would be able to see the continuity between Bernardin’s witness and Cardinal George’s concerns.)

 

These words of the President offer the most hope for the future. It is up to us to remember that the point of departure of everything we say or do must be faith in Christ.



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