Just after the Presidential inauguration several leaders raised questions about whether or not President Obama should have sworn the oath of office by placing his hand on the Bible. Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church—a Protestant mega-church in Seattle—after seeing Obama sworn in said, “Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.” Driscoll’s comments stirred up a firestorm of controversy across the country and the Internet.
From a different angel, Dr. Cornel West, professor of Religious Philosophy and Christian Studies at the Union Theological Seminary, reacted strongly against President Obama placing his has on the Bible of Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular. From West’s perspective President Obama had no business placing a hand on King’s Bible for any reason. Obama is no King, suggests West:
“You don’t play with Martin Luther King, Jr. and you don’t play with his people, said West. “By his people, I mean people of good conscience, fundamentally good people committed to peace and truth and justice, especially the Black tradition that produced it.
“All of the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing a Martin Luther King, Jr. generated a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don’t use his prophetic fire for a moment of presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge he represents to all of those in power regardless of what color they are.
“The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes a moment of political calculation. And that makes my blood boil.
West is upset about Obama’s theatrics because the President does not go far enough to deal with issues like race, interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, the military use of drones, and issues related to poverty.
Cornel West is now taking heat because he is a prominent black intellectual publicly critiquing the nation’s first black president. West’s own socialist and communitarian commitments mean that he and I would not agree on many solutions. But he should be given freedom to at least ask the questions he is asking. What about race? What about military intervention into the affairs of other nations? What do we do about poverty in America?
Religious leaders, rightly, should be asking better questions about how the religious commitments of political leaders inform their politics. By extension, religious leaders have a role to play in helping political leaders remain accountable to the religious texts and traditions they claim. Driscoll and West simply seem to be raising questions about what they believe the Bible teaches and Obama’s relationship to it—which is a discussion worth having.