Just as I seek to protect appropriate boundaries between religion and government, I also protect appropriate boundaries between my work as President of Interfaith Alliance and my role as Pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, LA. That is not to say that I speak two different messages, rather that I deliver one message in two different styles. As leader of an inter-religious organization dedicated to protecting and advancing religious freedom I speak in a voice that people of all faiths can appreciate. As pastor of Northminster Baptist church, my comments understandably reflect a distinctive Christian orientation. From time to time however, as was the case this past Sunday, the two roles of my professional life overlap. I could not ignore the immanent inauguration of a new president even in a service of Christian worship. That was the context of the sermon that I now post. You will see here no attempt to proselytize. My purpose in posting this message is three fold: first, to give you a window into my thinking as we move forward into this exciting new era; second, to offer ideas about leadership and values around which we can find unanimity; and third, to demonstrate how religious leaders can speak to contemporary issues apart from political partisanship and religious exclusion.
CHANGING LEADERS AND ENDURING VALUES
Rev Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
January 18, 2009
Northminster Baptist Church
The sermon for today is not what I intended, but perhaps more needed than what I had planned. Of course, I am aware that this is the Sunday prior to the inauguration of a new president for our nation. My original plan for today was to acknowledge the inauguration of this president here at Northminster in the same way I have treated the inaugurals for his two immediate predecessors—in each instance, in worship, devoting the pastoral prayers to intercessions for the new occupant of the Oval Office, his family, and our nation.
However, about a month ago, when, for the first time, I turned to the recommended lectionary readings for today, my eyes immediately widened as I read the caption for the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures regarding “transitions in power.” The ancient narrative reflects the incomprehensible importance of a change of leadership at the national level. Set before us on this particular Sunday, the old story holds a promise of profound relevance for a nation and a church on the eve of the inauguration of a new leader. But, whether in ancient Israel or in contemporary America, the subject of a change of leadership pulsates with a potential for controversy. Yet, within the church, and hopefully within our nation, the threat of controversy is never a reason to avoid paying attention to truth.
I am well aware that some people in our congregation consider the president-elect the worst possible choice among candidates who sought the office of the presidency and dangerous beyond measure for our nation because of his politics, his priorities, his vision, and, yes, sadly I must say, because of his race. At the same time, I also know others in our congregation could not disagree more with such thought. Indeed, for you, this presidential inaugural stands as a peak of hope on the political landscape in our country. So, all are listening for my bias either to pounce on it critically or affirm it enthusiastically. My preference is to fulfill the expectation of neither and deliver a biblical sermon, knowing that, if anything, I likely will prompt the ire of both ideological points of view.
During the interim between the national elections and the inauguration of a new president, at their invitation, I have had several meetings with the presidential transition team to discuss specific concerns related to religion-based hatred that can give rise to hate crimes and to my specialty—the so-called faith-based initiative. The Obama transition team asked me to share with them my criticisms of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives established by President Bush and to propose ways to achieve the purposes of that office in a manner compatible with the Constitution.
I have been told that at least one of my three recommendations may be implemented almost as recommended—compliance with non-discrimination practices as should be guaranteed by civil rights laws—and that Mr. Obama agrees with my second recommendation. However, I also have learned that my third recommendation, which actually was my first priority, has virtually no chance of implementation—that is my request for the complete dismantlement of any faith-based office in the White House.
All of that is to say that I have cooperated with the president-elect’s transition team even as I cooperated, when possible, with various offices in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all the while criticizing both for their dallying with charitable choice legislation. But, I am a minister, not a politician. My goal is the preservation of a secular government that appreciates and protects religion even as it recognizes and defends the rights of non-religious citizens. I want no part of an infusion of the government with religion or the intrusion of government in religion. History, both sectarian and secular, dramatically demonstrates the horrendous problems produced by institutional intercourse between religion and government.
The scripture readings for today present grand guidelines, but by no means a blueprint for our government or for how transitions of leadership in this government are best made. At the time the Hebrew Scripture for today was written, Israel knew only one form of government—a theocracy—in which supposedly God chose all leaders and told them precisely what they should do and say. Surely, no one has to be convinced that, though many in our nation claim to support a theocracy, such a national pursuit would be unimaginably destructive given the diversity of religions and non-religious citizens in our land and the audacity and vigor of arrogant people among us who aspire to be Theo.
The historical text from Samuel is a narrative about God-chosen leadership. Our governmental leaders are elected by their peers through national elections, not as the result of a divine declaration. However, place the Samuel text alongside the other biblical texts for today and you develop a profile of the values needed by the person who serves as our president and by all who claim to be good citizens.
Vision is important, critically important.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days;” the narrative declares, “Visions were not widespread.” That is not the case today. Rather, it seems that everybody has “a word from God.” So prolific are such claims and so loud are such boasts that the challenge we face is discernment regarding who is speaking personally and attributing the message to God and who is faithfully seeking to represent the divine will.
A leader without vision is not a leader, rather an impostor who represents more threat than promise. Too narrow a vision will bury us under our own difficulties and isolate us from wise and helping hands in the global community. But too broad a vision will foster an “imperial hubris” among us, dissipate our strength, and leave us devoid of moral and political influence. A clear vision informed by basic moral values can lead a nation out of trouble, help construct a just society, and contribute to building a more peaceful world.
There is, however, a hurdle to be cleared, a temptation to be avoided. Freedom is also important. “You were called to freedom,” the apostle Paul wrote.
A good leader must not only have a good vision but also the wisdom, humility and patience to pursue the implementation of that vision without jeopardizing other people’s freedom. Real leaders develop loyal followers not by force or law but as a result of garnering respect and trust. Authentic leadership is earned and recognized not declared and enforced.
In a recently published memo to President-elect Obama a popular writer encouraged the president to function as a religious leader and spark a religious revival within the nation. I could not disagree more strongly with that advice. The electorate in this nation voted overwhelmingly for a president and commander-in-chief, not for a pastor, shaman, priest, imam, rabbi, or some other kind of religious leader. We need a president who is a sharp politician, an adept international negotiator, a wise counselor, an effective change-agent, a relentless peace-maker, an economic rainmaker, and an expert administrator and motivator. Our government does not need a president who seeks to function as the nation’s chief religious leader. Indeed, if our president must ever choose between being biblical or being constitutional, I expect him to be constitutional. If he must ever choose between compromising his conscience and enforcing the constitution, I expect him to resign from the presidency, thus protecting the integrity of his personal conscience and the authority of our nation’s constitution. Only such decisions as these protect our freedom.
Finally, there is the matter of the enduring value of integrity.
I never will forget a conversation that I had one morning with Helen Thomas, the dean of the Washington Press Core and the woman who, prior to the last four years, always was called upon to ask the first question in presidential press conferences. When I called Helen about doing an event together, an interview with her had just been published in a popular national journal. So, as we started to talk, I told her I had seen the interview and liked it. “What did I say?” she asked. “Well,” I responded, “Among other things you said that all presidents lie.” “They do,” Helen interrupted, this woman who knows presidents like few others among us, “All presidents lie,” Helen Thomas reiterated before she went on to say, “What is important is what they lie about. I expect them to lie about their personal lives sometimes. But, they should never lie about the affairs of state, their work for the nation.”
Yes, of course, I wish a president never lied. But, I tend to think Helen is right. At one time or another, a lie serves a president better than the truth. That is the reality that drives some Press Secretaries crazy. No lie is right morally speaking, but one lie is not the same as another in terms of national interests. We have a right to expect the president to tell us the truth about our nation, its economy, its education, its military involvements, its greatest problems, and its promise.
The elderly leader named Eli insisted that truth, integrity, be the mark of the young man on whom responsibility for the leadership in Israel was to fall. Eli knew God’s disclosure to Samuel involved bad news for his (Eli’s) administration, but Eli said to Samuel “What was it that God told you? Do not hide it from me.”
Vision, a commitment to freedom, and integrity—these are enduring values that should mark the character of every leader. But, now here is the kicker. We should not expect of our leaders that to which we do not aspire and give ourselves.
No one can do what needs to be done in our nation working alone. Remember, we are inaugurating a president, not creating a deity.
Our constitution has made this inaugural possible—a freely elected president of African-American lineage. But it did not just happen. We have had the constitution since the late 1700’s. Rosa Parks had to bow her back and refuse to move to the back of a bus, knowing the possible consequences of that revolutionary act in a racist culture. Martin Luther King Jr. had to decide that the bombing of his home and threats against his life and the wellbeing of his family would not stop him from giving leadership to a new movement to assure civil rights for all people. Discrimination suits had to be filed. Thousands if not millions of voter registration campaigns had to be launched. Medgar Evers had to stand in front of an angry mob to enroll in a university. Five little girls had to die in Birmingham and highlight the sheer meanness and lawlessness characteristic of dehumanizing bigotry.
Barack Obama is not the savior. He cannot accomplish what needs to be accomplished in this nation alone.
Whether you support the new president or not, I am certain every one of us supports this nation. So, as Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Tuesday and becomes the leader of the free world, I hope that each of us, silently or audibly, will voice an oath of responsible citizenship that involves, at the very least, promises to work for liberty and justice for all people.
Whatever our politics, our hopes and our dreams, a time for changing leaders is a time for us to reaffirm enduring values.
I hope that on Tuesday Chief Justice Roberts will not ask president-elect Obama to end his oath with the words “so help me God.” Those words are not a part of the oath of office enshrined in the constitution for good reason. However, if the man repeating the oath sincerely wants to emphasize the importance of his promises by adding “so help me God,” I hope he will speak those words. And, I urge that our self-constructed pledge of responsible citizenship and our determination to live in this nation as faithful Christians be declarations of such importance and strength of resolve as to justify each of us saying “so help me God.”