I am not political. At least I try not to be. I do not spend time, nor do I enjoy, discussing national politics. Some do. Some pastors get so bogged down in such things that they never really get on to the business of caring for souls. Blogging about this colleague or that colleague, this president or that president, is not, in my estimation, pastoral care.
However, I have found myself over the past few weeks rather energized for a political cause, in part because it has so profoundly affected some of my dearest friends in the Church of Rome and, even if to a lesser degree, it has also affected my own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
I give my bishop, Matthew Harrison of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, enormous credit for issuing a strong defense of religious freedom and, moreover, our solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Catholic Church. His wonderfully pastoral letter ends this way:
Increasingly we are suffering overzealous government intrusions into what is the realm of traditional and biblical Christian conscience. We believe this is a violation of our First Amendment rights. We will stand, to the best of our ability, with all religious and other concerned citizens, against this erosion of our civil liberty. Come what may, we shall do everything we can, by God’s grace, to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
It seems that, for the moment, my denomination has “grandfathered” status, so far as the HHS mandate is concerned. In short, we can carry on as usual, without any governmental involvement. Word from other “grandfathered” religious organizations, however, seems to indicate that this status applies only so long as changes to the insurance plan do not occur.
What is most troubling in all of this, however, is that by even discussing such a mandate, let alone enforcing it, Mr. Obama has unilaterally assumed the role of Pastor-in-Chief of the United States of America. And frankly, I’m offended by that.
I find it unconscionable that a president, who just days previously had made it clear that he would mandate that religious organizations violate their consciences, stood before hundreds at the National Prayer Breakfast and said (1) that he is a Christian, and (2) that somehow the teachings of holy scripture in general and, in particular, Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, have a direct correlation to his presidency and moreover to the mandates he has put into place (whether healthcare-related, economic, or otherwise). Simply put, it is hard to see how Mr. Obama can mandate a violation of conscience one day, and say the following with a straight face just days later, while remaining an honest man:
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. To answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”…Treating others as you want to be treated.
Who is speaking up for the children who will lose their lives because of the HHS mandate? Who is speaking up for the mothers who, under HHS mandate, have been falsely coerced into feeling that to be a woman means to have “control” of their own bodies? Who is speaking up for the multitude of physicians who refuse to give out death-inducing prescriptions and, in turn, are ridiculed or even discriminated because of it? Those folks are the “least of these” of which Jesus speaks. To the president, however, they are nobodies.
We can forgive the president for not being a good theologian. But in return, he should stop acting like one. After all, if he had read the totality of the biblical story before his recent prayer breakfast speech, he would have remembered the haunting words of St. Paul to those who pass judgment–as he has on the religious faithful of America:
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God (Rom 14:10-12).
If St. Paul was right, then the truest words Mr. Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast were these: “No matter how much responsibility we have, how fancy our titles, how much power we think we hold, we are imperfect vessels.” As Lutherans are wont to say: This is most certainly true.
Joshua Genig is pastor of The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta, GA and is finishing a Ph.D. in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.