Heaven Help Him

Article excerpt

Byline: Lisa Miller

Religious centrists bail on Obama.

When Barack Oba-ma was running for president, an outfit called Matthew 25 helped him get elected. Through ads and outreach, this group convinced legions of moderate evangelicals that Obama represented them. He was a family man, a Christian who sought to perfect the world even as he knew that earthly perfection was unattainable. Drawing on Niebuhr, Lincoln, and King, Obama created a vision of America as a place where people took care of one another because it was the right thing to do.

In Matthew 25, Jesus promises his disciples that they will be rewarded in the next world for feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. "Whatever you did for one of the least of these," he says, "you did for me."

Count the moderate faithful, then, among those palpably disappointed in the president. Part of this is inevitable, the bruising differential between courtship and marriage. But part of it is a legitimate frustration that the thing Obama once did so well--articulate American values as a matter of conscience and community--he seems today not to be able to do at all. His State of the Union address last week was not corrective: more pedantic than inspirational. Health care, centrist clerics say, would have been better if framed strongly from the outset as an issue of social justice. The economy, they continue, is also a values crisis, a failure on the part of the banks and government to respect our collective inter-dependence. "Not my problem" is exactly the mindset that Matthew 25 warns against. "I am my brother's keeper, my sister's keeper," Obama would say on the campaign trail.

I reached Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical leader whose new book is called Rediscovering Values, as he was leaving for Davos. Wallis has been close to the president, advising him early on about whether to run and exchanging e-mails with him amid the Jeremiah Wright turmoil. "We need a leader," Wallis told me, "to call not for incremental change but transformational politics. The president could do that. I think he still has it in him, but the American people don't perceive it."

Other faith leaders are more pointed. Obery Hendricks, author of The Politics of Jesus, used to dial in to regular conference calls between the administration and prominent clergy, but recently he's stopped, citing frustration and fatigue. …