Barack Obama, the reluctant American Moses

It makes sense that Yahweh selected Moses to “Go down to Egypt land and tell old Pharaoh to ‘Let my people go’”.  Moses was a cultural hybrid.  Born of a Hebrew mother, he had been raised as an Egyptian. Little Moses was taught to believe in a long list of gods, each of which must be placated, or thwarted, through ritual.  Moses was taught to revere Pharaoh as a semi-divine being, a conduit and intermediary between the people and the gods.  Moses learned to walk the Egyptian walk and talk the Egyptian talk.

But there was always another side to Moses.  Both his parents were Hebrews, so his bloodline was suspect.  Moreover, he was rumored to maintain clandestine contact with slave culture, a fact that raised questions about his sympathies.  This became obvious when, as a young man, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster for abusing a Hebrew slave.  When that dread deed became widely known, Moses fled the country.

But now he was back.  He didn’t slink back into Egypt.  No, he marched right into Pharaoh’s inner sanctum, staff in hand, demanding an audience.  And when Pharaoh granted this request (more out of curious amusement than anything else) Moses issued a single demand: Yahweh says “let my people go”.

This Moses fellow was clearly religious.  The suicidal audacity of his demand proved that he was God-obsessed. But it wasn’t the religion of Egypt.  Moses didn’t revere Pharaoh as a demi-God.  He addressed the Egyptian king man-to-man. And who, pray tell, is this Yahweh fellow?

Moses was adamant.  He wouldn’t back down.  That meant war.  Religious war.  There had to be a winner and a loser.  And Pharaoh wasn’t going to lose.  Not to a slave-lover.

The Moses-Pharaoh relationship is helpful when we consider the American White evangelical rejection of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president.  Henry Louis Gates has suggested that the only reason Donald Trump was elected president is because eight years of having a Black family in the White House drove a large swath of white America to distraction.   

To an extent, this is true.  No segment of the American social mosaic rejected Obama’s candidacy as vigorously as American White evangelicals.  But even this must be placed in context.  Obama left office with a 59% approval rating—remarkably high by contemporary standards.  But he was under water with almost every white demographic: white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and the white middle class.  Obama was slightly over 50% with white college educated voters, but that was about it.

But when it came to disliking Obama, white evangelicals were in a league of their own.   The only groups who liked him less were “conservatives” and “Republicans”, and by 2016 the vast majority of white evangelicals in America were conservative and Republican. 

In living memory, of course, American white evangelicals haven’t liked any Democratic politicians.  Bill and Hillary Clinton are hated by in AWE (American white evangelical) world every bit as much as Obama.  But there was something different about the white evangelical rejection of the first Black president. 

Like Moses, Obama is a religious and cultural hybrid.  He embraced Christianity as an adult, but wasn’t raised in the faith.  His father was born Muslim, but was an atheist by the time Barack entered the picture.  Obama’s critics latched onto his otherness.  He was a Muslim, they said.  In fact, he wasn’t even born on American soil.   He isn’t one of us.

Evangelical Christians warmed to this narrative.  When Obama left office, only 26% of Republicans were convinced he was an American citizen (the percentage was likely lower among evangelicals, especially in the South).  A 2016 poll found that 65% of Trump supporters believed Obama was a Muslim; with only 13% willing to admit that he was a Christian.

Unlike Moses, Obama was perfectly willing to embrace the dominant religion of the land.  And, contra Moses, the 44th president tried to avoid being seen as a spokesman for his people.  American white evangelicals aren’t averse to voting for Black candidates, even for president.  They are even willing to tolerate Black candidates who say nice things about the civil rights movement (America’s second “Let My People Go” moment), so long as they restrict justice concerns to the 1950s and 60s.

But Obama didn’t think the civil rights fight was over.  He didn’t talk about it all that much, but his concern for social justice was evident in his appointments and his policies.  And this is why his approval numbers, sky high with people of color, were always low at the white end of the spectrum.

The obvious fact that Obama identified as Christian did little to mollify white evangelicals.  He espoused the wrong kind of Christianity.  Obama wore his faith on his sleeve, creating a President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  But the group was inter-faith with representatives from non-Christian faith communities.  And the group’s agenda was to consider “steps the government should take to reduce poverty and inequality and create opportunity for all, including changes in policies, programs, and practices that affect the delivery of services by faith-based and community organizations and the needs of low-income and other underserved persons.”

Trump, by contrast, created an Evangelical Advisory Board that was restricted entirely to big names from the evangelical community.  “We’ve provided consequential feedback,” said the Rev. Johnnie Moore, the group’s spokesman, “on policy and personnel decisions particularly affecting religious liberty, judges, the right to life and foreign policy”.  Although there were a few Black faces on Trump’s board, civil rights and racial justice weren’t up for discussion.

Obama may have been a “Christian” of sorts, but he was the wrong kind.  He was a social justice Christian.  And you can’t mix faith and justice without conjuring images of fire houses, snarling police dogs, and prison cells overflowing with Black church folk.  The AWE community has made its peace with a sanitized and scaled-down version of MLK, but the wounds to the white evangelical brand sustained in the fifties and sixties are still raw.

As Randall Balmer and a host of others have argued, the religious right organized around opposition to school integration.  As late as the mid-1970s, abortion wasn’t an evangelical issue.  But when overt race-baiting became unfashionable in these United States, white evangelical social passions had to be repackaged.  And they were.  But that doesn’t mean the AWE nation, especially in the South, isn’t still bristling with racial resentment. 

And so, despite his valiant efforts to be recognized as a unifier, Barack Hussein Obama became a lightning rod for racial animus.  Evangelicals were more than happy to denounce him as a Muslim and a foreigner.  So, Henry Louis Gates is right, eight years with a Black family in the White House really did set the stage for Trump.  It wasn’t just that Obama was Black.  AWE folk love voting for Black candidates who accept their worldview.  But most people of color reject that worldview, Obama among them.

Which is why I include the election of America’s first Black president as one of the ten plagues afflicting AWE country.  Obama’s success was every bit as disorienting for this group as Gates suggests.  Not all evangelicals disliked Obama, of course.  But those who liked him soon found themselves on the outside of mainstream evangelicalism looking in.  Liking Obama or disliking Trump were both deal breakers in AWE world and Republican politics has been transformed as a consequence.