Whenever I advocate for a stronger government role in fighting poverty a few people (most of them well meaning, I assume) come back with some variation on this question: why can't the churches just deal with the problem? President Obama answered that question this morning at the National Prayer Breakfast:
...there are some needs that require more resources than faith groups have at their disposal. There’s only so much a church can do to help all the families in need -- all those who need help making a mortgage payment, or avoiding foreclosure, or making sure their child can go to college. There’s only so much that a nonprofit can do to help a community rebuild in the wake of disaster. There’s only so much the private sector will do to help folks who are desperately sick get the care that they need.
And that's why I continue to believe that in a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play; that our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics.
The president also addressed in very personal terms how his faith guides his politics:
As I travel across the country folks often ask me what is it that I pray for. And like most of you, my prayers sometimes are general: Lord, give me the strength to meet the challenges of my office. Sometimes they’re specific: Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance -- (laughter) -- where there will be boys. (Laughter.) Lord, have that skirt get longer as she travels to that dance. (Laughter.)
But while I petition God for a whole range of things, there are a few common themes that do recur. The first category of prayer comes out of the urgency of the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel itself. I pray for my ability to help those who are struggling. Christian tradition teaches that one day the world will be turned right side up and everything will return as it should be. But until that day, we're called to work on behalf of a God that chose justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable.
We've seen a lot of hardship these past two years. Not a day passes when I don't get a letter from somebody or meet someone who’s out of work or lost their home or without health care. The story Randall told about his father -- that's a story that a whole lot of Americans have gone through over these past couple of years.
Sometimes I can't help right away. Sometimes what I can do to try to improve the economy or to curb foreclosures or to help deal with the health care system -- sometimes it seems so distant and so remote, so profoundly inadequate to the enormity of the need. And it is my faith, then, that biblical injunction to serve the least of these, that keeps me going and that keeps me from being overwhelmed. It’s faith that reminds me that despite being just one very imperfect man, I can still help whoever I can, however I can, wherever I can, for as long as I can, and that somehow God will buttress these efforts.
It also helps to know that none of us are alone in answering this call. It’s being taken up each and every day by so many of you -- back home, your churches, your temples and synagogues, your fellow congregants -- so many faith groups across this great country of ours...
...a second recurring theme in my prayers is a prayer for humility. Now, God answered this prayer for me early on by having me marry Michelle. (Laughter and applause.) Because whether it’s reminding me of a chore undone, or questioning the wisdom of watching my third football game in a row on Sunday, she keeps me humble. (Laughter.)
But in this life of politics when debates have become so bitterly polarized, and changes in the media lead so many of us just to listen to those who reinforce our existing biases, it’s useful to go back to Scripture to remind ourselves that none of has all the answers -- none of us, no matter what our political party or our station in life.
The full breadth of human knowledge is like a grain of sand in God’s hands. And there are some mysteries in this world we cannot fully comprehend. As it’s written in Job, “God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways. He does great things beyond our understandings.”
The challenge I find then is to balance this uncertainty, this humility, with the need to fight for deeply held convictions, to be open to other points of view but firm in our core principles. And I pray for this wisdom every day.
I pray that God will show me and all of us the limits of our understanding, and open our ears and our hearts to our brothers and sisters with different points of view; that such reminders of our shared hopes and our shared dreams and our shared limitations as children of God will reveal the way forward that we can travel together.
And the last recurring theme, one that binds all prayers together, is that I might walk closer with God and make that walk my first and most important task.
In our own lives it’s easy to be consumed by our daily worries and our daily concerns. And it is even easier at a time when everybody is busy, everybody is stressed, and everybody -- our culture is obsessed with wealth and power and celebrity. And often it takes a brush with hardship or tragedy to shake us out of that, to remind us of what matters most.
We see an aging parent wither under a long illness, or we lose a daughter or a husband in Afghanistan, we watch a gunman open fire in a supermarket -- and we remember how fleeting life can be. And we ask ourselves how have we treated others, whether we’ve told our family and friends how much we love them. And it’s in these moments, when we feel most intensely our mortality and our own flaws and the sins of the world, that we most desperately seek to touch the face of God.
The president's personal testimony of faith was appropriate considering his faith continues to come under attack by political partisans and his comments on the role of church and state in the work to fight poverty were spot on. The president should be congratulated for a fine speech.