By David Gushee
The Democratic primaries are finally over, as Barack Obama has barely edged out Hillary Clinton for the nomination. This is an upset of epic proportions. It was unimaginable 18 months ago.
The Illinois senator’s victory over his colleague from New York represents a staggering change in American political life. It also has considerable implications for Christians and the life of the church.
For those of us who care about the journey of race relations in this country, Obama’s victory is one of the most significant events in American history. It has taken just one generation to go from legislation guaranteeing blacks the right to vote to a major party’s nomination of an African-American for the highest office in the land. We have gone from a nation that only 40 years ago overturned bans on mixed-race marriages to a nation that has nominated the child of such a marriage for the presidency of the United States.
Remember affirmative action? Obama’s victory marks a cathartic healing of that divisive debate because he won the nomination fair and square, playing by the same rules as his all-white competition. He built the best campaign organization, raised the most money, executed the most effective strategy, and then hung on for dear life as the race tightened near the end. Good education and considerable drive and ability gave Obama the tools he needed to compete on a level playing field. He did the rest.
Whatever one may think about their respective strengths and weaknesses, Obama’s victory over Clinton helps to avert the possibility of family dynasties coming to dominate American politics. Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton … this would have signaled a dangerous calcification in our politics and a loss of that cleansing dynamism characteristic of a nation where anyone with drive and talent can aspire to be whatever they want to be. Just as Bill Clinton came out of nowhere to become president in 1992, so did Barack Obama come out of nowhere in this election. This is just as it should be.
There is a logic of gradual inclusion that seems to unfold in American democracy. Martin Luther King pointed to it in 1963 when he said that it was time for America to live up to the promise of its creed, “all men are created equal.” The all-white, all-male founders of this nation unleashed a force for inclusion that even they could not anticipate.
Many of these same lessons have been learned related to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. The great successes of her campaign mark the same kind of victory for women that Obama’s represents for people of color — and that both represent for a more inclusive nation. She certainly had name-recognition advantages over Obama. But she also ran a formidable campaign and may yet one day become president of the United States. That great symbol of American power — the White House — may for the first time in our history be something other than the White Male House. Speaking as a white male, I think this is a very good thing.
Does this mean anything for the church? I think it does. I can’t help but contrast the victory of Barack Obama and the near-victory of Hillary Clinton with the absence of blacks and women from leadership in most historically white Baptist and/or evangelical churches. Our majority-white nation may elect a black man president, but how many majority-white churches would consider electing a black man as pastor — or associate pastor?
Someone said to me recently that the church loses its credibility when the quality of its moral practice falls behind that of the broader culture. We fancy ourselves as the moral leaders of society, but so often are the most socially retrograde force in the nation. At a time when doors are being pried open to greater inclusiveness (and therefore greater social justice) and greater respect for the immeasurable worth of every human person, the church often lags behind.
Sometimes we are known for what and who we are against, as in crusades against basic homosexual rights. Other times we articulate a commitment to an inclusive vision, as on issues of race and gender, but make little actual progress in sharing power and leadership with people outside the white-guys club.
To the extent that the church continues to lag behind the culture in treating every human being as the sacred gift of God that they are, we ourselves will be left behind as an irrelevant vestige of a previous age.