White House

Obama Names 18 New Faith-Based Council Advisers

The Rev. Carroll Baltimore. Image via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

President Obama on Sept. 24 announced the names of 18 people who will serve on his third advisory council on faith-based issues.

They include leaders of religious groups and nonprofits — from a former president of a historic black denomination to the head of an anti-hunger group to an executive of a Sikh organization.

History Facing History: When Pope and President Meet

Image via /Shutterstock

When President Obama meets with Pope Francis tomorrow, the world will catch a glimpse of what history looks like. The first pope from the global South in 1200 years will be welcomed in the White House by the first African-American president of the United States. This picture will be worth far, far more than a thousand words.

Pundits will analyze each public word spoken, and search for hints about the private words exchanged between these two. The politics of Pope Francis’ interaction with the President, and later with Congress, will fuel incessant speculation from Washington’s insiders. But around the world, and particularly in the global South, it’s the symbol of this meeting which will matter.

Pope Francis represents the changing face of world Christianity. Today, one billion Christians are found in Latin America and Africa. In 1980, more Christians were found in the global South than in the North for the first time in a thousand years. Every day, that movement accelerates. Francis’ words about the world’s injustices, and his actions of humble human solidarity, project the voice and longings of world Christianity’s new majority and resonant far beyond the boundaries of this faith.

President Obama symbolizes the changing demographics of America. Hope and demographics elected him in 2008, and by 2012 the changing face of the electorate in the U.S. proved determinative of America’s political future. Today, a majority of babies born in the U.S. are non-white, and some major urban areas already reflect the coming reality of a society without a racial majority.

Obama Directs Administration to Resettle 10,000 Syrian Refugees

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As the the refugee crisis worsens, President Obama has directed his administration to resettle at least 10,000 Syrians over the course of the year, reports The New York Times.

Pressure on the U.S. has been mounting from European nations to increase its promised quota of 2,000. White House press secretary Josh Earnest made the announcement Sept. 10.

According to The New York Times,

The announcement brought a variety of reactions that underscored how the refugee crisis has become another polarized political question. Aid groups called the administration’s action a token one given the size of the American economy and population, while a number of Republicans warned that Mr. Obama was allowing in potential terrorists. “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York. “We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”

The White House Appointed Its First Transgender Staffer

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The White House has hired its first openly transgender staff member, the Washington Post reports.

The staffer, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, will work as a recruitment director for presidential personnel. She is not the first transgender staff person to be hired by other agencies under this administration, but is the first to work in the White House. She is also a transgender woman of color, which LGBT groups noted as significant a news release.

White House Honors 12 Faith Leaders as Climate Change ‘Champions’

the White House / RNS

Left to right, the Rev. Mitchell Hescox, Huda Alkaff (hidden), the Rev. Kim Morrow,  Sunita Viswanath, Sister Joan Brown, Rabbi Marc Soloway, Steven Beumer. Photo via the White House / RNS

From a zero-waste synagogue to global development work after natural disasters, environmental projects by faith leaders are being hailed by the Obama administration as examples of exemplary leadership on climate change.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy highlighted initiatives by a dozen leaders from a range of faiths, who were recognized July 20 in Washington, D.C., as “Champions of Change” for their environmental initiatives.

“As faith leaders, no voice is really more important than yours in this,” said McCarthy.

A Primer on Fast Track Trade Authority for People of Faith

Image via pogonici/shutterstock.com

Image via pogonici/shutterstock.com

t’s also one of the most divisive political issues on the Hill right now. Here’s why: The notion of "fast tracking" trade deals with almost no congressional oversight has led to the creation of odd alliances — putting the Democrats and Tea Party in one camp (against), and the Republicans and Obama Administration (for) in another. Pro-business Republicans are long time supporters of free trade, while members of the Tea Party are against most anything that would allow the President to usurp legislative authority. As for Democrats, they argue that the TPP would allow multinational corporations to undermine labor safeguards, civil rights, environmental protection and healthcare, and derail urgent efforts at fighting climate change. Organizations typically aligned with President Obama are against him here: labor unions, environmental groups, and even traditionally non-political groups have fought hard against Fast Track and the TPP.

Indeed, the potential harm from the trade deal seems to leave few interest groups untouched. To provide just a few examples, Doctors Without Borders has called the TPP the "worst trade deal ever," claiming that it will cause millions to lose access to life-saving medicines; left-leaning Global Exchange has pointed to the increasing number of sweatshops such a framework would lead to; and the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation has expressed its belief that the TPP would put overly restrictive controls on the internet. And we’ve already seen our political leaders weaken standards for protection against human trafficking and child labor should the trade deal move forward.

These are all compelling arguments, and they are ones faith groups are making as well.

Christian Nation vs. Secular Country?

AS WE SWING into the 2016 presidential campaign, we Americans can be certain of at least one thing: We will be treated to another round of very public arguments about the role of religion in our republic. If this were a boxing match, and if past patterns persist, the title of the bout would be Christian Nation vs. Secular Country. The sides, more eager to mobilize their own than have a conversation with the other, will happily seek to bludgeon one another.

Thankfully, a number of writers have set out to complicate this picture in a way that adds both color and hope. Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods and Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran are beautifully written accounts of our interfaith country. By interfaith, I mean both that there were people of different faith persuasions present from our earliest days, and that they constantly bumped into one another as they established their communities and sought to build up this country.

That interaction often went badly—the Salem witch trials, the anti-Catholic Know Nothing party, and present day anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are just some examples. As Manseau writes, “The story of how a global array of beliefs came to occupy the same ocean-locked piece of land is more often one of violence than of toleration.”

But there are inspiring threads of pluralism in the American tapestry as well. As Manseau puts it, “the repeated collision of conflicting systems of belief, followed frequently by ugly and violent conflict, has somehow arrived, again and again, not merely at peaceful coexistence but at striking moments of inter-influence.”

Both of these books display the full fabric.

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5 Takeaways from Tuesday's White House Celebration of Gospel Music

Photo via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

First lady Michelle Obama welcomes students to the White House on April 14, 2015. Photo via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

First lady Michelle Obama hosted a discussion with musicians and students on gospel music at the White House on April 14, praising gospel’s role as “a ray of hope” in American history.

“Gospel music has really played such an important role in our country’s history,” she told more than 100 students gathered in the State Dining Room, “from the spirituals sung by slaves, to the anthems that became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, and to the hymns that millions of Americans sing every single day in churches all across the country.”

Here are some of the lessons learned during the 75-minute event, where Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli interviewed a panel of singers and songwriters ahead of a star-studded concert that will air on PBS on June 26 as part of the “In Performance at the White House” series.

1. Gospel music is personal for the first lady.

“I’m really thrilled that we’re really focusing on gospel,” Obama said of the series that has previously featured classical, country, and soul music.

“It’s something that I wanted to do since we started.”

What I Learned From Praying at the White House

The closing prayer. Image via Justin Fung.

The closing prayer. Image via Justin Fung.

I got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?

Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.

My feeling upon hanging up the phone — and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at my church — was, Who, me? 

I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.

The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”

Eight years ago, a 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this — and please don’t get me wrong, I was excited. There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President — “Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church — we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?”

But all that came out was, “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.

The breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of, too. From Vice President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections (and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!)to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday.

And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.