Some Thoughts on Race and the Presidency

Yesterday America celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is hard to believe that, if Dr. King was still alive today, he would turn 80 this year. That’s a few years younger than all three of my living grandparents. As someone who was born about a decade after Dr. King’s assassination, I cannot imagine a world where he lives past 39 years old–he was such a young man in 1968. History will always remember him as a young man.

Martin Luther King Jr. was, above all, a Baptist preacher. He served local Baptist churches in Alabama and Georgia. Like many leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. King saw his social activism as an extension of his Christian faith. He believed racism, and all forms of social oppression, were fundamentally sin issues. Society needed to change, but Dr. King and many others knew that societal change would only come as individual hearts and minds were changed. And this was especially true of Christian hearts and minds; too many Christian people were not walking in a manner worthy of the gospel when it came to racial justice in American culture, especially in the South. (See Dr. King’s scathing critique of racially moderate clergy in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which can be read here.)

We should stop and consider how America has changed in the course of a generation. When Dr. King was assassinated, there were some places where it was still difficult for African Americans to vote. Many places in the South were still segregated (my parents were in high school–in the early-1970s–before they had black classmates in South Georgia). There were virtually no African Americans (or other “non-whites,” besides a few Asian-Americans) serving in prominent elected or appointed positions in our national government. And now here we are, in January 2009, prepared to inaugurate the first African American President of the United States in a little less than one hour. Society has changed.

All Christians should be thankful that Barack Obama will soon be our President, even those who did not vote for him. Though racism will be with us until that day when all things are made new in Christ, the election of a black man as our Commander and Chief signals a significant advance in our nation’s history. I believe without reservation that this is evidence of God’s grace. I know that many of my fellow conservative evangelicals will disagree. They will bemoan Obama’s election because of his views of abortion, homosexuality, and other “social issues.” They will argue that his election is evidence of God’s judgment, not his grace. And to be clear, I strongly disagree with our new President’s views on these matters.

But as a Christian and a historian, I think it is at least possible that today is evidence of both grace and judgment. Why should this be surprising? We believe in the God of common grace, who brings rain to both the righteous and the wicked, who prevents each of us from being as sinful as we are capable, who allows a fallen world to still show great evidence of beauty, truth, and order, however imperfectly. We also believe in the God who exercises righteous wrath against wickedness, whether it be the murder of the unborn, perverse forms of human sexuality, the oppression of a people based upon the color of their skin, or the exploitation of orphans and widows.

History is complicated and messy, a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Isn’t it possible that God is blessing us in some ways, even as we face judgment in other ways? If you think about it, this is the individual experience of every person, both Christian and non-Christian. This is the experience of every family. Every church. Every nation. Life will be complicated until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he reigns forever and ever.

So I rejoice–really, sincerely, wholeheartedly, and Christianly–at the election of Barack Obama. It represents so much that is good. So much that is so long overdue. So much that, in God’s common grace, pictures the barrier-smashing power of the gospel. The strong disagreements I have with Mr. Obama on any number of issues can wait for tomorrow. Today is a day of celebration, for every American, and for every Christian. Hail to the Chief.

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