Fathers, faith and family

On Father’s Day, Barack Obama delivered a sermon in a Chicago church chiding black men for their failures as parents. “Any fool can have a child,” he preached. “That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”

Those powerful words elicited some telling reactions. Under the headline “Obama’s Father’s Day Grand Slam,” David Brody of CBN (the Christian Broadcasting Network, founded by evangelist Pat Robertson) called it an “important ... and a defining speech” that “spoke directly to the concerns of millions of concerned parents across the country.”

By contrast, black commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson said Obama “clearly is fixated on the ever popular media notion of the absentee black father,” a notion he calls a “stereotypical and plainly false assertion.”

Actually, Obama was doing exactly the opposite of what Hutchinson alleges. He was breaking stereotypes, not reinforcing them. And that’s why he has a real chance of becoming the first African-American president.

An earlier generation of black leaders portrayed their people as victims of racial injustice -- an undeniably true statement. Their answer was more rights, more programs and more money, all bestowed by government. And in his Chicago sermon, Obama did talk about the need in the black community for “more money for our schools,” more cops on the street, more jobs and training classes.

But what makes his speech so noteworthy is that government action takes second place to personal responsibility. “Past injustices are real,” he said, “but we can’t keep using that as an excuse.” Too many black fathers “are missing from too many lives and too many homes ... and the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

On one level, this is clearly good politics. Don’t be misled by President Bush’s abysmal poll numbers or the wide advantage Democrats enjoy on most critical issues. This is likely to be a very close election. An average of national polls calculated by the Web site RealClearPolitics.com gives Obama a 4-point lead over John McCain. Their analysis of the Electoral College shows the Democrat with the thinnest of margins, 272 to 266.

Obama’s sermon echoes the strategy of Bill Clinton, the only Democrat to win two presidential terms since Franklin Roosevelt, who renounced the racist comments of a black activist named Sister Souljah during the 1992 campaign. (He also spoke in Chicago, by the way.) Clinton then strengthened his case for re-election by signing a welfare-reform bill that emphasized the importance of work and self-help in bolstering “the foundations of our families.”

Clinton was denounced as a heretic centrist, but he understood the American electorate better than any politician of his generation. With only one in five voters defining themselves as liberals, only a fool can imagine a Democrat winning the White House by appealing solely to the party’s left-leaning base.

Clinton knew Democrats had to contest the Republicans as the party of “family values.” He knew they had to compete for the support of the “millions of concerned parents” Brody writes about. And while Obama’s voting record marks him as an orthodox liberal, his sermon shows that he shares Clinton’s core insight.

Where Obama delivered his sermon, the Apostolic Church of God, is as important as what he said. Democrats have long suffered from the label as the secular party, more at home in university seminars than Sunday-school classrooms. And it’s instructive that the only two Democrats to win the presidency in 40 years, Clinton and Jimmy Carter, were both men of faith, both familiar with Scripture, both comfortable in the pew and the pulpit.

Obama, too, is a man of faith, and his Father’s Day address quoted the Sermon on the Mount, the passage from Matthew about the “wise man” whose house survived a storm because “it was founded upon a rock.” The rantings of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, have threatened to distort his religious reputation, so it’s vitally important for Obama to restate his own views and separate himself from Wright’s “God damn America” theology.

But Obama’s sermon has a moral as well as a political meaning. He talked about “the toll it took on me” when his own father left home, and his determination to “break the cycle” of abandonment and be “a good father” to his two daughters.

Obama might yet prove that a black child can grow up to be president. He’s already provided a valuable model by showing that a black child can grow up to be a “good father.”

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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