Obama the Traditionalist: What Catholics Can Learn from President Obama

Jonathan Capehart has written a great short piece discussing a recent town hall with President Obama involving the slur “acting white,” often used to denigrate academically-interested African-Americans (as if intelligence and education are the sole province of a single race). Both Capehart and Obama thoughtfully repudiate the notion that there is tension between “being black” and being educated and successful. But that’s not what this post is about, really.

I.

I was struck by this line:

The Bible says without vision a people will perish. And what happens when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don’t have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations is you start feeling adrift. And if you’re living in a society that devalues that, then you start maybe devaluing yourself and internalizing some of those doubts.

That was President Obama. And he’s right. It’s something that we need to remember as Catholics. This is what came to mind when I read those words:
Unintentionally, our president has cogently given an argument for traditional Liturgy, prayers, devotions, and the rest. They form a critical part of the Catholic identity. Even seemingly trivial things, like meatless Fridays, help form a truly Catholic identity. To be holy is literally to be “set apart” by, or for, God. Part of the call for us as Catholic Christians is to be holy and set apart in this way: in the world, yet not of it. 
We’ve done things a certain way for centuries. If we cut ourselves off from that tradition, and start behaving like the rest of the world, it’s hardly surprising that Catholics begin acting less and less like Catholics; that they begin to think of themselves less and less as Catholics; and that they begin to believe and act less and less like Catholics.
Religious groups that are evangelistic and form distinctive identities tend to survive and grow (one need look no further than Mormonism, Pentecostalism, and Islam for clear examples of this). Religious groups that look virtually indistinguishable from the world are dying. If what I’m getting in church is no different from what I would get outside of church, why bother going to church? 
The less our faith forms our identity, the less we are somehow changed by being Catholic, the less of a pull the faith has on us. There are 168 hours in a week. If we have nothing distinctively Catholic about ourselves during the 167 hours of the week spent outside of Sunday Mass, we’re not really Catholic. Being Catholic is not what we do one (or hopefully more than one) hour per week at Mass. It is who we are, and our lives should reflect that.
II.

Of course, there’s no small irony in President Obama being the one to point this out, as he is no famous friend of the Catholic Church (as the various pending lawsuits between his administration and our Church make clear). But God has raised him up to the presidency nevertheless, and can still speak through him. There’s good precedent for this. In Jeremiah 43:10, God says:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will send and take Nebuchadrez′zar the king of Babylon, my servant, and he will set his throne above these stones which I have hid, and he will spread his royal canopy over them.

That verse should shock us a bit, because God is referring to Nebuchadrezzar, the Babylonian king who was oppressing the Israelites (and who tried to get the Israelites to worship him), as His Servant. If He can use even Nebuchadrezzar for His glory and the good of His people, He can certainly use President Obama as well. So let us take Obama’s words to heart: when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don’t have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations,” that spells disaster, whether we’re dealing with the Church or a racial or ethnic group. Let us, then, hold fast to Tradition.

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