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Boehner, Day, and Obama: Contrasting Christian Approaches to Society and Politics

Walter Moss: Christian teaching, as Boehner, Day, and Obama all have recognized, stresses humility. Such humility should lead Christians, as the great majority of our politicians claim to be, to work openly and pragmatically, not dogmatically, for the common good.

On May 14, 2011 conservative Republican, Catholic, and Speaker of the House John Boehner received an honorary degree from Catholic University and delivered its commencement speech. He tried to persuade the graduates of the importance of the values that shaped his own Catholic upbringing. He summed it up by saying, “So there you have it: humility, patience, and faith—the raw material of hard work and sacrifice.” He also spoke of his prayers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and added, “Recently, I was asked if there’s a special prayer I say before going into meetings with the president. Well, I always ask God for the courage and wisdom to do his will and not mine. Serving others —that’s not just how I lead in the Congress, it’s how I lead my life.”

christians boehner obama day

Forty years earlier Dorothy Day, who considered herself a Christian anarchist and pacifist—Tolstoy was one of the influences on her—refused from the same university a similar honor as that bestowed on Boehner. She is now being considered for sainthood by the Vatican. In a letter to the Catholic U. president of April 12, 1971 she indicated her reasons for turning down an honorary degree, as she had from other institutions of higher learning on seven previous occasions. It was mainly because they had ROTC programs and were too closely allied to the federal government, often receiving defense-related grants. She also mentioned that the organization she headed, the Catholic Worker, stood for the poor, many of whom required a type of education not provided for by the colleges and universities of capitalist America.

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Although she did not mention it in her letter she and her organization’s paper, The Catholic Worker, had also spoken out against racial and other types of injustices since the paper’s inception in the early 1930s. For decades it’s masthead had contained a picture of Jesus embracing a black worker and a white worker clasping hands; she and the paper had protested the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; and in 1973 she suffered the last of her numerous protest arrests, this time for “unlawful assembly,” in the midst of picketing in behalf of the itinerant Mexican workers of the United Farm Workers led by her friend Cesar Chavez .

John Boehner

John Boehner

The political and life-style differences between Boehner and Day are obvious. As expected, she was very critical of most U.S. corporations and the country’s financial system, even thinking it was wrong to charge interest. Boehner, as a piece in The New York Times (September 11, 2010) indicated, “ maintains especially tight ties with a circle of lobbyists and former aides representing some of the nation’s biggest businesses, including Goldman Sachs, Google, Citigroup, R. J. Reynolds, MillerCoors and UPS.”

She embraced voluntary poverty for herself, established “hospitality homes” for the down-and-outs of society (often attending to them personally), and never paid federal income tax, whereas Boehner seems most at home among nouveau riche country-club elites. And yet, she would have agreed with Boehner about the importance of humility, patience, faith, prayer, wisdom-seeking, and doing God’s will. She also would have agreed with his belief that abortion is immoral—even though she had one herself in her wayward youth before her conversion to Catholicism. And being an anarchist, she was even more against “big government” than is Boehner.

There are also similarities and differences between President Obama, a Protestant, and these two Catholics. They all have valued the positive influence that religion can bring to the political and social order. In his Audacity of Hope (2006) the future president wrote, “Surely, secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square; Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.—indeed the majority of great reformers in American history—not only were motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes.” In an important speech before religious leaders in June 2006, he again named these five “great reformers”—four men and Dorothy Day—who were motivated by faith.

But in what specific ways have their faiths influenced Boehner, Day, and Obama? After Boehner was invited to speak at Catholic U, its president received group letters from some of his students and professors (who were joined in protest by professors from several other Catholic universities including Boehner’s alma mater). The students’ letter said he “was an inappropriate keynote speaker because the fiscal 2012 budget resolution that he had championed severely cut funding for food assistance, programs for low-income children and help for the homeless.” At the graduation ceremony itself, one graduate in social work who had a sign pinned to her (“Where’s the compassion, Mr. Boehner?”) was part of a larger group of social work students opposed to Boehner’s speech. The professors’ letter said that “the speaker had ignored his moral obligation to make protecting the poor a priority. The letter called his legislative record of helping the poor ‘among the worst in Congress’” (from the Washington Post reporting of the letters and ceremony).

President Obama has also been no stranger to commencement-speaking controversy. After he was invited to deliver the Notre Dame commencement speech in May 2009, tens of thousands of Catholics signed a petition protesting his selection because of his stand on abortion and stem cell funding. In his address he, like Boehner, spoke of God and religion. “We must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it.” “Part of the problem [of finding common ground to solve our many global problems], of course, lies in the imperfections of man— our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin.” “It was through this service [working as a community organizer in Chicago and witnessing the example of religious people in behalf of the poor] that I was brought to Christ.”

But Obama’s main point in his Notre Dame address was the necessity of finding “a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity—diversity of thought, of culture, and of belief.” Relating this point to the USA he asked “as citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?” He told the students,

You will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communications than have ever existed before. You will hear talking heads scream on cable, read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and watch politicians pretend to know what they're talking about. . . . In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you've been raised and educated. . . . Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. . . . But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious. . . .

For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It is no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule— the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. To serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.”

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Near the end of his address Obama spoke of differences on questions like abortion but quoted Notre Dame’s Father Hesburgh, “Differences of culture and religion and conviction can co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love." A year later, addressing a University of Michigan commencement, President Obama again pleaded for combining spiritual convictions with political tolerance and humility (I have commented on this speech in an earlier essay on this site and quoted from it in “Civility and Political Discourse after the Tucson Shooting.”) The president’s insistence on working for the common good with those of different convictions and not vilifying political opponents has been consistent enough that there should be little doubt that this belief is fundamental to his political approach.

Thus, the views of Boehner, Day, and Obama. How is one to deal with these three contrasting visions of acting on our values? Due to our unique personalities, upbringing, education, culture and sub-cultures, and reading and thinking, we all approach problems differently. Boehner grew up Catholic in a family of a dozen children. He is convinced, as he told the Catholic U. graduates, “There’s nothing in life you can’t achieve if you’re willing to work hard enough and make the sacrifices necessary to succeed.” Like many conservative Republicans, he stresses that America is the land of opportunity and that hard work is the key to success, and he seems to have a difficult time empathizing with the plight of society’s down-and-outs. He told the Catholic U. students that he played football in high school and that his coach stressed combining faith and hard work—“He’d have the whole team kneel down and pray the Hail Mary before every meeting, every practice, and every game. Then we’d go out and smash heads with the other team for four quarters…all in the name of the Blessed Mother.”

Born in 1897, Dorothy Day’s upbringing was very different. She was greatly influenced by the books she read, books like those of socialist Upton Sinclair (especially The Jungle), the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and the great nineteenth-century Russian writers Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Like Boehner, she appreciated the importance of hard work—later in life she often quoted Chekhov on the subject—but was much more critical of a social structure that failed to do enough to help the poor. By 1916 her politics wavered between socialism, anarchism, and syndicalism—like that of the militant IWW. She did not convert to Catholicism until late 1927, after her anarchist lover and she had produced a daughter and Dorothy insisted on her baptism—as a single mother Dorothy raised her and never married although she tried hard for several years to convince her former lover to wed.

For the remainder of her long life she combined the sympathies of her youth toward society’s unfortunates with a passionate commitment to Catholicism. She took literally the Gospels’ words: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. . . . Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Three decades after death, 213 Catholic Worker communities, remained committed to “hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken,” and opposed to “injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.”

President Obama’s background is more familiar to readers. His work among the poor as a community organizer in Chicago helped awaken an empathy for the poor similar to Day’s--in his The Audacity of Hope (2006), he stated that empathy was central to his moral code and that it was important "to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes."

Superficially, I have most in common with John Boehner. Decades before him, I (a white male) grew up Catholic in Cincinnati just several miles from where he would later be raised, and I graduated from the same university (Xavier) as he. But I have always voted Democratic and was one of the “Historians for Obama” during the 2008 primaries. Lately, I have been doing considerable research for a long essay on “The Wisdom of Dorothy Day,” and have come to a strong appreciation of her efforts in behalf of the poor and those treated unjustly. Like her, I have also been greatly influenced by the many books I have read and believe, as she did, that much wisdom can be found in the writings of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Although I no longer consider myself a Catholic, I still appreciate many of the values that my Catholic education (topped off by graduate school at Georgetown U.) provided.


Although I greatly admire Dorothy Day and the work she did, she also had her failings, failings that she often admitted to herself and others. Like almost all of us, she had a difficult time realizing that other people’s experiences taught them different lessons than hers taught her. Her faith, her Catholic religion, was so important to her and so true to her that she had difficulty accepting any justification by Catholics who fell away from Catholic teachings. This was especially true of her daughter, Tamar. And Dorothy often chided herself for being too judgmental in regard to her and other “fallen-away” Catholics. Yet, in another sense, tolerance was important to her. She took part in ecumenical efforts, often praised communists and socialists for their concerns regarding social justice, and admired some people from non-Christian faiths, like the Hindu Gandhi. Like Obama, she believed strongly in working with people of other faiths and convictions to alleviate social problems.

The greatest divide between her and politicians like Boehner and Obama is that she believed there should be no significant gap between individual morality and the realm of politics. Various thinkers like Max Weber, Isaiah Berlin, and Reinhold Niebuhr (Obama’s favorite theologian) took a different view, perhaps best suggested by the title of Niebuhr’s 1932 classic, Moral Man and Immoral Society. To Dorothy Day, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” applied to the realm of wars, abortion, and capital punishment just as it did on the individual personal level. Thus her opposition to WWII. Even though Niebuhr admired her, he strongly disagreed with her pacifist stand regarding that war.

My own training as a historian, but also one who has taught Comparative Religions, leads me to believe that there are no simple answers as to the proper relationship of religion and politics. Boehner is correct about the importance of humility, patience, and faith—at least of some sort, if not in God, then in the importance of loving one’s fellow humans. And he is also correct in praising hard work. But he does not stress empathy and tolerance enough within the political arena—I have no idea what he does in his private life and I think progressives make a big mistake when they forget some conservatives do engage in many acts of private charity.

I am closest to the viewpoint of Obama, who seems to have been most influenced by Niebuhr’s perspective. He is correct, it seems to me, to suggest that faith is faith not certitude, that we should therefore be humble, wary of self-righteousness, remain open and curious, and not vilify those that differ with us politically. And I think he would agree with Day’s comment that “scorn and contempt are part of hatred, they do not bring out the best in man."

I especially like Obama’s words to the Notre Dame graduates about “one law binding all people together”-- whether they be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or humanists—“ to treat one another as we wish to be treated,” to love and “to do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.”

None of us has a lock on truth. Christian teaching, as Boehner, Day, and Obama all have recognized, stresses humility. Such humility should lead Christians, as the great majority of our politicians claim to be, to work openly and pragmatically, not dogmatically, for the common good. To quote Jesse Jackson, another man who often combined his religious perspective with his political views, we must “keep hope alive.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

Walter G. Moss

Walter Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and the author of An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, see