Cheers for (candid) talk on religious left

the faith of barack obamaThere are times when it seems as if the World Wide Web has always been around, like a public utility. But if you look at cyberspace in terms of journalism history, we are still very early in the transition to whatever the heckfire is going to happen next.

One of the encouraging trends that I am seeing more often is the use of verbatim Q&A interviews. This format rarely made sense in dead-tree-pulp media, especially as newspapers struggled with smaller and smaller news holes. But on the Web? Why not?

Printing full questions and full answers is especially appropriate when dealing with subjects as complicated and personal as religion. As this weblog constantly demonstrates, there are times when many of the readers probably know more about the topic being discussed than anyone on the copy desk editing the news stories.

In a WWW world, why not print the story and then back it up — online, at least — with the full texts of the crucial interviews? Let people read the interviews for themselves, if they choose to do so.

The other day, I pointed readers toward an interesting interview with the Rev. Franklin Graham, which had moments of nuance — imagine that — as well as the blunt talk that is so common with Graham the younger.

This time around, take a look at this Newsweek interview (online only) with Stephen Mansfield, author of the new book “The Faith of Barack Obama.” Reporter Jessica Ramirez did the interview, which covers lots of familiar territory about Obama’s family history.

Then, near the end, we see The Question. This is not quite “tmatt trio” territory, but it’s close:

So, where do you think Obama fits in the spectrum of Christianity?

I think Barack Obama believes about Jesus and about conversion what your average evangelical does. He believes that Jesus is the son of God and that he died for the sins of the world and God raised him from the dead again. Where he begins to depart from orthodox evangelical Christianity probably begins with his view of scripture. He believes some of it might be of human origin, and some scriptures may be of more weight than others.

So in a sense, [his is a] traditional theological liberalism that tends to treat scripture as being at least partially of human origin. But then you add that sort of young postmodern twist. Postmodernists don’t really reconcile systems of thought. In fact, they’re not sure systems of thought are possible. Theologically speaking, they might pick one from column A and two from column B, whether it all fits together or not. So he’s a theological liberal with a postmodern emphasis.

Read on. He pretty much buys the media template that a new evangelical left is rising up to broaden the social agenda beyond the old one or two issues, etc. etc. As the Divine Ms. MZ has noted, there seems to be a MSM echo chamber on that point, while the polls appear to be just as close as ever and the familiar social issues are very much alive and kicking, if you are following the headlines.

The question again: Can Obama propose actual change on the social issues, which would mean compromises between his own party’s hard lifestyle left and the religious right? That would have been a good question to include in this interview. Still, lots to read and mull. More please! There’s plenty of room online.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I add my cheers and specifically include Stephen Mansfield for his comments. Even though Mansfield does not agree with Obama on abortion and another issue (gays?), and won’t vote for him because of that, he offers the reader insight into who Obama is. This kind of report is valuable at any time and remarkable during an election campaign where objectivity and truth are hard to find at best. I also think the final line of that piece makes an important point that I wish we’d see discussed more:

    So there’s not as much polarity as you might think.

    I suspect that comment is key to understanding the controversy about any shift in evangelical voters. Someone can be a single issue voter and say that is all they are concerned with no matter what. And someone can be a single issue voter and say that they’re willing to work on other areas where there is common ground. Nuanced changes in attitudes don’t necessarily show up at the polls where an either/or choice has to be made and I suspect that what we’re seeing, at least so far, is more in the area of such subtle changes.

    I also wish that Obama could be asked and honestly answer the question “Are you willing to ‘go to China’ on social issues?” (my wording of Terry’s question). Maybe someone would ask that question, but that is the kind of question that is a political landmine currently and I’m sure Obama would not answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but rather talk in platitudes. After all, to get real honesty in politics by any politician would take a miracle of Biblical proportions. God willing, someday soon that will happen.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I think Barack Obama believes about Jesus and about conversion what your average evangelical does…Where he begins to depart from orthodox evangelical Christianity probably begins with his view of scripture…So he’s a theological liberal with a postmodern emphasis.

    Mansfield may be a former pastor and an excellent author, but he apparently is not at his best off the cuff, because he contradicts himself in this answer. The beliefs of an orthodox evangelical Christian are centered in Scripture. If Obama is a theological liberal with a postmodern emphasis, then how can he share an average evangelical’s core beliefs about Jesus?

    Mansfield’s statements about the supposed new evangelical left are irrelevant. He is not an expert on the topic, so it is no surprise that he simply regurgitates the prevailing “wisdom” of the MSM.

  • http://liberalpastor.blogspot.com/ Jay Steele

    Please define for me “hard lifestyle left” so I can understand why this isn’t isn’t a biased term or being used as a term of derision.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    It’s the left defined in terms of cultural and lifestyle issues, as opposed to classic political definitions linked to economics, foreign policy, etc. A kind of left of moral libertarianism — which would include, obviously, many country-club GOPers. And there are moral traditionalists in the Democratic Party.

    I often use this term in concert with another loaded term — religious right.

  • Linda

    Mansfield states in the following video: (not 100% word for word)

    What really disappointments me in the church today is the level of hatred about politics. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am not allowed to hate someone that kills my wife, steal my property. Hatred in the church about politics is sin and it’s got to go.

    Having read Mansfield’s book, I highly recommend it. I learned about Black Liberation Theology, which is much different from what I heard on TV.

    Mansfield demonstrates an outstanding Christian attitude. He disagreed with things without demonizing the person. He also pointed out the good in people he did not agree with, including Rev Wright. …

    Obama has been a champaign for social issues since his early 20s, which Mansfield discusses in his book. While people concentrated on one Obama sentence from the Rev Warren event. Obama discussed concern for many social issues; however, I have never read any discussion about the issues.

  • Grupetti

    tmatt says:
    “It’s the left defined in terms of cultural and lifestyle issues, as opposed to classic political definitions linked to economics, foreign policy, etc. A kind of left of moral libertarianism — which would include, obviously, many country-club GOPers. And there are moral traditionalists in the Democratic Party.”

    “Lifestyle Left” would be more than adequate for what you describe. Adding “Hard” makes it clearly a term of bias and derision. “Religious Right”, although it has attained negative connotations, is a fairly accurate description. And it was accepted by the likes of Falwell. Terry, you might as well use terms such as “National Council of Churches Nobody Goes to Any More.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    No, G:

    It means that I think there are people over there on the cultural left who MIGHT be willing to allow change and compromise.


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