Obama’s confession of faith

When I attended the National Prayer Breakfast back in February, I was struck by the clear confession of faith President Barack Obama gave. There were many speakers and every single one of them was talking about their faith. But while many speakers were opaque, Obama said things I wouldn’t be surprised to hear in my own church on Sunday morning. I left the country a few hours later so I never saw how the media covered that speech.

Well, yesterday President Obama hosted his second annual Easter breakfast. How do you hold an Easter event before Easter I will never understand, but I guess the Christian practice of fasting this week isn’t universal.

Anyway, if I thought his confession of faith was clear at the National Prayer Breakfast, I hardly know how to describe what he said yesterday. Here’s a snippet, as posted by The Baltimore Sun:

“We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work. And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways. And I admit that my plate has been full as well. (Laughter.) The inbox keeps on accumulating. (Laughter.)

“But then comes Holy Week. The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross.

“And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

“In the words of the book Isaiah: ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.’

“This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this ‘Amazing Grace’ calls me to reflect. And it calls me to pray. It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short. It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior.

Now, whenever President Obama says anything, you can expect coverage. And there was. But I’m curious what you think of the coverage. Particularly in the context of the poll results from last year showing that many Americans are either unsure of or wrong about which religion Obama adheres to.

This Associated Press report was pretty good. This CNN report quoted some of the more interesting parts of the speech. But many reports were just too short to put the speech in context.

It is perhaps surprising that some of the better coverage came from the conservative press, such as this CNSNews.com report that gave a full run-down.

Let me just concede that I realize it’s almost impossible to discuss an issue like this without acknowledging the politics swirling around.

This is pretty obvious, I know. But just from a media angle, remember how much the media covered those polls showing that huge chunks of people in all parties were confused about Obama’s religion? Isn’t that at least partly an indictment of how the media cover Obama’s own words about his faith? Even when he speaks very clearly about his own religious views, the news is covered but not highlighted, pushed to the margins or sent out on the wire without fanfare.

I know that this was not the biggest news of the day, but was it covered appropriately?

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  • Bram

    The question that I’d like to see the coverage broach, and that I’d like to see the President asked point-blank as a follow up to his statement here, is the question of whether, for him, the “resurrection” of Christ to which he refers is a *literal,* *bodily* resurrection, or a resurrection understood in some more metaphorical way. It would also be interesting to know if the President believes that Christ is necessary — in whatever sense he’d like to specify — for a person to be saved.

  • Ben

    Hi Mollie,

    I think the CNS link is broken.

    Anyone know if his speechwriters are that versed in the Bible and Christian themes, or do they call in a minister or scholar to help suggest passages? Or would Obama’s faith background be the sort where some passages are memorized and referenced? Anyway, that’s a tight, inspirational five paragraph excerpt from the Sun.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BRAM:

    Thousands of liberal Christians do not believe in the Resurrection, including loads of seminary profs and more than a few bishops.

    So why does that question need to be asked to A PRESIDENT? What is the political justification?

    He’s a liberal Christian. And he’s a free-church Protestant, which means he has no creed. The Bible means what he wants it to mean. This is normal for millions of folks.

  • Lisa

    So – One of his speechwriters looked stuff up in the Bible. Big deal.

  • Dave G.

    the Christian practice of fasting this week isn’t universal.

    No, it isn’t.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Dave G:

    The bigger question is whether one can celebrate Easter before it’s Easter. Why not hold this prayer meeting next week, in the season of Easter?

    It’s Holy Week. It’s not Easter.

  • Bram

    tmatt,

    The question doesn’t need to be asked of a President, unless the President — as this one has — invites a conversation on his theological views. I would seem simply finding interesting to know where the President stands on the resurrections and on the exclusivity of Christ as a means of salvation — nor more but also no less interested than I would be with regard to any other Christian who had opened up a conversation on his or her theological views.

    Also, I don’t think it can be taken entirely for granted that liberal Christians deny the resurrection. I’m assuming that many, maybe most of then do, but not necessarily all. Even in the case of those who do — and maybe the President is one — that fact is still a pertinent fact to discuss, if we are having a conversation, like the one that the President started here, concerning theological views.

    Again, the President doesn’t owe us any more disclosure of his theological views than anyone else, but he also doesn’t owe us any less.

    I’m merely expressing the questions I myself would ask if I were in the room with the President, listening to the statement he made — the questions I would ask him or anyone else if we were chewing the theological fat over coffee or a beer.

  • Ben

    Actually, CNS might be one of the sites blocked in India. Web censorship seems to be getting worse here.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    I still feel like I’m getting snookered. However clear those words were, I just have this feelign that he doesnt believe them.

    IF George Bush were to talk this way, there would be plenty of press coverage — negative of course.

    David, http://www.RedLetterBelievers.com, “Salt and Light”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    About Easter before Easter. Not surprising. We celebrate Christmas from Halloween to Christmas Day–then drop it::FAST. In fact is there a holiday that this country celebrates “the season of” on and after the date or event celebrated as used to be the practice in most cultures. Even the 4th of July firecrackers are heard for weeks ahead around here. But by midnight of the 4th silence reigns. It looks like Lent is also going to be bulldozed aside and the next holiday’s goodies and decorations filling the stores on Easter Monday.
    In otherwords there are no longer real holiday seasons–only merchandising seasons that to rake in the big bucks must be before not after the holiday.

  • Jerry

    I still feel like I’m getting snookered. However clear those words were, I just have this feelign that he doesnt believe them.

    From the ‘right’ point-of-view, if the President said the sun was shining, they’d run to get their flashlights and rain gear.

    But back to the topic of the post. I had not even heard about his speech until I read about it here which says something. Of course this is understandable. There’s lots of things to report on, these days from the doings of “The Donald” to Libya. And there is very little room in the media for anything else. So I do appreciate you highlighting the story here.

  • Ryan K.

    Tmatt,

    From a media stand point, the reason it matters in what the President means when he says “resurrection” is because the overwhelming majority of his national audience thinks he means a physical bodily resurrection from the dead.

    If this is not what Obama means by the word it is helpful to know and therefore important for journalists to ask.

  • Judy Harrow

    Ryan,

    Why would it be helpful to know that? Does it in any way affect the way he does his job as President? If it does not, it is private, and none of our business.

  • Ryan K.

    Wrong Judy, if he is making a public speech not only does the public have a right to understand his words, but an obligation as well.

    Look, I did not ask Obama to use the word resurrection in a public speech, and it is not like I am saying lets rifle through his personal journal or something.

    I just don’t find it to unreasonable for journalists to ask the President what he means by a word that he uses in a public speech, especially when many in the American perceive it to mean something that some claim the President does not mean by it.

    So if you want I would be more than happy to hear your case as to why it is “none of our business” to know what the President means when he makes a public speech, personally I have never heard someone make this kind of argument so I would find it interesting for sure.

  • Bram

    I second what Ryan K. has said. Obama himself raised the matter of the resurrection. Neither Ryan K. nor I asked him to. But if we’re going to have an Easter conversation about the resurrection — which the President invited us to do — then let’s *have* an Easter conversation about the resurrection. And I think that in the course of such a conversation it might — just might — be relevant to know in what sense one’s interlocutor, whether the President or anyone else, uses the term “resurrection,” and what he or she takes that term to mean. The religious views of at least one recent President who springs to mind were a matter of preoccupation and of endless and fevered speculation for the chattering class, even when that President did not bring the matter up himself, which he did less often than the chattering class would have us suppose. So why then this sudden change of course, whereby we are expected to shut our mouths good and tight and not ask any questions at all when the President discusses his faith, when the President brings his faith up without being asked?

  • Dave G.

    The bigger question is whether one can celebrate Easter before it’s Easter. Why not hold this prayer meeting next week, in the season of Easter?

    Schedule conflicts? I don’t know. Perhaps because Easter has taken on the same feel as Christmas, at least culturally. You know, Christmas begins on Black Friday and ends on the 19th, when stores start taking down their decorations to make room for Valentine’s day. Maybe the same mentality here. Easter is the season we’re in. It ends on Sunday, and then we get ready for summer cook outs and backyard parties. Just a guess. Could be more profound than that.

  • Bob Smietana

    The UCC – where the president came to faith – does have a “What We Believe” page that includes this statement: “We believe in the triune God: Creator, resurrected Christ, the sole Head of the church, and the Holy Spirit, who guides and brings about the creative and redemptive work of God in the world.”

  • Bob Smietana

    And he’s a free-church Protestant, which means he has no creed

    I think you mean “non-creedal” rather than “free church.” You can be a free church Protestant and still have creeds.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BOB:

    It’s a totally congregational, free church flock. They can believe whatever they want.

    Oh, and Bishop Spong still says the Creed.

    I wish Obama wou;d talk about the details, too, but he should be under no political or ethical pressure to do so. Meanwhile, if conservatives want to debate WITH THE UCC, that’s fair game, too.

  • Sibyl

    A profession and even a confession of faith doesn’t mean a lot if it is not lived out in one’s actions. Promotion of sexual sin and abortion rather cancel out this profession.

  • Jerry

    They can believe whatever they want.

    Terry, this to me a pure snark. Anyone can believe whatever they want. After all, we have Catholic women priests, for example. And if the official church disagrees, it’s the church’s problem with obsolete doctrine.

    But I too would like to sit down with the President over a cup of tea and talk religion. And I also agree that it’s no part of his official duties to do so. Presidents are not chosen on the basis of theological doctrine and God willing they never will be.

  • Julia

    Anyone can believe whatever they want. After all, we have Catholic women priests, for example. And if the official church disagrees, it’s the church’s problem with obsolete doctrine.

    I can believe I’m the senior US Senator from Illinois and I doubt if I would be let on the floor of the Senate much less be allowed to vote. Only the official Senate decides who is seated, no matter who thinks their rules are obsolete.

    It’s true that you can believe anything you want, but that doesn’t make it so in the real world.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Julia –

    It’s true that you can believe anything you want, but that doesn’t make it so in the real world.

    “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

  • Bram

    One example of that reality to which Mr. Dick refers is God.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    TERRY:

    It’s a totally congregational, free church flock. They can believe whatever they want.

    Sorry – but that’s a factual error. The UCC has both Reformed and congregationalist roots–not free church roots. The correct term for the UCC would be non-creedal.

    Full disclosure – I am a long time member of the Evangelical Covenant Church (a free church where I learned the creeds) – which is part of the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches .

  • Chandler Stone III

    One slight thing to quibble with… if you listen closely to the clip, Obama says “unequities”, rather than “iniquities”… I don’t know if this was another example of his problems with pronouncing / knowing certain words or if this was a Freudian slip… or maybe, in view of his social justice / social gospel stance, he may have actually felt justified in changing scripture (?)

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    What is striking here is the comments, not the coverage. I’ve read the whole remarks (they are quite short) and what I see here in the comments is a lot of projection onto Obama of theological liberalism which I simply do not see in the text. If you take what he says at face value, there is nothing unorthodox or hedging in it.

    It is striking how pejoratively people have come to interpret presidential religion. I don’t know that Spong does still say the creed, but be that as it may, I cannot see a reason why I should take a cleric who has made a career of theological controversialism and use his heresies as the model for a president who, after all, isn’t a theologian.

    If one looks further on the UCC website, they do list the historic creeds; I would interpret that as commending them in some sense, even if they are not upheld as standards of belief.

    I really don’t see any serious problems with the coverage, except maybe that someone eventually needs to try to chase down the “Obama is a Muslim” whispering campaign. But that’s a bigger-than-a-prayer-breakfast investigation.

  • Harold

    what I see here in the comments is a lot of projection onto Obama of theological liberalism which I simply do not see in the text.

    Amen. There’s the kind of generalizing and dismissiveness that would never be tolerated if we were talking about a Christian traditionalist.

  • Jon in the Nati

    projection onto Obama of theological liberalism which I simply do not see in the text. If you take what he says at face value, there is nothing unorthodox or hedging in it.

    Quite so. A lot of people are reading into the text things that simply are not there. The thinking may be that Obama *must* be a extremely liberal theologically because he is a political liberal, or because he belongs to a very liberal church body (within which, it goes without saying, there are a variety of viewpoints on virtually everything), or even because some people believe that he is not a Christian, but a Muslim or something else entirely.

    All of those things may be true (though I highly doubt the last one is) but based on what he said in this particular venue (where he was doubtless being more overtly theological for the sake of the occasion) we have no real reason to believe he is anything but sincere in his beliefs as he has articulated them.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I agree, Jon. There seems to be an assumption that if there appears to be a discrepancy between the president’s political positions and his theology, he must be faking the theology. This was not a fundamentally (pardon the expression) political event; Obama was appearing in his capacity as titular head of America rather than as political administrator. His words should therefore be judged in the former light.

    Of course, we know how good media outlets tend to be at distinguishing between religious belief and political leanings. :)

  • David WL

    I understand the position of bob smietana that the UCC is probably best described as “non-creedal”.

    But one must also be aware that the UCC has a strong “high church” creedal tradition in all of its branches: German Reformed, Evangelical (itself a transplantation of a European Reformed-Lutheran union) and Congregationalist (heir to the Puritans).

    Yes, the UCC “has come a long way,” but at least one or two of its theologians–Gabriel Fackre comes to mind most immediately–would defend the UCC as having creedal foundations.

  • david carlson

    I thought this was a blog about reporting? You guys need a moderater to cut down on the trash.

    Getting to reporting of the event – Rush did a real hatchet job on the presidents speach, taking a small portion and blowing it up to imply, as usual, the president is goofy.

  • Bram

    A simple way to clear up any potential misperceptions about the President’s views on theology would be for someone simply to ask him what they are and for him to then explain. In response to the questions I initially proposed, if the President does indeed believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, he could simply say “Yes, I do;” and if the President does indeed believe that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus Christ, he could simply say “Yes, I do.” As an addendum, if he also does indeed believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, he likewise could simply say “Yes, I do.” You’ll note that I’m not assuming anything one way or another about what his answers would be. Precisely because I can’t presume to know, I would like for the questions to be asked, if the President is going to discuss his theology at all, which he has chosen to do.

  • Gail F

    Many of the comments here are bizarre. We are supposed to be discussing the press coverage of his speech, not our personal opinions about whether he believes what he said or not. I am surprised by what he said (the most concrete religious thing that I have ever read about him having said), and surprised that it was not more widely reported, as people are supposedly interested in his beliefs. But journalists are probably not interested in that, and probably don’t think that anyone cares about the Easter breakfast. After all, his Passover message to Jews was bizarre but was not well covered. This was less controversial and thus less interesting.

  • Herb Brasher

    I’m curious as to whether these specific quotes came up in network TV or on talk radio, which would seem to be the major sources of current events analysis for a lot of Americans–and I would venture to guess also the reason that confusion still reigns over Obama’s religious affiliation. I don’t spend much time looking or listening to either one, but maybe someone else who does will know.

    My favorite source of news analysis is the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, which has absolutely nothing on this topic–surprising in a way, since that paper is pretty sensitive to religious topics. Still, Europeans think the U.S. is kind of bizarre when it comes to the topic of a political leader’s religious views.

  • BOB

    Obama could recite the Westminster Confession from memory on national TV and conservatives would insist he had his fingers crossed the entire time.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Friends,

    There are more than enough media issues to keep us busy. Please keep comments focused on journalism. Thank you.

  • Herb Brasher

    There are more than enough media issues to keep us busy. Please keep comments focused on journalism. Thank you.

    I was honestly trying to ask about the media coverage, and didn’t want to come across condescendingly, though it appears Bram took it that way.

    Knowing that GetReligion focuses on media coverage, I wanted to ask as to whether anyone heard or saw anything on TV or radio coverage that made reference to these central statements of Obama’s faith. Somehow I can’t quite imagine Brian Williams or Katie Couric quoting him here, but maybe they did.

    Judging from some of the analyses out there, TV and radio are the biggest sources of news for Americans. To me, that would explain why people think what they do about Obama’s religious affiliation — that is if TV and radio are not giving full accounts of his statements on the subject. I doubt that they are, but maybe somebody knows.

    Or are we only allowed to ask about, or make reference to, written journalism reports? Just wondering, because I do want to keep within GetReligion’s boundaries.

  • Justin

    Maybe the reason people are dismissive of the President’s theological language, is because he seems to affirm a variety of religions depending upon the situation.

    Therefore, whatever he says is interpreted as just political talk, not theological.

    This might be the reason it isn’t covered as heavily in the media as well. When you talk out of multiply sides of your mouth about various religions, praising each one, then little significance is attached to affirming Christianity at an Easter celebration. It is merely par for the course.

  • bob

    For all the yahoos who think the president has a confession outside the Christian tent (and it can be a pretty big tent) consider that a Muslim wouldn’t believe Jesus was crucified whether or not he was raised from the dead afterward . That’s an item a religion reporter might have mentioned as a side issue.

  • http://gabrielfackre.com Gabriel Fackre

    The president’s phrase”… his Son and our Savior” echoes the Preamble to the United Church of Christ Constitution, one of whose sentences reads: “The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior”. “Son” and “Savior” are shorthand for the teachings of Incarnation and Atonement, both of which are suggested by
    other sentences in his brief confession.
    –Gabriel Fackre


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