Got news? Obama on his personal theology

Gentle readers, I have spent much of the day dodging tornadoes and hail on the interstate from Jackson, Tenn., to Guitar Town and I am exhausted. It will take all the energy I have left to type a few paragraphs that will point GetReligion readers toward one of the must-read journalistic items of the day.

It will be very interesting to see how much hard-news coverage this item gets, as opposed to blogging and editorial columns. I know it will draw coverage from religious websites — right and left. I am curious to see what coverage it gets in the mainstream.

It’s an interview in which a younger Barack Obama describes himself as precisely what your GetReligionistas have called him all along. He is, of course, a Christian. He is a liberal, mainline Protestant Christian who is a perfect fit in the United Church of Christ, the freewheeling, free-church, highly congregational denomination that — in its elite leadership class — defines the candid left edge of church life in America. We’re talking out there a notch to the left of the Episcopal Church hierarchy.

Is Obama Trinitarian? Hard to tell. Is he a Universalist? Totally. What is his ultimate standard for doctrinal authority? What’s where this interview could make news.

The 2004 interview has been posted by Sojourners, a magazine on the left (on most issues). Here is how it is described by Baptist Press, a denominational news service on the right.

The one-hour interview by Cathleen Falsani was conducted when Obama was running for U.S. Senate, several months before he was introduced to the country during his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. At the time, Falsani was a religion reporter for the Chicago-Sun Times. Although the interview formed part of a book (“The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People”), much of Obama’s answers were not included in it.

The Baptist Press overview of the contents ends with this edgy comment:

Obama was not asked about his beliefs on the deity of Christ or the resurrection.

I noticed that, too. Well, some might see the following quotation as a comment on Christology.

Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.

Obviously, different journalists are going to focus on different quotes in this flashback session. However, here are the quotes that strike me as the most newsworthy, the ones that could produce the most interesting debate.

It really isn’t news that Obama believes that all of the world’s religions are paths to the top of the same mountain. However, here is the younger Obama — as he steps onto the national stage for the first time — discussing “sin.” This discussion grows out of a question about heaven, which follows a discussion of hell.

Falsani: Do you believe in heaven?

OBAMA: Do I believe in the harps and clouds and wings?

Falsani: A place spiritually you go to after you die?

OBAMA: What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.

When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people, and they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.

Falsani: Do you believe in sin?

OBAMA: Yes.

Falsani: What is sin?

OBAMA: Being out of alignment with my values.

Falsani: What happens if you have sin in your life?

OBAMA: I think it’s the same thing as the question about heaven. In the same way that if I’m true to myself and my faith that that is its own reward, when I’m not true to it, it’s its own punishment.

It would be very, very hard to find a perspective that would mesh better with sociologist James Davison Hunter’s concept of the personal, interior, evolving, experiential concept of a “progressive camp” concept of morality and religious authority (as opposed to the camp of the “orthodox”).

Rather than post comments arguing about the content of Obama’s faith, please discuss whether or not you think mainstream reporters will cover this interview AS NEWS. Why “yes” or why “no”?

Commence.

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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.

  • Martha

    Will they cover it as news? No.

    Why? Because (to quote the journalism professor of the University of Iowa(, it’s not an event that is breaking – it dates all the way back to 2004.

    It’s not controversial – it’s pleasant, mannerly ‘Christianity as social work’ expression of values that doesn’t dream of imposing any doctrine or dogma(apart from the niceness of being nice) on others.

    It probably resonates with many of those inside the media – this is how religion is supposed to be, private beliefs kept to the private domain of home and family, all condensed down to the bare essentials of what Chesterton represented as “the Usual Article” (the message of Christ was Love and it is humans in the form of churches who have muddled that simple message up with churches and dogmas and divisions about trifles).

    So no, unless President Obama suddenly declares that he’s been born-again and now believes in original sin, total depravity, and the four last things, there won’t be a word about this.

  • Martha

    tmatt, I’m glad you’re alive and well, and to all those who are in the path of the tornadoes – I hope you will likewise come out of it safe and well!

  • Jeff

    “Yes” *and* “No.”

    Yes, they will cover it to show that Obama is “devout” quote-unquote, a “pious” Christian, and that therefore his attack on the Catholic Church is no attack at all.

    No, they will not cover it in any real depth, because they do not, under any circumstances, want to raise the obvious questions of whether or not Obama actually believes in a personal God, in the divinity of Christ, in the Resurrection, in an afterlife, et al.

    The story will be used to establish or reestablish Obama’s bona fides as some sort of Christian.

    But what sort of Christian he is — the kind who “values” it all as a set of “inspiring” “myths” and “metaphors” or the kind who really believes it — is a can of worms the MSM does not want to open at all.

    The interview opens the obvious question of whether Obama believes it or not and clearly suggests that he very well may not — and that is not at all the kind of message that the MSM will want to send out about their favored candidate, especially to Protestant African-American Democrats and Catholic Latino Democrats, in an election year.

  • tmatt

    Martha:

    News is news when it is new.

    This information is new, in terms of anyone other than the reporter knowing about, and very relevant to debates about Obama that are IN THE NEWS.

  • Bullschuck

    Still, this has all been published before. I remember his comment about sin specifically. Why is it news now?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    No. Read the piece.

    Their questions were not printed at the time.

  • Bob Smietana

    Hi Terry

    Glad to hear you survived the storms. Welcome back to the Bible Belt.

    This post makes me feel old. I read the Obama interview in 2004 in the Sun Times while sitting at the former Hot Dog Pit at the corner of Foster and Troy on the North Side of Chicago. Back then I worked for a religious magazine and Cathleen was a secular religion reporter. We’ve swapped places now.

    The God Factor series, which was fabulous, was aimed more at how politicians and celebrities lived their faith not their doctrine. It’s no surprise that question of theology aren’t answered.
    I do wish Cathleen had asked Obama when he’d been baptized – if that happened after his born again, altar call experience. What’s very interesting is that Baptist Press left out Obama conversion story.
    The transcript is not news, however. It was published in 2008, by Steve Waldman at beliefnet.com.

  • Bob Smietana

    She also published in the summer of 2008 on her blog..
    Cathleen also discussed the interview on CNN in 2010.

  • Mike O.

    To your question I say no. A politician’s beliefs are usually considered news when it can be used to gauge his future actions if elected or how the public will react to that person come voting time. The candidates for the upcoming presidential election have not only brought up their faith themselves but the media has as well. This communicates to the public (often concisely) what policies they are for or against. That’s treated as news.

    No matter where anyone’s opinion lands for Obama, he now has a track record of policies he is for and against. Nothing he says regarding religion (e.g. his stance on arianism, triclavianism, etc.) is going to increase or decrease anybody’s opinion of him at this point. Therefore it’s not going to be treated as news.

  • http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/ Wintery Knight

    I wrote a similar post one day before your post:
    http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/is-barack-obama-a-christian-does-he-believe-in-christianity/

    Might is a little harsher than yours.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Did they at any time ask Obama what he means by “God”?

  • JoeS

    It sounds a lot like Moralistic therapeutic deism. The mainstream press are unlikely to pick apart MTD because it is a very popular form of nominal Christianity – which appeals to every type of modern demographic (except religious “purists”). The media aren’t going to rush to criticize MTD anymore than the music industry is going to diss Adele. It sells.

  • Susan

    If I may, I would like to ask if the transcript shows how his religious beliefs are in line with his assault on religious freedom? Wouldn’t the imposition of his own conscience about religious “values” upon us at the expense of or violation of other’s consciences about religious “values” be serious news story?

  • Jeff

    Joe S.,

    MTD sells, but it also serves the MSM’s political ends.

    It offers versions of “Christianity” and the other religions in which the altars have been stripped of anything that might offend the MSM or frustrate its political goals — stripped that is, of any theological substance at all, as in the case of Obama’s vaguely New Age musings above.

    Those New Age versions of “Christianity” and the other religions can then be used as sticks with which to beat the “purists,” the orthodox, the faithful — the “bitter-clingers” in Obama’s own term.

    The beating can proceed apace with MTD as a fig leaf to protect those doing the beating from the charge of persecution, whether anti-Christian or whatever other sort.

    The person doing the beating (say, Obama) can claim that he is just as religious (let’s say Christian) as the person or people he is beating with his stick (let’s say The Catholic Church, maybe next the Evangelical churches, and on down the line).

    Therefore, the MSM can argue that the person beating others with a stick can claim that he is doing no such thing, and that he is not violating anybody’s religious liberty — “pious” and “devout” “man of faith” that he is.

    That what he is “pious” about is what Obama himself calls “my values” — MY values not God’s virtues — is a matter that the MSM would like us all to ignore.

  • http://www.godgrrl.com Falsani

    Just one point of clarification for my once-upon-a-time co-religionists at BP: “Although the interview formed part of a book (“The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People”), much of Obama’s answers were not included in it.”

    Nope. Sorry. Patently not true. The bulk of the March 2004 interview is included in the book (2006) and even in slightly more detail in the book than in its original form in the Sun-Times (April 2004).

    Promise.

  • Jeff

    Susan,

    You make an excellent point.

    In terms of Obama’s own theology, what the HHS mandate aims at forcing other people to do is to “sin,” to act in ways that contradict “[their] values.”

    I suspect, though, the only “values” it is “sinful” to contradict in Obama’s eyes are “MY values” — Obama’s own.

    Obama doesn’t want to contradict his values, nor does he want other people to.

    And he will FORCE other people to comply with his values, using all the power that he has at his disposal as President of the United States.

    The only conscience clause is the one that protects Obama and those who agree with Obama from committing Obama’s kind of “sin” — everyone else has no protection at all because their consciences don’t matter at all.

    They are just “bitter-clingers” — they don’t matter to him, they are not like him, he doesn’t like them, so they don’t exist.

    Now, of course, to tie this back in to the journalism, this view of things that I attribute to Obama is also the view of the MSM.

    They agree with him and he agrees with them and they are cuddled up together in bed.

  • Susan

    Jeff,

    Point well taken about the MSM being in bed with Obama’s administration. I would still need to ask, “What about the conservative news agencies like National Review or Weekly Standard?” Are there any conservative news agencies who could point out that the President is not a Pope?

  • Susan

    Apologies, if my questions are sounding too strongly phrased or I am misunderstanding the problem. I am very baffled and perplexed by the idea that there would be no news agencies who would be willing to report this conflict of interest (Obama’s religious beliefs trumping religious freedom) fairly.

  • Jeff

    Susan,

    The “conservative” quote-unquote news outlets are not outright hostile to religion like the MSM, but they are more or less indifferent. Religious news is not the kind of news that matters most to them. They are much more interested in economics and foreign policy. Their focus is movement “conservatism” first, then the Republican party, and anything having to do with religion or culture only afterwards, and very much less than those.

  • Martha

    tmatt, I’ll ask you a question in return.

    Do you think any tv interviewer, radio talk show host, newspaper reporter or periodical columnist is going to ask President Obama if his imposition of the HHS mandate on the Catholic Church institutions is backed up by his religious convictions on conscience or the morality of contraception (including sterilisation)?

    In other words, will any element of the media cast it as Protestant versus Catholic?

  • Mark Baddeley

    I think “no”, for many of the kinds of reasons listed here.

    But I’ll ask a question in return – genuine, not a “statement masquerading as a question”.

    Why did you entitle the post, “Obama on his personal theology?” That seems to be encoding an interpretation of progressive theology into the title (one I agree with, but that’s neither here nor there). Would we speak of the Pope, a conservative Southern Baptist, an Orthodox priest, or a classic Trinitarian non-denominational Bible church pastor as having a ‘personal’ theology? Or just ‘their’ theology?

    “personal” seems to suggest to me that Obama’s theology is grounded in nothing beyond his own religious and moral insight and intuition – no authority beyond himself, no more objective theology that he submits to. (Would we speak of Obama’s “personal” view of mathematics or science?) Unless he wants to clearly say that about himself, is it the role of a journalist to say that for him in the title?

  • Bob Smietana

    Mark Baddeley

    I am sure that TMatt will answer for him but “personal theology” fit this interview. It was part of a newspaper series on how public leader live out and experience their faith– it was not a series on doctrine or practice.

    Bob S

  • Ken

    Clearly its not news.
    Its human interest filler stuff and, as pointed out here, old material regurgitated.

    In this country frankly its none of our business anyway, as the Constitution clearly states “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”. Most the founding fathers would not even discuss religion beyond the generic ‘deism’ rhetoric, and deliberately so as they recognized they were founding an institution where men, and now women, individually were free to believe as they chose. Jefferson never disclosed his private beliefs, and only well after his death was made public his personally edited version of the bible with all the supernatural and hocus-pocus deleted. People are judged on their actions, not what they believe or profess.

    Yes, this might be news to those who believe our president is a Muslim or was not born in this country, but those folks probably can never be convinced of their own ignorance or prejudice.

  • http://jaydinitto.com Jay DiNitto

    To me, whether or not he is a true Christian is irrelevant, because there is something unsettling about any religious person seeking coercive, secular power the way politicians and aspiring politicians do.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Why should it be news? Why should it be important what, if anything, the POTUS believes/doesn’t believe when it comes to her/his personal theology?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    My choice of the word “personal” was quite literal. He is part of the free-church tradition and the ultimate point of authority for his beliefs is — personal.

  • A Different Matt

    The existence of this thread–which I see tmatt is monitoring–gives the lie to the conceit that Get Religion is some sort of journalism blog. Allowing a forum for posters to trash President Obama for insufficient theological orthodoxy strikes me as a decidedly different purpose than analyzing media failures to “get religion.” It high time that someone associated with this site have the intellectual honesty to admit that is not about journalism; it is about promoting a particular kind of conservative Christianity. Claims to the contrary violate the ninth commandment.

  • Jeff

    Calm down and cool it with your vapors, A Different Matt.

    The mainstream media is in bed with the President of the United States.

    The President of the United states in engaged in a kulturkampf against the Catholic Church and others forms of orthodox religion the adherents of which object on conscientious grounds to certain aspects of his healthcare plan.

    The President describes his own effort not to “sin” against his conscience.

    Yet he refuses to allow a conscience clause in his healthcare plan for Catholics and others who also would rather not sin.

    This moral inconsistency could … I repeat *could* … be owing to the fact the President may … I repeat *may* … regard his own religion and religious concepts like “sin” as aspects of “inspiring myth and metaphor” rather than spiritual realities with an actual existence that provides a fixed moral foundation for how we should behave.

    You can’t talk about the journalism without talking about the journalist’s support for the President and his politics, and you can’t talk about those politics in this particular case without talking about the President’s religion and the heterodox theology on which it *may* to be based.

    This matter is as serious as any could be.

    It bears on the future of the country and the viability of its democracy because it bears upon among our foremost liberties and rights — a right that is now under threat from the President.

    Given those realities, I find it astonishing that you keep calling for the writers here at Get Religion to censor both themselves and the rest of us, just because you, unlike most others here, are not in favor of an open debate.

    If you want a closed debate — and a closed debate within the bounds of your own ideology — there are many, many places you can find one on the internet.

    Perhaps you should consider one of those, instead of this.

    All the best. Have a nice day.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    A Different Matt:

    Actually, there are MANY comments on this thread I normally would not have allowed to go up.

    However, I was on the road most of yesterday and today, after I put this one up. There is a long, long gap between No. 4 and this one.

    In this case, I also — clearly — did not know that almost all of the interview transcript had been posted at Beliefnet and elsewhere.

    I was away from keys and couldn’t fix that either.

    So, all in all, a thread that is not what we like around here.

    My apologies to all.

  • Susan

    Mr. Mattingly,

    No apologies needed on my account. I very much appreciated the post and embedded links. I apologize if my comments were ones that you would have disallowed.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/bjmora/rpdenom/Reflist.html BJ Mora

    A current interview would be news.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Hi tmatt, Re:

    My choice of the word “personal” was quite literal. He is part of the free-church tradition and the ultimate point of authority for his beliefs is — personal.

    Is this how Obama would describe his understanding of the source of authority in his theology? Would he say that he is the ultimate point of authority for his beliefs?

    If not (and I don’t know), is it journalistically okay to describe his theology that way in the title? (Either generally, or in this specific situation and ones like it.) I’d gotten the impression from GetReligion posts that that is a bit of misdemeanor, but I could have misunderstood.