Pod people: Why can’t folks get Obama’s faith?

For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many Americans struggle to understand that President Barack Obama is a perfectly ordinary liberal Protestant Christian.

I also do not understand why, whenever I write about this, so many Obama supporters send me email accusing me of attacking the president by saying this.

Then again, I also do not understand why, whenever I write about this, so many people who oppose Obama send me email insisting that I am attacking Christianity when I note that Obama has frequently made public professions of his Christian faith.

Clearly, there are lots of things I do not understand about this whole issue.

You can hear that confusion quite easily in this week’s GetReligion podcast. This is a confusing situation and, at the end of the podcast, I can understand if listeners are more confused than they were before the thing started. Nevertheless, I do hope you’ll give it a listen.

The discussion spins around that recent Gallup Poll (click here for the details) noting that 11 percent of the nation’s population remains convinced that their president is some kind of secret Muslim. Hey, cheer up. It wasn’t that long ago when 18 percent believed that.

However, let me stress that it wasn’t the whole “Obama is a Muslim” angle in this new poll that fired me up — to the point of writing another Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic.

Nope, what amazed me was this number — 44 percent of the Americans contacted in this new Gallup effort simply answered “I don’t know” when asked to identify Obama’s faith. This is roughly 137 million Americans. Say what?

At first glance, it was rather nice to find out that 52 percent of Democrats know that their leader is a Protestant Christian. But stop and think about that. Since 6 percent of Democrats elected to join HBO skeptic Bill Maher in his insistence that Obama is faking his faith (thus, selecting the “none/no religion” option), this would imply that somewhere around 40 percent (I’m leaving out some of the other smaller subgroups) of the nation’s DEMOCRATS cannot identify Obama’s faith. For those who are curious, 2 percent accurately linked him to the United Church of Christ.

By point of comparison, what percent of Republicans do you think would have answered “I don’t know” when asked whether George W. Bush was a Christian, an unbeliever or whatever? I’ve been trying to find out if a pollster ever even bothered to ask that question, but I cannot seem to come up with the right search terms to plug into Google. I would be stunned if the chunk of GOP folks that said Bush the younger was a Christian of some sort was under 90 percent. Heck, I would assume that just about the same percentage of DEMOCRATS would have said the same thing, with some of them saying he was some kind of theocratic Reconstructionist (as opposed to being a rather normal United Methodist from Bible Belt territory).

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind. This is all so confusing.

The larger question, for Team Obama, is what all of this means heading into another election. But for me the key question is what this puzzle says about America. Thus, I called up a writer — an expert on advertising — who has done some thinking and writing about Obama, branding, religion and politics. His name is Mark Edward Taylor and he is the author of “Branding Obama: The Rise of an American Idol.” Here’s a clip or two from the end of that Scripps column:

We pick up with Obama’s surge into national politic, after his years of schooling in Chicago politics:

By the time he went national, these lessons had been fused into a powerful advertising formula driven by the words “change,” “hope” and “believe.” In his book, Taylor says the key is that the “believe” component centered on Obama’s image, talent and personal story — not a creed. The candidate offered “himself to America,” rather than political or religious specifics.

“At no time did Obama declare, ‘I am the Messiah.’ Every time he stepped into the spotlight, though, he talked and acted like one,” argued Taylor. “Obama created a messianic personality by being messianic. … He preached justice, righteousness and compassion. He proclaimed the end of war and peace among nations. He prophesied the healing of the planet. Obama never told the American people that he was their Savior. He showed them his plan for redemption.”

This take on faith rings true for millions of Americans.

Then again, millions of other people reject 99 percent of the Godtalk that emerges from Obama’s mouth. Some of these people, for sure, are numbered among those who believe he is a secret Muslim or some kind of atheist/agnostic in hiding.

Then again, many others simply think that he is not a “real” Christian, according to their definition of the term “Christian.” Many people (and, trust me, they write lots of emails) say that they can tell that Obama is not a real Christian because he has the wrong beliefs. The fact that his beliefs are perfectly consistent with his Christian denomination is irrelevant, it seems. In other words, he is not part of a “real” church.

… (Millions) millions of other Americans balk at Obama’s privatized definition of “sin” as “being out of alignment with my values.” In that same 2004 interview with journalist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said he was unsure about heaven and hell, but 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.”

Taylor is convinced this division — between two very different views of faith — is what keeps showing up in poll results about Obama and religion.

“All I know is that Obama recently played his 100th round of golf on a Sunday morning. I don’t know if he went to church that Sunday morning or not,” he said. “When we look at these poll numbers, perhaps what we are really seeing is the result of what these Americans think about religious faith. What they say about Obama may tell us as much or more about them as it does about Obama.”


Good. That means that you’ll enjoy the podcast.

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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.

  • Chris Pinson

    C’mon, Terry, are you really confused? Obama may check a box and may have sat in a UCC church for a while, but it is quite obvious why 1) the commentariat would be discussing the true nature of his (limply) professed faith and 2) why the American public would not be certain about the same. I know what Obama claims, and I know the denominational affiliation of his Chicago church, so I guess with those facts, I could characterize him the way you have (“a perfectly ordinary liberal Protestant Christian”). But I wouldn’t. For a couple of reasons. First, Obama doesn’t represent the “ordinary” mainliner, I don’t think. Those dwindling few who still attend a mainline church are considerably less politically and theologically radical than their leadership, and certainly less radical than Obama. He is on the far fringe, hardly “oridinary.” So far on the fringe, that questions about his faith (which he only seems to deploy when politically necessary) are legitimate. He causes the confusion. Second words matter. Protestant actually means something and Christian means even more.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    I think a reason many people might say they don’t know what the President’s religion results from his reluctance to affirm the resurrection of Jesus. Most people who call themselves Christians can not think of a person who does not believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead as a fellow Christian. So, if I was asked the question, “What is President Obama’s religion?” I would probably say “I don’t know”.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    tmatt -

    You might be getting grief over “perfectly ordinary liberal protestant” because they are no more monolithic than Catholics or Muslims. You could probably construct a taxonomy by considering such factors as theology (some are creedally orthodox) and piety. For example, a Methodist like Hillary Clinton seems to have a different sort of piety as Pres. Obama, or Pres. Bush 43 (a fellow Methodist). It would, I think, fair to describe all of the living presidents – Carter, both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama – as “perfectly ordinary liberal protestants, but for different reasons and in different ways.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Meant to note: whether the Obamas go to church is really irrelevant. If memory serves, the Bushes (43) didn’t go that much. If I were president, I would ask a Catholic priest come in to say Mass and avoid burdening a parish. That’s been the thinking of several presidents if I remember.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    And, as I remember, Reagan was denounced by “liberals” as a hypocrite because he did not spend Sunday going to services where he could be a target for mob “protests”. But Obama seems to get a pass on this too.

  • Jack Swan

    One thing that’s really pretty funny in the poll was that 2% of Americans, which is about 6 million people (and 3% of Republicans!) thought the President was Catholic. You can almost see the thought process — “Hmm, I’ve read something recently about the President and Catholics, I can’t recall what it was, but it must mean he’s one of them, because they’re always squabbling among themselves”.

  • Kevin

    Test comment

  • Roberto

    Several possible reasons come to mind:

    One, thirty-plus years of the culture wars have taught many people to view Christianity in political, not theological terms. For them, to call the president a “liberal Protestant Christian” is to say something about his politics, not his religious beleifs.

    Two, those same thirty-plus years have seen a corresponding narrowing of what is meant or at least understand by the word “Christian.” When you and I were growing up “Christian” was applied to a broad spectrum of beliefs. Folk may have thought that the National Council of Churches was (even more so the World Council of Churches) was wrong about many important things, but people didn’t deny that they were Christian in some way.

    The culture wars have demolished that consensus. The political rise of evangelicalism has been accompanied by a an understand of who is or is not a Christian. That’s not to say that non-Evangelicals aren’t seen as Christians, but that the definition of “Christian” is increasingly seen through an evangelical lens. Even stuff like ECT and the Manhattan Declaration are written in language that is a kind of dialect of “Evangelicalese,” or, perhaps, a closely-related sister tongue. (an analogy is the way that, while I can’t speak Catala, it’s kinship with Castellano llows me to read Catala newswpapers.)

    Given these changes and developments, it’s no surprise that people have trouble grokking the idea that Obama is a Christian of some kind.

  • sk

    It also raises the question of how important or irrelevant a candidate’s faith is for voters. It seems a lot of people voted for Obama in spite of his religion and the confusion surrounding it.

  • Central Texan

    There are a couple of perceptions that dog Pres. Obama with regards to his religion beyond those yet discussed. One is that we don’t see any sort of Christian upbringing in his childhood or from his mother or with any specificity from his grandparents. Another aspect is that he only started attending Rev. Wright’s church in Chicago for the benefits of political connection rather than personal conviction.

    When these perceptions are coupled with our sense that Obama couldn’t care less if he found a church to attend in Washington we tend to think he doesn’t really have any religious inclinations.

  • Rod

    As has been stated above, different Christian audiences view this issue in widely differnt ways. I’ll touch upon the evangelical viewpoint primarily for my comment. I agree with Roberto’s comment regarding how the culture wars have changed the environment wherein these discussions are rooted: “The political rise of evangelicalism has been accompanied by an understand of who is or is not a Christian.” However, his generous comment: “That’s not to say that non-Evangelicals aren’t seen as Christians…” does not reflect the conversations that go on around in my segment of the culture. I know many who count themselves as Evangelicals, who condemn from the pulpit, podcast, and radio, non-Evangelicals; and label them as false believers condemning them to hell. Other Evangelicals are much more subtle when they draw a theological circle in the sand (completely encircling themselves) and state clearly that the Truth is within the circle, and all of those who beliefs fall outside the circle are lost. This insidious insistence of “being right” or “containing the True Truth“, leads to a degree of bickering, infighting, and slander that convinces non Christians that Christianity is fallen and corrupt.

    So, yes there is confusion among some about whether Obama is truly Christian, and the definition of who is truly Christian varies widely within the various groups that range across the entire continuum of Christian belief. Both the actions and words of President Obama become important to the multiple groups who ingest both actions and words to pronounce the degree of his Christianity. And those pronouncements provide a clear vision into the internal beliefs of each group, a mirror if you will, reflecting as much about themselves(if not more) than about the one being judged.

  • Roger Robins

    The reluctance or outright refusal of militantly orthodox Protestants to bestow the label “Christian” on their liberal counterparts is as old as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, and actually much, much older. It reflects a deeply ingrained impulse that you can trace to the earliest generations of Christians. Of course, in this tendency Christians are no different from most other religious families.

  • David

    I think Barack Obama can be understood best in the context of the equally misunderstood Jeremiah Wright, his pastor of many years. Obviously Obama had a “Wright problem” in 2008 and had to create political distance. But Wright was/is simply a “normal” spokesman of black liberation theology, which adopts the Old Testament prophets as its primary scripture. Prophecy in the Bible has nothing to do with predicting the future, but rather is to be understood as the process of declaring uncomfortable truth to those in power. The prophets’ message to the various kings of Israel was this: “Bring social justice to this land or God will bring his wrath down upon your head.” In Wright’s version: “This country better work towards social justice or “God damn America.” I totally agree. What could be more biblical than that?

    As president, Obama is very much on a mission of social justice in this sense and so he may very well be the ultimate liberal Christian and the embodiment of Wright’s words translated into action. This makes him arguably the most faith-driven president in history–precisely the opposite of a fake Christian. But sadly, it’s true that Americans are completely clueless about liberal Christianity. What’s worse, I have attended liberal churches and find a majority of liberal Christians are clueless about themselves!

  • Daniel

    Some of the 2 percent who say that they think he’s Catholic are small enough to be attributed to jokers who submit humorous responses to polls. A more cogent question is why we take polls so seriously. Even if minor one trend to which I can attribute the large number of survey sites is that a few people are entertained by taking polls and surveys.

  • northcoast

    I don’t expect that we are likely to see anything written about President Obama that would compare to this article about President G. W. Bush.


    David, while liberation theology is about social justice, does social justice have to be about Christianity? It seems to me that the politics of liberation theology makes for some very strange bedfellows.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber baber

    I agree with Bill Maher: Obama is an atheist. That’s what demographics suggest. Both his parents were PhDs and atheists—his mother in anthropology no less, one of the academic disciplines least sympathetic to (conventional) religion. Obama himself was sometime academic, teaching at U of Chi Law School and the very model of an elite, educated upper middle class urban-coastal “knowledge worker.”

    People in that demographic are very, very rarely religious believers—even liberal Protestant religious believers. I know because I’m an academic and most people I know are atheists. The very term “atheist” sounds stange: people talk about “theists” because that religious belief, rather than unbelief is a peculiarity amongst my friends and colleagues. So on demographics alone there’s a strong prima facie case for Obama’s being an atheist.

    And he hasn’t done anything to defeat that prima facie case. He cynically surrounded himself with fundamentalist “pastors” like Rick Warren, assuming that the only people who were religious were Evangelicals. And his anthropological remarks about people who “cling to guns and religion” said it all: he is patronizing to religious people. He assumes we’re all uneducated lower class Evangelicals and is making religious noises, as a politician, to play to us groundlings, us ignorant, superstitious hoi polloi. Like all other members of the secular elite, he assumes we’re credulous, ignorant and uneducated—and so easily manipulable by his team–and is contemptuous of all of us.

    I’m a left-liberal Democrat. I voted for him and will vote for him again because I vote for the party and the policies—not the man. But Obama as a human being, and hypocrite, makes me sick.

  • Suzanne

    Finally, we have an answer to the rhetorical question: Is the Pope Catholic?

    Based on this type of posting, the answer, obviously, is “I don’t know, let’s take a poll and find out.”