Is Obama a self-professed evangelical?

Normally I criticize the media for its single-minded obsession and focus on politics. A journalist friend on the political beat recently suggested that most media has become a trade press for the political class and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. But even I get very excited about political conventions. Since I was a child — and yes, I was a weird child — I absolutely loved listening to political speeches at conventions. I can still quote certain lines from speeches Ronald Reagan and Jesse Jackson delivered at conventions in the 1980s.

There were many interesting speeches last night, as I’m sure there will be at next week’s Democratic Convention. The ones receiving the most attention are of course Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez’s. They each had snippets of religion in them, but not so much that they would be a focus of the media coverage.

But there was another speech that focused on religion and I find the media coverage of it to be interesting in two ways. Let’s just look at how the Associated Press treated it:

Former pastor and one-time presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee says he wants to clear the air about whether “guys like me — an evangelical — would only support a fellow evangelical.”

“Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama,” Huckabee told the GOP convention. “And he supports changing the definition of marriage; believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb, even beyond the womb; and tells people of faith that they must bow their knees to the god of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls health care.”

Referring to the Republican nominee’s Mormon faith, former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee said: “I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country.”

Yes, that was womb, not “wound,” Chris Hayes. My first point is that I find it mildly interesting how little play this speech has gotten. It wasn’t even one of the top three speeches of the night, either in quality or performance. Still, I can’t help but think it was important. The media have done a fairly good job of highlighting and emphasizing the oddity of evangelicals getting behind a Mormon candidate. I’m neither an evangelical nor someone who understands Mike Huckabee’s appeal, but I know enough evangelicals to know that this kind of direct explanation of why they could and should support Romney is key to many. It may not be worth the immediate morning-after coverage we’re seeing of the other speeches, but I do hope the media aren’t too blind to its importance.

The second thing, though, and it might be related, is that I would love an explanation of this “self-professed evangelical” line. When I’ve heard President Obama speak about his Christian faith, which I’ve had the opportunity to hear in person and in public interviews, I’m not sure if I recall him calling himself an evangelical.

Am I being too literal? Was Huckabee just using the term “evangelical” very loosely, trying to make the point that Obama has given testimony about his faith in Christ? Do any of us even know what the term “evangelical” means really? I’d say it’s a shame that media “fact-checks” are not anything even close to a checking of facts these days, but there’s no need for even legitimate fact checks if journalists are doing good work. All the stories I read on this simply quoted what Huckabee said. And that’s fine and fair. Some more partisan sites thought that Huckabee’s line about “self-professed” was a subtle dog-whistle questioning his faith. I actually don’t think that’s true, but I have about as much insight into the mind of Huckabee as the partisan sites do. I think it might be worth just asking him what he meant by “self-professed.”

This is probably a much less important point than the first one — that this speech was significant to a certain subset of religious voters — but it’s been bothering me anyway!

Please do let us know if you see any good media coverage of this speech or some of its lines.

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  • Bob Smietana

    It all depends on how the word evangelical is defined.
    If its defined as someone who says they walked down the aisle and gave their heart to Jesus, than Obama fits, giving the way he described his faith to Cathleen Falsani when first running for the Senate – http://cathleenfalsani.com/obama-on-faith-the-exclusive-interview/
    Here’s the relevant part:

    GG:
    Did you actually go up for an altar call?

    OBAMA:
    Yes. Absolutely.
    It was a daytime service, during a daytime service. And it was a powerful moment. Because, ti was powerful for me because it not only confirmed my faith, it not only gave shape to my faith, but I think, also, allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.

    GG:
    How long ago?

    OBAMA:
    16, 17 years ago
    1987 or 88

    GG:
    So you got yourself born again?

    OBAMA:
    Yeah, although I don’t, I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.

    I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.

    I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      Bob’s evidence shows that Obama has a conversion testimony, but it seems to me that he would need to actually self-profess as an evangelical to fit Huckabee’s description. ‘Evangelical’ remains a serviceable term to describe biblicist Christians who’ve had a conversion experience, but Huckabee’s use of it only makes a muddled term a bit less precise.

  • Susan

    I thought Huckabee pointed out what I already knew. There are liberal and conservative divisions within Christianity. Obama’s positions and aggressive agenda on homosexual marriage, unrestricted abortion, and having government override the freedom of exercise of religion place Obama far into the liberal wing of Christianity. Romney is the polar opposite, so in a way, religion has become a moot issue and perhaps a movement towards getting evangelicals to view it from a 2 kingdom perspective?

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    Huckabee was clearly giving Obama the benefit of the doubt; that is a rather generous definition of evangelical.

    With Catholics in both VP slots and a Mormon heading up the GOP ticket, Obama is the only Protestant in the mix . The Romney-Ryan ticket is the first Protestant-free ticket in major-party history if we set Mormonism off outside the Protestant-Catholic axis.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    It’s possible that Huckabee was using a traditional European definition, although that would have sailed over the head of any listener who’s never taken graduate courses in Reformation history. The United Church of Christ traces its roots to the Reformation, and “evangelical” remains the dominant word used in Europe for Protestants who come out that that tradition.
    I suspect he was trapped. He didn’t want to say that Barack Obama is the only Christian in the race because, although Huckabee may believe Mormonism is a heresy, he clearly has no interest in re-opening that question as a political fight. He couldn’t’ say that Barack Obama is the only “self-professed Christian” because Romney clearly professes to be a Christian. I suppose he could have said “self-professed Protestant” but that sounds kind of lame and harks back to the days when Republicans argued that John Kennedy was an agent of the Anti-Christ because he was Catholic. That left “evangelical,’ which Huckabee may have felt he could make work because of its historic meaning and also because of the altar-call reference cited above.

  • northcoast

    All of these candidates are Christians, though LDS and Catholics have been accused of cultism. As indicated in the first comment, the President is the only one of the four to attest to being introduced to Christianity and born again. By pointing this out, Mr. Huckabee reminds us that evangelicals don’t necessarily fit the mold assigned them, and in fact the progressive President has said he is one of them. I’m just enjoying the irony.

  • tmatt

    This also could have been a reference to Brody’s remarks on CBN, of all places, about the nature of Obama’s conversion:

    http://www.tmatt.net/2008/10/15/obama-meets-the-700-club/

  • bob

    Could it be that people just don’t say protestant anymore? Evangelical seems to have replaced it entirely. Maybe someone would have to say what they’re protesting against if they said the old word and that might be difficult.

  • http://nonnobis.weebly.com Stephen Hoyle

    Reading the excerpt from the interview with President Obama, I found it interesting that he talks about an evangelical-style public commitment of faith in Christ, but then goes on to talk more like a theological liberal–note, for example, the language expressing his discomfort with “dogma” and with believing one has a “monopoly on truth.”

  • Daniel

    President Obama belongs to the same denomination that I did as a child, the Congregational Churches of Christ. What else does he have to do to self-profess? I am unclear on that. I would much rather have a presedent like President George Bush was, who witnessed, or testified, of his relationship to Christ, but that’s going far beyond being a self-professed Evangelical.


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