Missing some fundamental facts on Obama and faith

A week or so ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about the survey research indicating that secular and self-proclaimed liberal Americans are much more likely to be prejudiced against Mormon political candidates than are evangelical Protestants, the very folks that everyone has been worried about during the Mitt Romney campaign. That column opened like this:

With the White House race nearing an end, it’s time for America’s political pundits to face that fact that millions of voters will in fact be worried about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith on Election Day.

Many will be offended by what they believe are the intolerant, narrow teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on marriage. Others will be worried about Mormonism’s history of opposing abortion rights.

“There really is a large group of people in America who won’t vote for Mitt Romney for president because he is a Mormon,” noted Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, in a recent Institute on Religion and Democracy lecture. “It’s a very large group and there is a name for them — liberals.”

So the column opened with a well-known conservative political insider, who is also a conservative Anglican, making a conservative point based on survey research that digs into the biases of religious and secular liberals. Do the math and add up the number of times the word “conservative” is used in that sentence.

Days later, I started getting response emails from readers from coast to coast (since one of my email addresses is attached to the bottom of my columns in most newspapers). I received a higher rate than normal that Monday.

Each and every one of these emails — every SINGLE one of them — accused me of attacking Mitt Romney while, of course, taking part in the great mainstream-media conspiracy to hide the fact that President Barack Obama is (wait for it) a Muslim.

Against my better judgment, I responded to a few of these emails by citing the facts that I have written about many times here at GetReligion.org and in other columns — that Obama made a public profession of faith and, at a time never precisely confirmed by the congregation, was baptized by a clergy-person in one of America’s most theologically liberal Christian denominations. Along with his family, he was active in that Christian congregation for many years. He has made numerous public professions of his liberal take on the Christian faith since then.

People responded by saying (a) he’s lying or (b) that members of the United Church of Christ — a liberal national denomination that continues to include some quite conservative local congregations — are not real Christians.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people in conservative-church pews and pulpits cannot grasp the fact that Obama is a liberal Christian. Yes, he may be so doctrinally liberal that, when it comes to eternal questions, he believes that there are no ultimate differences between Christians, Jews, Muslims and everybody else — but he is certainly not alone in believing that. The leaders of many denominations believe that. Legions of seminary professors agree with him.

In oh so many ways, Obama is a perfectly normal liberal Protestant Christian.

However, as recent Pew Forum research made clear, the world of liberal Protestantism is no longer at the heart of American life. The old mainline is now on the sideline, to the left of the mainstream. That does not mean that oldline churches are not important or worthy of balanced, nuanced coverage.

This brings me to a recent piece at the CNN Belief Blog called “The Gospel according to Obama“? At one point, that headline read: “Is Obama the ‘wrong’ kind of Christian?” The whole point of the piece is that Obama is a Christian progressive and part of the old mainline Protestant world. Thus, readers are told:

When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-sex marriage, framed health care as a moral imperative to care for “the least of these,’’ and once urged people to read their Bible but just not literally, he was invoking another Christian tradition that once dominated American public life so much that it gave the nation its first megachurches, historians say. …

Obama is a progressive Christian who blends the emotional fire of the African-American church, the ecumenical outlook of contemporary Protestantism, and the activism of the Social Gospel, a late 19th-century movement whose leaders faulted American churches for focusing too much on personal salvation while ignoring the conditions that led to pervasive poverty.

No other president has shared the hybrid faith that Obama displays, says Diana Butler Bass, a historian and author of “Christianity after Religion.”

“The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.,” says Bass, a progressive Christian. “He’s a different kind of Christian, and the media and the public awareness needs to reawaken to that fact.”

There is much to criticize in that passage and in the article as a whole, but the key is this: The CNN team seems to have assumed that today’s mainline Protestantism is essentially the same, doctrinally, as the mainline Protestantism of the late 19th century. Also, there continue to be all kinds of people who, for example, would frame health care as a biblical imperative yet disagree with Obama and modern Christian liberals on a host of other issues, including doctrinal matters that can be framed in creedal terms.

Later on, the CNN team strives to contrast Obama and the believers who support him with — you got it — the world of 20th century Christian fundamentalism. It’s crucial that the article defines the “social Gospel” in ways that appear to contrast it with the beliefs of people who supported, and continue to support, conservative stances on basic Christian doctrines and moral teachings. Thus, readers learn:

The Social Gospel, though, sparked a backlash from a group of pastors during World War I. They were called fundamentalists. They published a pamphlet listing the “fundamentals of the faith:” Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Adam and Eve. But the fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.

Though Scopes lost, fundamentalist Christians were mocked in the press as “anti-intellectual rubes,” and a number of states suspended pending legislation that would have made teaching evolution illegal, says David Felton, author of “Living the Wisdom: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.” The trial drove fundamentalists underground where they created a subculture, their own media networks, seminaries and megachurches, he says.

That’s close, kind of.

The big problem, of course, is that the original “fundamentals of the faith” documents were crafted in that hotbed of anti-intellectualism — Princeton Theological Seminary. They were signed by Anglicans, Presbyterians and others in mainline churches. The purpose was to defend Christian basics, in terms of doctrine, not to reject ministry to the poor. Many did reject, and continue to reject, any belief that ministry to the poor can replace or exclude evangelism and the concern for eternal salvation. Basic, mere, Christianity is a both/and proposition in which it is heresy to deny either side of that equation.

Thus, a GetReligion reader who sent us the URL for this CNN story noted:

Some interesting stuff on President Obama here, but then they totally butcher the history of the development of fundamentalism (and completely misunderstand what fundamentalism was pushing back on among liberalism — that is, not the good works but the rejection of Christ as God), the background of Christian charity works stretching into the First Century, and so forth. Also worth note: they don’t bother to interview any but the most easily caricatured conservative voices, and typically go out of their way to make evangelical believers look like downright rubes. …

This is a real missed opportunity, because so many evangelicals might benefit from seeing how President Obama could share their faith while differing from them. Instead, it ended up being just another chance to rag on evangelicals.

*sigh*

Precisely. This CNN story has some fundamental flaws.

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.

  • SouthCoast

    “…in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.” I did a research paper on the Scopes trial for government class in high school, using period source materials in the local university’s library. One thing that I discovered was that one of the reasons Scopes set things in motion was not only that he was legally prohibited from teaching evolution, he was also mandated to teach what was in the state-approved texts, which included….evolution. The sense I got of it was that it was less of Enlightenment vs. Whatever, than it was a sort of real-life precursor to the Milagro Beanfield War. But then, as we all know, Scopes was lucky not to be burnt at the stake like Galileo.

    • JoFro

      The Galileo line was a joke right? Hahah! My joke radar is not up to speed today!

  • Martha

    Can we include, amongst those 19th century Social Gospellers, such raging liberal firebrands as Pope Leo XIIO who, with his inflammatory encyclical of 1891 De Rerum Novarum, engulfed all Europe in the flames of socialism with statements such as:

    “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”

    That’s the type of language you could only hear from a liberal non-literalist who didn’t accept the historical existence or reality of the Virgin Birth or Adam and Eve!

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  • Jettboy

    “For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people in conservative-church pews and pulpits cannot grasp the fact that Obama is a liberal Christian”

    For much the same reasoning (not same reasons) that they don’t believe Mormons are Christians. They have a very specific definitions of what a Christian is, and Obama doesn’t belong. Calling him Muslim is based on his history, public statements, having for 20 years belonged to Rev. Wright’s Church (that conservatives believe is more Muslim than Christian) and how he treats Muslim nations vs. Israel.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XE9mZCRX2mg&feature=related

  • MJBubba

    I find the term “liberal Christian” to be un-helpful when it is applied to Universalists, who may come from a post-Christian tradition.

    • Kim Hampton

      What Universalists are you talking about? Universalism is a Christian theology.
      And if you are talking about Unitarian Universalism, while it is not a member of the National or World Council of Churches, Unitarian Universalism does have a number of Christian members and ministers and a number of Christian congregations (many of them members of the Convocation of Christian Churches in the UUA).

      President Obama was a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, and the UCC is a Christian denomination with many “liberal” congregations.

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