The President’s Faith

It is entirely reasonable for Christians to analyze the theology of President Obama, but it is troubling to hear so many state publicly that his faith is not Christian but instead he’s a Muslim.

By Dan Gilgoff at CNN.com:

President Barack Obama gave an unusually personal speech about his religious faith on Thursday, saying that “it is the biblical injunction to serve the least of these that keeps me going and keeps me from being overwhelmed,” in address to a prayer breakfast in Washington.

The speech, delivered at the National Prayer Breakfast, comes on the heels of public opinion surveys that show only a minority of Americans know that Obama is a Christian and that a growing number believe he’s a Muslim.

“My Christian faith has been sustaining for me over the last couple of years and even more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time,” the president said Thursday, referring to his wife. “We are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but that we are true to our conscience and true to our God.”

“When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, I ask him to give me the strength to do right by our country and our people,” Obama said later. “And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord and I ask him to forgive me my sins and to look after my family and to make me an instrument of the Lord.”

But the fact is that many Americans don’t believe this:

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans believes Obama is a Muslim, up from about one in 10 Americans who said he was Muslim in 2009, according to the survey. It was conducted in July and August by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Fewer than half of Democrats and African-Americans, core components of Obama’s political base, correctly identified Obama as Christian.

President Obama spoke honestly about themes in his prayer life:

On Thursday, Obama spoke at length about his prayer life, saying his prayers fall into three categories: for those who are struggling, for personal humility, and to be closer to God.

“Faith reminds me that in spite of being one very imperfect man I can still help whoever I can, however I can, wherever I can for as long as I can,” Obama said of the first kind of prayer, “and that somehow God will buttress these efforts.”

“The second recurring theme in my prayer is a prayer for humility,” Obama said later. “God answered the prayer early on by having me marry Michelle.”

“The challenge is to balance this uncertainty and humility with a need to fight for deeply held convictions,” he continued. “I pray for this wisdom very day. I pray for God to show me and all us the limits of our understanding.”

With regard to his third kind of prayer, Obama said the recurring theme “is that I might walk closer to God and make that walk my first and most important walk.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • J.Random

    Obama’s faith seems authentic and credible to me. Having a liberal slant to one’s Christianity doesn’t make one any less Christian. When I hear Christians malign his faith, I end up doubting theirs far more than they move me to doubt his.

  • Susan N.

    I just read the transcript of President Obama’s prayer breakfast speech; linked to it on my Facebook page, in fact, highlighting this portion: “My Christian faith has been sustaining for me over the last couple of years and even more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time,” the president said Thursday, referring to his wife. “We are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but that we are true to our conscience and true to our God.”

    Only about a week or so ago, I saw a YouTube link come across my Facebook News Feed alluding to the gig being up; “Just admit it, Obama…you know you’re a Muslim!” My husband has been saying lately that if Jesus appeared again, these same folks would crucify Him too, all over again. I tend more and more to agree. Why do we hear so much of this? These radicals are more outspoken than the more gracious and gentle types? I need to hear more gracious and gentle voices, or I think I’ll go crazy, running as far away as I can get from “civilized” Christian society.

    Seeking to destroy someone by denying major aspects of their identity (spirituality–not a Christian, but in fact a Muslim; and nationality–not a legal U.S. citizen, thus not a “real” American; and political ideology–not a democrat but a socialist/Nazi) is way over the line of Christians responsibly engaging in their civic “duties”. To say that this is just business as usual, American politics, is a cop out, imho. I would rather disassociate with American Christianity if the hateful attacks against Obama are implicit in my belonging to this in-group. My heart goes out to the President and his family. I pray for him to be strengthened and guided to wise decisions. These are hard times in more ways than one.

    Lord, have mercy on us all.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I share your struggle Susan N. The next thing they will do is say he is not really black……eliminating that aspect of his identity (though I know his mother is white, he does identify with black). I had not thought about it quite like that before, thanks.

    I also agree with you that these folks would definitely crucify Jesus again. For goodness sake, he would not be going to church, telling them that they are keeping people away from God, his followers would be saying he is President of the World, he would be hanging out with Muslims…..

  • Jason

    Love the post! However forgive me – I just can’t get past the compelling marketing of the LDS. A happy mother of four, American flags flying proudly in the background, a down home football game – “we demolish argument and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” The ad smells like apple pie but oh it weighs upon my heart like death.

  • http://solarcrash.com Lon

    it’s unfortunate… people will always see what they want to see.. myself included.

  • MattR

    There has been a loud narrative out there trying to de-legitimize the president in some people’s eyes by de-legitimizing his faith.

    To me, Obama’s faith has always seemed genuine. And he, by personality it seems, is not one to loudly defend his faith when attacked. I think this speaks to his character… those with a an authentic relationship with God have no need to defend it.

    But it is nice to hear when he has a chance to talk about what faith means to him!

  • http://arbevere.blogspot.com Allan R. Bevere

    “I also agree with you that these folks would definitely crucify Jesus again.”

    So Susan and DRT– are you suggesting that the rest of us wouldn’t crucify Jesus if he were here today? It would only be the wackos on the right?

    And, yes, this continued questioning of President Obama’s faith is simply ludicrous.

  • DuWayne Lee

    It seems to me that there is a very simple way to determine whether or not President Obama is a Muslim . Is he prepare to say “Alah is God and Muhammed is his prophet” If he can not say that he obviously is not a Muslim. But I doubt if he would ever say that publically
    DuWayne Lee

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    The idea the Obama is Muslim is laughable. It really is astonishing to me that so many would buy in to it. (Of course, more than 20% of Americans think Bush knew in advance of the World Trade Center bombing and chose not to do anything or, worse, was involved in its execution.)

    The challenge with any president is separating an understanding of their personal lives versus what the put out for public consumption. People who embraced Bush’s policies tended to see him as a Christian moral leader while opponents dismissed his faith as either for show or incredibly silly. Now with Obama, supporters see a great Christian moral leader and detractors see a con man. Oh how echo-chambered existences cause us to forget all but our own perceived slights. There really isn’t much new here.

    I think both men are Christian, at least to the degree that they subscribe to any religion. As to their personal piety, I have no reason to doubt what they say. But I confess that I am deeply skeptical about public displays of religiosity by ANY president.

    Notice that in Obama’s remarks there is no mention of Jesus or Christ. His remarks are very much in keeping with a civil religion framework. It is in keeping with a long tradition of our political leaders portraying themselves as subservient to a higher power. I’m not convinced his remarks tell us a great deal, one way or the other, about his interior life.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Allan, good push back. Would I…..sounds like a meditation I need to undertake.

  • http://arbevere.blogspot.com Allan R. Bevere

    Michael Kruse #9– Well stated!

  • nathan

    What’s disturbing to me is that any president is expected to speak about his faith in order to build his credibility.

    There should be no formal or implicit ‘religious tests’ for public office.

  • Susan N.

    Allan @ #7 – I have been thinking on your question:

    “So Susan and DRT– are you suggesting that the rest of us wouldn’t crucify Jesus if he were here today? It would only be the wackos on the right?”

    While I understand that I am no better than any other human being for whom Jesus died–that is, sinful–I honestly can’t imagine myself scheming for Jesus’ execution or standing in an angry mob yelling, ‘Crucify Him!’ I tend to feel sorry for those who are on the outs. I will admit that arrogant displays of power get under my skin. Even those types, I have a hard time wanting them to die… Maybe I’m naive and don’t know myself very well. All that’s a big hypothetical “what if”. What’s real is what I do and say now. That’s really worth thinking about, for anyone who identifies with Christ, especially.

  • Jonathan

    Regarding Obama specifically mentioning Jesus, he did do so, though not in the portions quoted in the linked CNN blog post. Here is one such instance from the full transcript (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/03/president-obamas-remarks-at-national-prayer-breakfast/):

    “Their call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith, is what led me just a few years out of college to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the Southside of Chicago. And it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior.”

  • http://Krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Thanks Jonathan. Of course, Bush told stories of his conversion as well. I still think our willingness to embrace their stories is directly linked to our affinity for their political agendas. And while they may be true, there is a carefully considered political reason for sharing them when and how they do.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Michael, I lean left politically I suppose, though that is an over generality, and while I think George W. Bush’s presidency was in some ways seriously flawed, I don’t doubt at all his conversion experience and profession of faith. So I am not sure I agree with you. Aside from the comparisons we’re going to make in what we see, hear, and perceive.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    ….and why do we have to think that everything a politician says is political? Surely we would not do that in regard to Abraham Lincoln–of course not! And while so and so is likely no Abraham Lincoln, why do we think that so and so speaks concerning their faith, albeit trying to do so with wisdom, simply for political reasons?

  • John C

    What I find striking here is that Obama (and other American Presidents since Carter) are far more likely to talk about their faith in ‘evangelical’ terms than the first half-dozen or so American Presidents, who would never have said ‘I came to know Jesus for myself and embrace him as my lord and saviour’. If a quote like this was unearthed in Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe or Jackson, religious conservatives would be jumping with glee!!

  • Jeff L

    Given the near certainty that none of the presidents that John C (#18) mentions, with the possible exception of Andrew Jackson, believed in the divinity of Jesus, such a statement would definitely have been for political purposes.

  • RobS

    ABC News did a poll to determine 83% of Americans identify themselves as “Christian” but do we really believe that? I don’t… so in that context, we might need to truly define and understand when someone says “I am a Christian” what that truly means?

    One example (not saying it’s perfect, but in essence) the Barna Group used a nine question survey to determine who the “evangelical” really is: http://bit.ly/fTB2xh Sure, it has flaws, but they find a much smaller total number of people fit into the 9 criteria they thought defined an evangelical.

    So… we just must consider “what is a Christian” I think at the beginning of the discussion — and then as follow up, what does President Obama believe and how does he answer the question found in Mark 8:29 when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”

  • Deets

    We have to take Obama’s faith at face value just as we have to take Bush’s faith as genuine. Political expression will vary and we need to respect that.

    On the other hand, for those who thing he’s lying about being a Christian in order to later surprise the world with a congressional of his Islamic faith. May be what he is really doing is lying about being a liberal. Wait until the day he surprises everyone by unveiling his conservative beliefs.

  • Susanna Krizo

    I always thought that the separation of state and church meant just that; that the church could not infer with the state’s business and the state left the church alone. Wasn’t that why the early settlers left the European nations ruled by the state churches, where in Calvin’s Geneva you had to either agree with Calvin or die? (generally speaking, not going into specifics) United States of America is a secular country in a world of secular nations. It’s president is elected by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, and adherents of every other religion on this earth who happen to have a citizenship in this country. The president is not elected because of his/her faith, but because the people decided that he/she was the best possible candidate for the office. All of this talk about religion is just nonsense, perpetuated by people who cannot find a way to get their arguments through in any other way (such as with logic or presenting evidence for the rightness of their view). Also Nazis used this tactic. Sixty years ago it was Judaism that was the foe, now it is Islam. Don’t forget that the Nazis too considered themselves Christians. Right wing politics and religion is usually a really, really bad combination. When they add guns to the mixture, that’s when it becomes deadly.

  • John Mc

    I am sure Mr. Obama is a Christian because he says he is – I neither require nor am entitled to anything more on the matter. To the extent his understanding of God affects his ethical choices I would like to know. But if he were a Muslim so what? The ethical posture of most moderate Muslims (at least the ones I know) is not significantly different that the ethical posture of most moderate Christians. Is he lying? I have no basis to think so – though I could see why given the inferred threat contained in the accusations against him.

    I find the fact that he is ACCUSED of being a Muslim to be offensive, and I would categorize his accusers the same way I would categorize the brown shirts of 1930′s era Germany.

  • acer negundo

    Scot,

    “President Obama spoke honestly about themes in his prayer life:”

    Are you certain? Or did you mean to say “transparently”? It certainly was transparent, and intimate, and moving. But God knows our hearts. I’m not saying that he was not being honest, I don’t have a reason to think that or a position to declare it.

  • John Mc

    acer@24,

    You said “I’m not saying that he was not being honest…”. If you were not challenging the President’s honesty, then why the warning not to accept what the President says about his personal life at face value?

    John

  • acer negundo

    John, it’s not the President’s honesty I am questioning. Scot said President was being honest. Why do any of us, esp in this context, need to assess the President’s honesty? It seems like defending something that doesn’t need to be defended. That’s all.


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