Is Obama the Wrong Kind of Christian?

I am always shocked by the glee with which many evangelical Christians will pass judgment upon, and dismiss the faith of other professing Christians. I guess I shouldn’t be. Finding ways to be dismissive of those who come from a different Christian tradition, or have experienced a different kind of obedience to the gospel is all too common. But it still shocks me – disappoints me as well.

This has been the practice of many evangelicals who disagree with the president’s politics, so feel inclined to dismiss the fact that he’s a Christian. There’s a fantastic article up at CNN right now by John Blake describing the faith tradition President Obama is a part of and why it’s so hard for some evangelicals to accept. Here’s an excerpt that is particularly embarrassing to me as both a Christian and a Kansan:

“President Barack Obama was sharing a pulpit one day with a conservative Christian leader when a revealing exchange took place. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian who has taken public stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, had joined Obama for an AIDS summit. They were speaking before a conservative megachurch filled with white evangelicals. When Brownback rose to speak, he joked that he had joined Obama earlier at an NAACP meeting where Obama was treated like Elvis and he was virtually ignored. Turning to Obama, a smiling Brownback said, “Welcome to my house!”

The audience exploded with laughter and applause. Obama rose, walked before the congregation and then declared:

“There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”

Historians may remember Obama as the nation’s first black president, but he’s also a religious pioneer. He’s not only changed people’s perception of who can be president, some scholars and pastors say, but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian by challenging the religious right’s domination of the national stage….

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…“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.”

Some Christians, however, still see Obama as the “other.” He doesn’t act or talk like other Christians, says the Rev. Gary Cass, a conservative Christian president of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission. “I just don’t see or hear in his accounts the kind of things that I’ve heard as a minister for over 25 years coming from the mouths of people who have genuinely converted to Christianity,” says Cass, pastor of Christ Church in San Diego. Cass says he’s never heard Obama say he’s “born-again.” There’s no emotional conversion story to hang onto.

Obama talks about his faith and attends church, but Cass says that doesn’t mean he’s a Christian. “Joining a church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian. “You can put me in the garage, but that doesn’t turn me into a car.”

What do you think about this?

If you feel like reading more about the relationship between evangelicalism and the social gospel, you might want to check out the book I wrote on the subject: An Evangelical Social Gospel?

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  • Monala

    I think President Obama is hardly a religious pioneer – he has much more in common religiously with most of our past presidents than the ministers quoted in this article. We’ve had four Unitarian presidents, two Quakers, several Deists, and the vast majority of our presidents were from mainline Christian, not evangelical, denominations. The only presidents who might have had the “born again” experiences those quoted in the article are looking for, are Truman, Carter, Clinton, and GW Bush.

  • Has Cass not seen the Sojourners speech? The President has a pretty emotional conversion story that fits right in with what most evangelicals expect; he just doesn’t share it often. I imagine, as an intellectual, those types of emotional religious experiences are difficult to fit into a theologically and logically informed worldview; I know it’s been difficult for me.

  • Maria

    Has he been baptized?

  • Tim Suttle

    He must not have seen it. But I’ve found it’s pretty easy for evangelicals to be completely dismissive of other people’s faith journeys if they do not fit a very narrow definition. My guess is that Cass could watch or listen to Obama’s testimony at the Sojourners meeting and find a way to discount or ignore it.

  • Meggie

    I see Obama as one of the more “Christian” presidents. No, he’s not part of the religious right, but he’s part of the religious left, which is what makes him so committed to the needs of everyday people. He has upheld the most Christian ideals of social justice, while leaving people free to make up our own minds about their private behavior. I have never heard him judge homosexuals or anyone else. I don’t think government needs to be in the business of restricting choice of spouse or insisting gays cannot serve in the military. That is a huge infringement on freedom. I do think, however, that government needs to make sure every citizen has access to healthcare and education. For me, it’s not about which type of Christian is better — it’s about which type of Christian outlook is more appropriate in a public servant.

    • Gayle

      “Which type of Christian outlook is more appropriate in a public servant?” It offends me that you dare to say that a person has to possess a particular “type of Christian outlook” as the sole criterion for public service. First, not all public servants proclaim the good news of the New Testament and are, nonetheless, effective and excellent public servants. Second, I am offended that just because someone does not agree with your definition of social justice, that person somehow is less “Christian” than you are. As someone who is progressive on many issues involving gay rights, choice and the like, I’ve tried very hard to find some sort of “Christian” message in the writings and postings published by “Progressive Christians,” such as yourself, and just don’t see it. What I see is a group of sanctimonious people who, from a very high throne, promote a particular political agenda in the name of Christ and dismiss everyone who disagrees with that political agenda as being not as Christian as progressives are. Frankly, I’m not sure followers of Christ should be casting stones at others – it doesn’t seem very “Christ-like.” Public servants have a duty to lead governments with a public agenda that is in the best interests of all of their constituents, regardless of their religion and the religion of those constituents. It is hypocritical for progressives, on one hand, to thump their chests in righteous indignation, calling for protection from those who would impose their religious beliefs on progressives and then turn around and impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. All individuals are called to respond to God’s grace not just in how they vote, but in how they treat others individually, day-to-day. There are many ways a government can promote social justice, just as there are many ways you and I, as individuals, promote social justice. I would feel very uncomfortable judging your individual path. I wish I could find somewhere in the progressive Christian message that it’s OK if I choose to pursue social justice in my own way without being measured as being the “appropriate” kind of Christian.

  • Bill Kirsh-Carr

    I would say Cass needs to get out more. The vast majority of Christians don’t identify as “born again” speak the sort of “litmus test lingo” of which he speaks. My guess is that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, as well as Protestants whose denominations are NCC/WCC members are, in his estimation, “not Christian” by definition. I don’t wish to smear the evangelical or “born-again” traditions — yet it must be said that, even the R.C. and E.O. Churches, for all their ecclesial chauvinism, will still accord Cass the dignity of recognizing him as Christian. Would that he would do the same.

    • TJ

      Actually that’s not true. The Roman Catholic church does not recognize anyone as a Christian unless they are baptized Roman Catholic. In fact, all of the condemnations of protestants as heretics are still a part of official Catholic doctrine.

  • Charlotte Lohrenz

    Thank you for this post, Tim. I found this deeply affecting (dare I say: emotional?) It puts in such bold relief the stigmatizing that Christians do to other Christians. I am appalled to hear anyone say of another “they claim to be a Christian, but they aren’t”. Obama’s grace under fire continues to delight me.

  • Tony Bozarth

    Very well done Tim, and very, very thought provoking….I enjoyed reading your thoughts here!

  • Treva Whichard

    I am a Christian and a Republican. I didn’t vote for Obama and will not again in a couple weeks, but I do respect him as another wounded human being journeying this side of heaven – and I respect him as MY President – I don’t agree w/ him, but I do lift him to God frequently. Again, he is MY President. I do care about him and want God’s best for him privately and publically. How painful to read of the demeaning remark by Gov. Brownback; it demeaned him, his political office, this country, those in the audience, the Church – the list goes on. Why do we feed our meanness; why do we promote bullying? Is it out of jealousy of another that there is this unquenchable thirst for slamming others? God have mercy on us all – and show me, kind Holy Spirit the ways in which I, too, squash others with disrespect.

  • Pat Pope

    Tim, I’m with you, it is disappointing. I’ve gone to churches where some Christians in their own words said they could tell who was holy and they were talking about their fellow churchgoers.

  • TJ

    I think it really gets at some fundamental questions. What is a Christian? Can anyone claim to be a Christian who wants or are there standards? If there are standards, who gets to define them? If there are no standards, then does the name Christian have any value? Is it fair to reject so much of what Christianity has historically believed (as some mainline protestants now do) and still claim that name?

    I think these are fair questions to ask. I agree that it’s unfair to assume that someone’s faith is not genuine because they come from a different denomination/background or because of political differences. But at the same time evangelicals have some general standards as to what it means to be a Christian and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to seek to understand whether someone from another tradition actually fits that standard.

  • jerry lynch

    I find it absolutely hilarious that there is a Christian Anti-defamation Commission. Do they all wear a No Trespassing sticker on their “other cheek”? A Christian who could be president of such an organization should not be throwing any stones.

  • Darren

    To the extent that President Obama believes in Christ is good enough for me to consider him a Christian. However, accepting him as a Christrian I’ve no problems pointing out that the brand of Christianity which he belongs to is along the lines of black liberation. They seem to place heavy emphasis on social justice than in preaching coming unto Christ. In fact, their view of being “Christlike” is that salvation is influenced by, if not based upon, forcing those that have give to those that don’t have. In other words, their soteriology seems more based upon forcing good to others than doing good (on a personal level) to others. I’ve no problem in standing my ground that Jesus taguth service much closer to the latter personal acts of charity as opposed to the former black liberation / social justice “charity”.

    I’m a Latter-day Saint. I do defend my being a Christian for I make no argument against those who say I’m not a traditional Christian for that I am not. Likewise, Barak Obama is a Christian but hardly in the “conventional” sense.

  • people!!! whats religion have to do with politics? nothing at all!! it doesnt matter wether the president is muslim, catholic, jewish, christian or whatever it maybe. he have way bigger problem to worry about than, what religion the president is. America is so black and white its ridiculous, sad really. the only thing that should matter is what the political views are that who ever is running for president are. thats final, thats it. i believe that Americans should have to take IQ test and get a certain score before they are allowed to vote. just because of idiots that are so worried what people running have done or are doing in their personal lives. when did politics before a Jerry Springer show people? like i said in other posts on here it doesnt matter who you vote for if you do get the old politicians that have been their for years out of there cozy little chairs, because their the ones that are running this country determining what bills get passed and what doesn’t. so your can have a president that wants to give everyone a million dollars and the same politicians that have been their for years will just vote it down. so think people vote to get them old dogs out and change it up a bit. give our president a chance to go at it at his full potential.