Is Barack Obama a Christian?

I am tempted to make this the shortest entry yet at Philosophical Fragments and simply answer: “Yes.”  But I want to explain (1) some of the complexities of the problem and (2) several reasons why conservatives have answered in the negative.

By now we are all familiar with the background.  In three Pew surveys from March of 2008 to March of 2009, roughly half of Americans identified Obama as a Christian, 11-12% as Muslim, and 32-36% replied that they did not know.  Yet in a survey conducted in August, only 34% identified Obama as Christian, 18% as Muslim, and 43% said they do not know.

Shortly after the poll results were reported, the Obama family, for the first time, took a very public Sunday stroll from the White House to a house of worship.  And Obama has spoken openly about his faith in several public appearances.  When Obama was recently asked about his faith, he affirmed (as President Bush always did, and as all responsible Presidents should do in a religiously pluralistic nation) that “part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith.’’  But he also expounded on his own faith:

“I’m a Christian by choice.  My family, frankly, they weren’t folks who went to church every week…I came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead. Being my brothers and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me, and I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes and we achieve salvation through the grace of God.

“But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.’’

So much for background.  The two key points in the statistics are that about a third of Republicans see President Obama as a Muslim and only 46% of Democrats see Obama as a Christian.  Several observations:

FIRST, to begin with the latter statistic, it’s hard to believe that 46% of Democrats would be unaware that President Obama claims to be a Christian.  A number of media bigwigs responded to the survey by saying, “Obama tells us that he is a Christian.  Case closed.”  But is it really so simple?  What does it mean to be a Christian — and how can one person identify whether another person is one?  Is everyone who claims to be a Christian therefore actually a Christian?  Of course not.  In other words, people are not simply unaware that Obama claims to be a Christian; they are running up against what philosophers call the problem of other minds.

Christianity is essentially defined by what Søren Kierkegaard called “inwardness”: an interior relationship of surrender to, and trust in, God.  This inwardness, given time and opportunity, turns outward.  Because Christian faith is faith in Christ, and Christ calls his followers to imitation, over time there will be necessary outward marks of being a Christian (a person is not a Christian if he does not do certain observable things), but there are no sufficient outward marks (a person definitely is a Christian if he does do certain observable things).  So, strictly speaking, when the New York Times writes that 18% “believe, erroneously, that he is a Muslim,” we may well ask them how they really know.  And the 46% of Democrats (and whatever percentage of Republicans) that said “I do not know” are–again, strictly speaking–giving a correct answer.  While they were on the phone with the poll-takers, they probably did not think of “the problem of other minds” explicitly; but they may well have thought it: “Well, after all, who really knows?”

SECOND, it may still be regarded as unreasonably skeptical or simply unkind to doubt the word of the President.  Consider the words of the prominent Christian scholar and blogger Ben Witherington: “I am in no position to judge what is in the man’s heart so I must take what he says, and what various of his friends like Rick Warren, say as the truth unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary, which there definitely is not.”

In other words, while we cannot know for certain what is in another person’s heart, it is generally the practice — and a reasonable and charitable practice — to grant that a person who claims to be Christian actually is a Christian, unless that person gives us strong reason to believe otherwise.  This shifts the burden of proof to those who would show he is not a Christian.  There are generally two ways in which this has been approached:

  1. Outward actions.  A tree is known by its fruits.  Some conservatives argue that Obama’s defense of the legality of abortion, and his advancement of the abortion “rights” agenda, are strong reason to believe that he is not a believer.  You cannot protect a practice that has killed millions of babies, they would say, if you are truly a follower of Christ.  They would also argue that Obama has repeatedly lied to the American people, that he has disregarded the clear deliverance of scripture in regards to homosexuality, and so on.
  2. Inward beliefs.  Let us grant that Obama believes what he says he believes–but what he says he believes is not Christianity.  In other words, some conservatives do not believe that Obama’s version of Christianity is actually in accord with historic, orthodox Christianity.  Obama attended a church for twenty years that preached a variation on liberation theology, which many conservatives consider a counterfeit of Christianity, and Obama’s public explanations of his faith (and his written account of his conversion) leave much to be desired.  He focuses on the general moral precepts, but rarely affirms the fundamental theology of Christianity.  The statement quoted above goes further than most; he mentions Christ and grace.  But even there, “Jesus Christ dying for my sins” is explained mostly in terms of the “humility” we are supposed to have.  Does he believe that Jesus Christ is “true God from true God,” and that the work of Christ upon the cross accomplishes the salvation of those who believe?

I am not convinced by either of these lines of argument, because (contra 1) I know too many people who share the President’s policy preferences and are also people of profound faith, and (contra 2) I don’t know that the President has ever been tasked with explaining in full what he means by Christianity.  Most of his public comments are not intended to be a full-orbed description of the faith in which he believes, but are narrow in scope, and shaped by the desire to articulate his faith in a manner that is public and inclusive.  Even if he ascribes to some form of liberation theology, while I believe that theology is wrong, I do not believe it is incompatible with having a personal relationship with God through faith in Christ.

In fact, I will go one step further.  I have more reason to doubt the faith of prosperity gospel peddlers like Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar — or, for that matter, more reason to doubt the faith of pastors who betray their faith and betray their congregations, like Ted Haggard — than I do to doubt the faith of Barack Obama. But that does not mean that I cannot understand those conservatives who believe that Obama’s actions, policy preferences, and public explanations of his faith are incompatible with orthodox Christianity.  Their objections are not unreasonable, but they are, I think, incorrect.

THIRD, and finally, it is astonishing that 18% believe Obama is a Muslim.  Of course, you can find 10% of Americans who will believe that pigs can fly if they’re sufficiently gassy.  You get some “noise” in every poll from people who are saying something silly for the fun of it, but the increase from 11% to 18% shows that some Americans, especially conservatives, have concluded that Obama really is a Muslim, whether by virtue of descent from a Muslim father or by virtue of his own inward beliefs.  And it is amazing that some believe Obama would be so thoroughly deceptive.

To be sure, Obama has earned Americans’ distrust with a slew of false statements and broken promises.  But it requires a conspiratorial bent far stronger than my own to believe that Obama would play the part of the Christian for over two decades, and even raise his children as such, in order to win power and serve the interests of Islam.

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  • Nathan

    Tim, this has got to be the most intellectually and spiritually dishonest post you have ever written. First of all, I find it offensive and just plain wrongheaded to try to “play God” and divine the interior status of a person’s religious convictions. This has no place in politics, and Christians should be outraged (indeed, I am) that the legacy of Christ is being used as a political litmus test.

    Second, the only universally affirmed outward sign of the Christian faith is baptism. Obama was baptized in Trinity church in Chicago in the early 1990s. Everyone who shares in the Christian baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should recognize Obama as a brother. The idea that one’s views on abortion are an adequate external mark of Christianity is laughable. Do we need to list all of the prominent, devout Christians who believe that abortions should not be made illegal or who hold politically moderate positions on abortion? Obama has publicly declared that abortions are morally deplorable and that they should be reduced as far as possible. But that is not the same thing as saying that they should be made illegal.

    Your views on Christianity are overtly divisive and overly narrow. We may disagree on politics, but to make political disagreements a matter of faith is obscene.

    • Nathan

      Ok – Apologies are in order here. I kind of jumped on this one, largely because of trends I have seen in previous posts.

      I now see that you step back from the two arguments you characterize and I criticize, coming to a position much in line with what I say.

      I do see that you take a nuanced position here. But I still think that this is an occasion for criticism. Why the nuance? Why highlight and pose questions that, in effect, reinforce a line of thought that is pervasive on one side of the political spectrum? Should we be nuanced in the face of bigotry and religious slander?

      Do you really need to say that we can’t be any more certain that Obama is a Christian than that he is a Muslim? I mean, granted that we can’t know the contents of his mind, we should at the very least take his words and actions (baptism, profession of faith) on face value. To raise questions about these things in the name of objectivity actually reinforces a deplorable line of argument.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        No worries, Nathan. I really value that you continue to read these posts in spite of our differences.

        I see it as one of my roles (but just one of them) to interpret conservative Christians — when I agree with them and especially when I do not — to a skeptical liberal audience. I think the latter audience too often has really no idea where conservative Christians are coming from, and that’s part of why they regard them (sometimes) with such distrust and hostility. When we are not aware of the rationality behind position P, we tend to infer that P is held for irrational reasons — and when the people who hold to P are the political opposition, we tend to construe those irrational reasons in the worst possible light. So you might think of this as a lengthy response to the question, “How can they doubt whether he is a Christian when he has clearly stated that he is?”

        I believe the church has a compelling interest in maintaining a clear sense of what it means to be a Christian. Of course, Christians differ on what that means. Some, even though they are fully aware of the President’s statements, believe that he falls outside of what it means to be a Christian. I don’t view that as religious bigotry. I know that many folks at H. Divinity School did not grant that President Bush was a Christian, because they felt that “warmongering” and “tyranny” are outside the bounds of what it means to be a Christian. You might think they have a better argument — and they might. But the point is, I don’t blame them for making that argument. I don’t think it’s illegitimate to hold politicians who claim Christian identity up against the biblical model and ask whether they are misleading others and distorting what it means to be a Christian.

        So, while I do not agree, I don’t actually find it an unreasonable line of argument to say that Obama’s actions betray an absence of Christian faith, or that what Obama means by Christianity (based on his statements and writings) is not truly Christianity. Why the nuance? Am I giving an air of rationality to a fundamentally irrational, bigoted point of view? That may be where we diverge. I don’t think it is irrational or bigoted, necessarily. The nuance is important to understand why people believe the things they believe, and because I think it makes for a more helpful conversation than just dismissing the opinion as religious bigotry. I was always somewhere in between philosophy and religious studies departments, but the motto in the latter was that “our job is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.” We should try to understand the thought processes behind Maori tribesmen, a woman who supports the Taliban, and…conservative Christians in America, no?

        Those who believe he is Muslim, from what I have heard, generally say so either (1) because of his birth to a Muslim father — and this, they say, is what defines a Muslim according to Islamic law, or (2) because his actions show that he is intent on serving Muslim interests. I think (1) is a little silly. I don’t know whether the point of law is factually accurate, but, really: Who cares what Islamic law says? And I think (2) is worse, more paranoid and conspiratorial than rational.

        Again, thanks for engaging, even though it ticked you off. You make good points; I just wanted to explain my POV.

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  • John

    Tim, let me recommend a book you need to read right away, a book on Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Billy Graham – quite a combination, expertly held together, and providing a much needed dose of historical perspective, at a time when it is desperately needed.

    Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety, by Andrew Finstuen – You will be able to read the introduction at “View Inside” at the link below.

    In response to Nathan, you say of yourself, “I see it as one of my roles (but just one of them) to interpret conservative Christians — when I agree with them and especially when I do not — to a skeptical liberal audience.”

    May I recommend that you make an effort to interpret both directions. You also say in response to Nathan, “I believe the church has a compelling interest in maintaining a clear sense of what it means to be a Christian.” When you read Finstuen’s book, you will read the sharp criticisms Niebuhr launched at Billy Graham, especially over social justice, criticisms, you will be surprised to learn, Graham took to heart, acknowledging Niebuhr as the reason for his change of mind.

    Sadly, historical perspective is totally lacking today, and Niebuhr has dropped out of sight. Were people to have any, they would learn that it was Niebuhr and his colleagues who doubted if evangelicals were Christians – because of their lack of interest in social justice and lack of attention to the sin of social systems, including all of America – remember this was the height of racial discrimination, segregation and the “christian” Ku Klux Klan.

    Today, about as far back as anyone seems able to think is Ronald Reagan, and the rise of evangelicals, and the time when evangelicals, ridiculously, took the mantle of “perfect Christianity” upon themselves, thereby judging all and sundry by their views. How incredibly arrogant and lacking in historical perspective.

    Again, get Finstuen’s book right away. Get some much needed historical perspective. Learn about others who consider themselves also to be The Church, and who have long wondered whether evangelicals were Christians, for very good reasons, you will see.

    Write some columns on Reinhold Niebuhr, especially his very sharp criticisms of Billy Graham, and Graham’s responses. You will be getting an education, and providing a much needed one to your readers.

    p.s. Based on all the criticism launched at Barak Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr must not have been a Christian. Now that is truly incredible!!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for this detailed response, John. Although I have not read the specific book you mention, I’m pretty thoroughly familiar with Niebuhr and, more generally, twentieth century western religious thought, including the history of American evangelicalism and its various critics in the twentieth century. It does look like an interesting book, but I must say that I find your comments here more than a little condescending. If you have specific historical points you want to make, just make them, rather than exhorting me/us to “get some much needed historical perspective.” Niebuhr had some good points to make, but I also think he had many of the shortcomings and blind spots of the early and middle twentieth century. I hardly regard him as an unassailable authority on true Christianity.

      And much though I appreciate you letting me know what I “will be surprised to learn,” I am not surprised in the slightest. Billy Graham launched Christianity Today, after all, to promote a view of faith that is conservative on theological matters and liberal on social matters. The Graham family has helped the church — yes, even conservative evangelicals — direct enormous amounts of aid and support to the needy. But Graham was hardly the only evangelical leader who did so. Even in periods when evangelicals ostensibly lost sight of social justice ministries, they have worked through their local churches as well as numerous parachurch ministries to serve the needy. Evangelicals became known in the 1970s and 1980s for their political advocacy against abortion and the sexual revolution, but that was just what they pursued in the most public and political spheres. Privately, locally, and through their own institutions, evangelicals have cared for those in need. I’m not a fan of Pat Robertson, but even Robertson, through his various ministries and companies, is always responding to the latest disaster and etc.

      But what does this have to do with the subject of the post? There’s a substantial difference between social justice — especially the kind of social justice that Graham favored — and liberation theology. No one suggests that Obama may not be Christian because he cares about the poor. And did you miss the point that I disagree with those who say that Obama’s Christianity is not true Christianity?

      Most Christian groups, now and historically, believe that they are following Christ in the way that Christ wanted to be followed. Progressive Christians do the same. You say it is “incredibly arrogant and lacking in historical perspective” for evangelicals to take the mantle of “perfect Christianity” (huh?) and thereby judge others — but apparently it’s okay for Niebuhr to “doubt if evangelicals were Christians” because they neglected what he took to be the markers of true Christianity, or for nameless others “who consider themselves also to be The Church, and who have long wondered whether evangelicals were Christians.” Listen, the reason people choose particular religious groups is because they believe they represent the best way. That implies a criticism of others, but that’s the lifeblood of conversation within the church, and amongst most evangelicals I see that conversation carried out fruitfully with mainliners and Catholics and Orthodox. No one is trying harder to learn from other stripes of Christian today than are evangelicals.

      I have extraordinary respect for Catholics and Orthodox and diverse varieties of Protestants. We can all learn from one another. What makes you think that I, or evangelicals in general, are unaware of the (constant and pervasive) criticisms of evangelicalism in our culture is truly beyond me. Generally speaking, the evangelicals who should be educated about these things are educated about them, while the rank-and-file amongst evangelicals, like the rank-and-file amongst Catholics and mainliners and so forth, are generally more concerned with learning how to be good parents and doing their jobs and taking care of the neighbor down the street.

      I can’t quite tease out the logic in your postscript, but if you’d like to write your own pieces on Niebuhr and Graham, that would be most welcome.

  • I’m also baffled (and a little fascinated) by the number of people who seem to be convinced that Obama is a Muslim. Do you have any theories about where that comes from? I don’t.

  • Wylie Merritt

    Came to your site through “Best of the Web Today” but really enjoyed your take on this topic. I want to add a few thoughts to the discussion:

    First, I don’t think it is entirely unfair to consider the *fruits* of Mr. Obama’s actions regarding abortion when forming an opinion as to his religious proclivities, especially the question of “Christian or no?” I am unaware of his remarks concerning abortion being “morally deplorable”, but whether or not he made this or similar statements, he is on record as an Illinois legislator as not only voting against, but arguing repeatedly against, a state version of the Federal Born Alive Infant Protection Act. To me, that defines the far-left tail of the pro-life/pro-abortion spectrum and I would be hard-pressed to believe many devout, practicing Christians hold such a view (i.e. that any infant slated for abortion should be allowed to die without benefit of medical care should they survive the actual abortion procedure)

    Which lead me to my second point, which is that a great majority of American Christians use church attendance as a rough indication of how “Christian” someone is. Someone who attends regularly, whenever possible, is usually judged to have pretty solid Christian convictions. Those who rarely darken the door of their House of Worship could be construed to be taking their faith a little more casually, to the point that many American Christians might have cause to question their faith entirely. As President, Mr. Obama is rarely seen entering a Church on Sunday, in sharp contrast to Mssrs. Bush and Clinton. And even when he did belong to a Church in Chicago, he apparently didn’t attend often enough to hear many of his Pastor’s sermons (he appears to have missed *all* of the controversial ones!)

    Which brings me to my third point, about the form of “Christianity” practiced at Trinity United Church of Christ. As anyone paying attention during the 2008 Presidential Election is aware, Mr. Obama’s Pastor was one Jeremiah Wright, a flamboyant and controversial figure who probably became most well-known during the election for his “God damn America” sermon. Rev. Wright’s brand of Liberation Theology is thought to draw heavily from that of James H. Cone, who is famously the author of Black Theology and Black Power and who has said, “The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism…” This is, needless to say, not considered mainstream Christianity in the minds of many American Christians, including the mainstream African-American Church.

    As to why some people might identify Mr. Obama as a Muslim, there is the purely superficial evidence of his name, Barack Hussein Obama, which might conjure vague thoughts of Middle-Eastern sheiks to the unenlightened. There are also Mr. Obama’s Philo-Muslim speeches including but not limited to his much-bruted Cairo speech which contained multiple pro-Islamic canards which are at demonstrable odds with historic facts. Or it could have something to do with the fairly widely-distributed picture of the President bowing low before a Saudi sheik. Who knows – this wasn’t a survey of Theologians, it was a survey of Americans (voters?).

    Sorry for the rambling, hope I’ve brought some intelligible ideas to the discussion – Cheers!

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