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:
- 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.
- 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.