Barack Obama: Self-Professed Evangelical?

Barack Obama: Self-Professed Evangelical? September 4, 2012

One of the most peculiar moments of the Republican National Convention — at least among those that did not involve an empty chair — was Mike Huckabee’s proclamation that Barack Obama was a “self-professed evangelical.” Mollie Hemingway at GetReligion (now housed at Patheos) registered puzzlement at that statement, a feeling I certainly share.

A couple months ago, the Anxious Bench’s John Turner asked “What Is Evangelicalism?”, generating an interesting discussion not only about the meaning of the term ‘evangelical,’ but about its uses in the media and pop Christian culture. But Huckabee’s use was a new one to me.

As Bob Smietana of The Tennessean pointed out in the GetReligion discussion, Huckabee may have based his statement on the fact that President Obama has a conversion testimony in which he walked an aisle to confirm his new faith. He even says he experienced a new birth.

But if he’s a “self-professed” evangelical, one would think the president might have described himself as an evangelical at some point, which he does not seem to have done. And in his revealing interview on faith with Cathleen Falsani in 2004 (again, hat tip to Smietana), Obama steered away from any claims of theological certainty:

I retain from my childhood and my experiences  growing up a suspicion of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always  comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth,  or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.

I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty… there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name  of religion and certainty.

Plenty of evangelicals express uncertainty about some biblical issues, but I don’t think any self-professed evangelical would reject theological certainty per se.

Huckabee was probably also recalling that Obama is the only self-professed Protestant in the race. Fair enough. But how strange that while some evangelicals still believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, now says that Obama professes to be an evangelical.

It’s not that hard to find out what Obama himself has said about his own faith, from sources like the Falsani interview, and Obama’s books, including The Audacity of Hope. In a way, he’s been as talkative about the nature of his faith as George W. Bush was. And yet, as the end of his first term nears, there seems to be less clarity than ever in the public’s understanding of the president’s beliefs. How can we explain this?

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  • From my own experience listening to Pres. Obama’s words on Christianity in general, and his faith in particular, I don’t think he can be classified as evangelical in any meaningful sense. In fact, he comfortably sits within the tradition of old school Protestant liberalism. There’s nothing here ( for instance, that Albrecht Ritschl couldn’t have said.

  • I don’t see anything sinister here. Maybe in his role as president of a pluralistic country, which maintains a separation of church and state, Obama feels it is best to not identify himself too strongly with a particular religion. Especially a religion like Christianity (I’m a committed Christian) which is exclusive in doctrine, insisting that people of other religions are in error and not going to heaven. It seems like a wise position for a president to take. Most presidents, it seems, talk about God and a higher power in a more abstract sense, without consistently identifying with a specific faith. My memory could be wrong.

  • agreed, Joe–thanks for this.

  • I don’t question Obama’s sincerity, either — I think he’s actually been more transparent than we might even expect. I’m just wondering why evangelicals range so widely in their interpretation of his faith…

  • Bob Wiley

    If President Obama is a Christian, then Chance the Gardner is his theological mentor.

  • Bryan Kessler

    Count me among those who thinks this phrasing betrays more about Huckabee than it does Obama. While the post does a good job of interrogating the ways in which “Protestant” and “evangelical” convey different theological things, I don’t think the differences between the two was in Huckabee’s mind at the time. Rather, his emphasis was on the “self-professed” part, a dog whistle for evangelicals indicating their is doubt about the sincerity of Obama’s religious identity.

    For many conservative Christians, the notion of questioning the authenticity behind a liberal (or moderate) Christian’s profession of faith is par for the course. Not unlike the Christmas & Easter Catholics label, it is (unfortunately) very common in evangelical churches to hear members express doubt about a fellow believer’s faith. The most common way, in my experience, is not through direct questioning (that would be too impolite for a good, Southern evangelical); instead, the person is referred to as “claiming” or “professing” to be a Christian, with the implication being it is less than sincere or that they might say the words without believing in their heart.

    This charge is especially thrown around at liberal politicians that proclaim a Chrisitan faith; some doubt their motives or believe that they are secretly secularists/atheists who still profess a faith because of political expediency. This, I believe, is at the heart of Huckabee’s phrase (bless his heart).

  • All very good observations. It almost seems unfair for me to analyze so deeply what I doubt was a deeply-considered phrase, but I remain genuinely _puzzled_ why Huckabee would choose the term ‘evangelical’ and not ‘Protestant.’ Perhaps, as you say Bryan, if the point is to raise questions about sincerity/hypocrisy, then calling him a self-professed Protestant does no good, for Protestant can mean almost anything in the American context and commands no one’s particular allegiance. Still, it strikes me as off-key to say he’s a self-professed ‘evangelical,’ when no one thought Obama was an evangelical before.

  • Bobby B.

    Yet we go round and round about claims that Mr. Obama is the most Christian president in American history.

  • Obama is both Mainline Liberal and City Black Church Baptist in turns. Neither recognize Evangelicalism as anything. But Huckabee is a southern sorta liberal baptist and recognizes Evangelicals in the South, such as Al Mohler in the Southern Baptist Convention. No wonder he was confused.

  • Ron Schooler

    I think it is important to place Obama’s faith in the context of the church in which he came to declare his faith in Jesus–the American Black Church. For some reason, when we look for Christians who agree within the basic bounds of evangelicalism we leave out the black church. The black church came about because black Christians were not accepted as equals in white churches. Leadership in black churches was based more upon charismatic leadership rather than academic accomplishments. However, these leaders found themselves as not only representatives of their flock, but also of the black community in general. This meant political involvement in the issues of the community. This is not normally true of white evangelical pastors (excepting during the Puritan experiment). It seems to me that white people do not think much about the black church. In doctrine it is very evangelical, but it also is strong in political action for obvious reasons. The social action of the black church looks a lot like the political action of liberal churches. But, I would argue that they are in neither camp completely. Obama is more like a black Christian than he is like an evangelical or liberal Christian.

  • Bobby B.

    I am pretty familiar with several urban Black congregations and at least in his public persona Obama isn’t like anyone I’ve met. Maybe a fresh reading of Dreams From My Father would help clear things up.

  • I agree that too often African American churches and pastors are left out of the discussion about evangelicalism, but there are plenty of African American churches and pastors whose theology is clearly evangelical (Fred Luter, Tony Evans, etc.). Obama’s theology is not.

  • Jonathan

    It’s good that you or I aren’t Judge though, but G-d alone! I uphold ANYONE who acknowledges the Son before man as being saved, because I believe in what the Word says, that if you confess with your MOUTH, that Jesus is LORD, and believe in your HEART that G-d raised Him from the dead, you will be saved…there’s nothing more to anyone’s salvation other than that! The Apostle Paul also says that we shoulnd’t even try to win the approval of men, but G-d alone! So, President Obama doesn’t have to convince me of his faith, his faith is between him & G-d. But, as I look at his marriage, his truthfulness–even when I don’t agree with him… who am I or anyone to question if he’s an Evangelical? Who cares, he’s saved! For the sake of his soul, I hope & pray that it’s sincere, but that’s between him & the LORD alone!

  • Look at the man’s mentors. William Ayers, liberation theologian( marxist theology) Reverend Wright, and Marxist Professor Roberto Unger. Then read Obama’s book Dreams From My Father. I don’t trust him.

  • I would guess that Huckabee was using “evangelical” in the popular sense that equates it with “born again.” When asked by Rick Warren in 2008 to describe himself religiously, Obama replied,, “I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and I am redeemed through him.” That’s a pretty evangelical response, and I suspect that at the popular level that’s all many people mean when they use the term “evangelical.”
    It’s worth noting that only about 15% of Americans use the term “evangelical” to self identify, yet historians and sociologists routinely talk about roughly 30% of the American population being evangelical. In doing so, scholars are obviously using “evangelical” as a category that accurately describes, not as a value judgment.
    In trying to be descriptive, I would refer to Obama as a “professing Christian,” “practicing Christian,” “devout liberal Christian deeply influenced by Neo-Orthdoxy,” or something like that simply because I believe it would better describe him than would the term “evangelical.”

  • Thanks, Barry. “Professing” or “practicing” (although, like most presidents, he hasn’t actually attended church much) are fine — I’m not sure that we know he’s “devout.” How about “progressive Christian”? I suspect that’s a term he would accept.