What Do I Say to Matt Walsh’s Declaration that Obama is Not a Christian?

What Do I Say to Matt Walsh’s Declaration that Obama is Not a Christian? April 24, 2015

A reader writes:

So recently I got into an argument with some conservative Christians (Catholic and Protestant) about Matt Walsh’s claim (you can probably see where this is going) that Obama is not a Christian. I basically tried to argue two things: 1) As long as Obama professes belief in Jesus as God and Savior and is baptized, he counts as “Christian” even if he is a poor example; and 2) The whole issue is stupid because it presumes to know what is in the heart, and furthermore is probably just a way to focus our moral outrage on the Other.

I felt a little tongue-tied trying to make both points. Someone challenged me to find the article of Catechism that describes who “counts” as a Christian, and not finding the precise passage I answered by saying that it was a “logical extrapolation” of all the basic facts. That felt like a lame answer, though.

How would you approach this?

You are right, of course.  And the irony is that Walsh, who is a Catholic, has a deeply Protestant and Puritan ecclesiology in which he anoints himself competent to kick people out of the Christian fold when the Church’s bishops do no such thing  with people like Obama but instead recognize (as you do) that somebody who is baptized and professes Jesus as savior is, in some sense–albeit in Obama’s case very imperfectly–a Christian. You can, for instance, note that when Obama offers an admirable Christian message in many respects and even quotes the Pope he does so, not because he is a secret Muslim or atheist (or both in the confused minds of combox bishops) but because he is a Leftist Protestant Christian formed in that tradition.  At the same time, you can also note that both the President, and his Catholic Vice President, carefully avoided mentioning what the Pope has said about every unborn child bearing the face of the Lord— not to mention marriage and the family, and every child having a right to a mother and father.  You can note, in short, that he is a Protestant who is picking and choosing from the Tradition, rather as Matt Walsh does on other matters.  Only Obama is more straightforward about his dissents from Catholic teaching than Walsh and similar combox bishops are.

In short, it is Puritans who go around searching for the impure to exclude from grace, not the Church.  That’s why, despite the ardent desires of the combox bishops, excommunication is an extraordinarily rare thing and why the Church emphasizes what we can find in common with non-Catholics, not how we can declare them to be cut off from Christ.

My own take on this was put to paper a few years ago in a piece I wrote for Crisis called “There Ain’t No Pure Church“.  The key grafs are these:

I have no problem acknowledging that non-Catholic Christians are in some real (albeit imperfect) union with the Church and will even accept as Christian (in some sense) anybody who names the Name. This includes Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other people who are very far out at the end of the bell curve theologically. Doesn’t mean I have to think they are good Christians either theologically, morally, or intellectually. All it means is that when some confused human being comes staggering down the road of life and is trying to get to Jesus crying, “Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner,” I’m not going to be the one to say, “Get lost!” After all, Jesus didn’t tell me to get lost — and I really was lost and more ignorant of Jesus than a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. Who am I, then, to grab one of these by the lapels and shout, “Pay me the orthodoxy you owe me”? Best to do like Priscilla and Aquila did with the half-baked Apollos and “expound to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).

Bottom line: “Everybody is a material heretic,” said a priest I once knew. That is, nobody fully lives or believes the gospel. We’re all a bunch of slobs and losers and incorrigibly average people, including the people who don’t want to be associated with slobs, losers, and average people. And I’m the biggest slob, loser, and average sinner of them all, yet God still loves even me and lets me come to Mass and receive the astounding gift of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. Why should I tell any other Catholic they aren’t welcome? That’s the bishop’s job, not mine. It’s weeds and wheat till the Last Day.

Like it or not, the self-appointed combox bishops have to deal with the fact that Obama is not a Muslim, just as he was not born in Kenya.  He is, by his own profession, a Christian. More precisely, he is a liberal Christian formed in the tradition of the African-American Social Justice Churches that coalesced out of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. He was baptized and has never renounced his baptism but has, on the contrary, repeatedly declared himself a believer in Jesus Christ.  The only way around this is to perform the same foolish mind-reading gymnastics as the Fundamentalist who declares “Oh but you do worship Mary!” when a Catholic declares that he does not.  Some, to be sure, are foolish enough to do this, declaring him a “secret Muslim” and his professions of faith in Christ to be lies.  But if we accept such silliness, we must also accept it when somebody tells us we Catholics “secretly” worship Mary despite all our protests to the contrary.

That said, we Catholics need not accept the proposition that Obama is an especially good Christian when he contradicts or is ignorant of Catholic teaching on various matters.  The rule of thumb, not just for Obama, but most especially for ourselves is that the Church, not we, should be trusted in arguments with the Magisterium.  But we should be very cautious of arrogantly declaring anybody to be cut off from or unacceptable to Jesus based on our ignorant opinion of them.  Remember always Uncle Screwtape’s advice to the tempter Wormwood about how hell loves to sucker us into judgment of others as they stumble after Jesus while forgetting our own sin and stupidity:

All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these “smug,” commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

The “good Christians” who are so ready, willing, and able to read others out of all contact with the grace of Christ may find themselves unpleasantly surprised if the measure they use is, as Jesus warns, measured to them.  Doesn’t mean we can’t confront people when their version of Christianity does not comport with the Church’s teaching.  We have an obligation to do so, in fact.  But we must not appoint ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner of the faith of other Christians when they err or sin.  Obama calls himself a believer in Jesus Christ.  Who am I to say he isn’t?  I believe in Jesus and I have believed grave errors and done great evils at times.  Catholics have to abandon the Puritan folly of saying that a Christian who does something they dislike “isn’t really a Christian”.  It is far more accurate to say that such a one is a bad Christian–bad morally or intellectually or sacramentally, for instance–than to say they are not “really” Christian.  Use every man according to his desserts and who shall ‘scape whipping?

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