One of the strangest right-wing conspiracies is that Barack Obama is not really a Christian. It’s strange because the President has missed few opportunities to inject Christianity into his rhetoric — to an extent that really ought to irritate his more radical liberal allies. Yet all his talk about being “brought to Christ” has done little to bring conservatives to him.
On the contrary, this week they responded to Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast with righteous anger. The President used the occasion to warn against the distortion of faith for the sake of promoting violence.
Few would disagree with that, but Obama upped the stakes by reminding the audience that Christians could be just as guilty of this as Islamists — name-dropping the Crusades, Inquisition and Jim Crow as examples. The President urged listeners to recognize the role that doubt can play in faith, embracing humility and rejecting the idea that “somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.”
“The President’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, former Republican governor of Virginia. “Barack Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian,” wrote Erick Erickson at RedState.com. “Christ himself is truth. When we possess Christ, we possess truth. The President is a moral relativist.”
I am reminded of The Onion’s reporting of an imaginary speech in which Obama urges the Democratic Party to “destroy Jesus and usher in a new age of liberal darkness that shall reign o’er the Earth for a thousand years.”
No, Obama is not the anti-Christ. But conservative Christian skepticism about his religion is justifiable. From the perspective of the religious right, his faith is contradicted by his policies: How can a Christian support same-sex marriage or say “Thank you, Planned Parenthood. God bless you” when it is an organization that provides abortion services?
If his rejection of natural law infuriates Catholics, some conservatives have identified a lack of commitment to the principle of American exceptionalism and, therefore, to its associated dream of building “a shining city upon a hill.” If you believe that God intervenes directly in the lives of individuals and nations (as did Benjamin Franklin), then the blessings enjoyed by the United States are not an accident but providence.
Hence, Barack Obama’s suggestion earlier in his presidency that exceptionalism is not necessarily exceptional to America, validates the accusation that, in the words of Gilmore, he “does not believe in America or the values we all share.” Just as controversial are the President’s claims that one does not necessarily achieve salvation through Christ alone (that there is more than one “path to grace”) or that Christianity is stained by some sort of historical sin of political manipulation.
But if Barack Obama contradicts one faith tradition in America, he is in tune with another. There is a modernist, post-’60s brand of Christianity that places an emphasis upon man as broken and in need of healing. This is a difficult process because, I and others would argue, that part of our “broken state” involves being disconnected from God, and it’s this disconnection that leads to sin.
Said the President at the breakfast: “We should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards [God], and have some humility in that process.”
By acknowledging what we don’t know about God and focusing upon improving our human relationships here on Earth, says the modernist Christian, we become fuller human beings and fuller Christians. Perhaps we can be redeemed through social action, while our understanding of the truth begins by acknowledging that we weren’t born with ownership of it. Maybe it’s OK to be gay? Maybe Allah is just another way of saying “God”?
Back in 2004, State Sen. Obama explained, “I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.”
This take on faith dominates in English Anglicanism and its American Episcopalian branch. Personally, I don’t much like it. As a Catholic, I believe that the truth is contained in the Bible and is lived through communion in the Catholic Church — and all this talk of humility is navel-gazing in a world crying out for the Good News: that Jesus has died for its sins and offers a shot at heaven for those willing to trust in him.
I also think that politically empowering this brand of Christianity has not always been best for the United States, either. Barack Obama’s rejection of American exceptionalism is reasonable and sometimes has helped avoid reckless intervention. But it has also reduced the United States’ self-confidence and weakened the ability of the West to provide moral leadership.
The cost is counted in the caliphates that flourish in Nigeria and the Middle East — places where an appeal to humility is a nice idea but never going to catch on. While the Judeo-Christian West is busy being modest, its Islamist enemies brim with self-assurance.
But I wouldn’t deny that Obama is a Christian, belongs to a valid and probably growing strain of Christianity, and that he is in fact one of the most interesting religious thinkers to inhabit the White House for a very long time.
The challenge faced by conservatives is surely not to brand him un-American but rather to answer his specific points in a manner that asserts that our brand of Christianity is just as compassionate and intellectually rigorous. Among Christians, surely, humility is a blessing.
Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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