Is Obama a Christian?

Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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52 Responses

  1. Angie says:

    It seems that whatever religious persuasion one has, is the ‘standard’ that is held to judge another as a “believer or unbeliever”.

    So, can we say that religious tests, are self-identifying factors to identify whether one is “of us” or “of them”?Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    If “Christian” means “culturally christian” then he’s a Christian, I’m a Christian, Hitch is a Christian, we’re all Christians here.

    If, however, “Christian” means some metaphysical thing having to do with blood, I would like to see how that is measured before I weigh in.

    But if “Christian” means “One of Us”, Obama is obviously not a Christian and I don’t see how you can argue that he is.Report

    • Angie in reply to Jaybird says:

      You did a good job in distinguishing the cultural Christian, these believe in universals and diversity.
      The fundamentalist Christian believes in the myth as the real.
      And the “political Christian”, are those who hold to thier definitions of Christian, so that they can control and remain in power.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Angie says:

        “Pretty Damn Succinct” was the name of my band in high school. Most of our songs were about a minute long.

        We broke up. Creative differences.Report

        • Angie in reply to Jaybird says:

          A cultural Christian is like Origen, who believed that all nations had “something to offer”. (I think I’m remembering Church History….)

          A fundamentalist Christian are those that believe in a literal interpretation of the text.

          A “political Christian” are how humans understand reality and thier lives in connection to that reality, which is the “real world” or the political. The Constitution or the “rule of law” protects the diversity in unity.

          Were you suggesting that “unity in diversity” was a more apt phrase?Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Angie says:

            I was suggesting that we hammer down “what a Christian is”.

            There are ways in which I, a post theist, am very much a Christian.

            There are ways in which I, a post theist, am not.

            There are ways in which saying “so-and-so is not a Christian” is obviously true, patently absurd, or downright offensive.

            If I was suggesting anything, I was suggesting that everybody was abusing the fact that we haven’t really defined much of anything. So… no. I was not suggesting that “unity in diversity” was a more apt phrase.Report

    • Angie in reply to Jaybird says:

      So, Obama is not a Christian according to political conservatives.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Angie says:

        Yeah, and political conservatives are not Christian according to Unitarian Universalists.

        Hell, it’d be easy to come up with a narrative wherein they’re called “Whited Sepulcher” by Jesus on the Day of Judgment before being told “I never knew you”.Report

        • Angie in reply to Jaybird says:

          I respect Unitarian Universalists. I’m just not into religion, these days. (But, I am open to change, as I am not suggesting that I have “the answer”, only some questions.)

          Let me explain or defend my “diversity in unity” thinking. In science it is known that:

          Cell Differentiation — E Unus Pluribus
          By Charlie Feigenoff (PhD, English ’83)

          Posted Spring 2003
          The motto of the Great Seal of the United States is e pluribus unum, out of many, one. If there were a great seal for developmental biology, its motto might be e unus pluribum, out of one, many. Indeed, one of the principal wonders of development is that thousands of highly specialized cells, cells that perform myriad intricate and complex tasks, are produced from a single cell and that the preponderance of this differentiation occurs during the relatively short gestational period.

          Understanding differentiation requires enumerating the vast and complex sequence of events that occur during embryonic development, uncovering the mechanisms that trigger and facilitate each developmental milestone, and teasing out the genetic origins of these instructions. Research on differentiation is being conducted in hundreds of laboratories around the globe, each dedicated to specific pieces of this puzzle. Dr. Ariel Gomez and researchers at his lab, Dr. Maria Sequeira Lopez and Ellen Pentz, specialize in the development of the kidneys, the organ responsible for clearing impurities from blood.”

          Whenever we go from a universal to a particular, then we do injustice to the unique and specific. We diminish and dissolve the value of particular choice by these universalizing principles. It is systems thinking without understanding that “systems” thinking itself is a form of identification, commitment of value and proposing uniformity of some kind.

          The individual has the right to exist apart from the “universals” or “collective” identities in society. I have understood Christian faith to affirm the individual, as well as our Constitutional government.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Angie says:

            They’re a bunch of “Stuff White People Like” hippies bathing in Liberal Guilt every week if you ask me.

            But, hey, it’s not like my hobbies aren’t goofy too.Report

            • Angie in reply to Jaybird says:

              If you speak of multiculturalism, as an absolute, then I agree. Multiculturalism undermines “the rule of law” because by definition, the law defines, or makes distinction about what is “right”.

              But, if you speak of indivdiual conscience, then, no, it is not goofy. The trick is to distinguish where and when these differences must be divided/defined.

              The individual, in our society, lives in a diverse culture. But, where does the individual have a right over and above the culture? And where does the culture have a right over and above the individual? It is a “chicken and egg” argument, that can only be resolved by precedent in our courts.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Angie says:

                Stare decisis is for suckers.

                My support for multiculturalism comes from the intuition that if the day comes that folks say “you know what, we really need to clamp down on this shit”, I will be one of the folks clamped down upon.

                As such, I am a full-throated supporter of cultural relativism.

                Folks who start arguing “no, we need to acknowledge that our culture is better than other cultures” tend to completely lack any sense of irony and when it’s pointed out that, maybe, Canadians (to pick a country out of a hat) might want to impose Canadianness on us down here, they get all huffy and start making derogatory statements about Texas North.

                The rule of law is a societal construct. I find it preferable to, say, patronage… but I would, wouldn’t I?Report

              • Angie in reply to Jaybird says:

                I am in not in the camp of supporting of defending cultural relativism to the extent that I think you are (if I understand you correctly).

                I believe that “social constructs” are open ended agreements, as to the social contract. And our country believes in the “consent of the governed”, meaning that the individual is of primary importance to government having a right over the individual. This is where “we, the people” have a right to “own our government”…..Report

        • Robert Cheeks in reply to Jaybird says:

          Remember when the lovely lotus blossom called me a “white sepulcher?” I had to ask Martha what that was.Report

  3. Sam M says:

    I am Catholic, so I hear my family have these arguments all the time. Does so-and-so “count”? Usually I needle them with questions like:

    What about the guy down the street who believes in the whole thing but doesn’t go to church? What if he goes to church but doesn’t give anything up for lent? Is he more or less Catholic than the guy who never really thinks about it, probably wouldn’t believe any of it if he did think about it, but goes to church every Sunday and all Holy Days of Obligation because his wife makes him? Who is more likely to get into heaven?

    Usually, it comes down to all of us defining Catholicism to mean “exactly as we practice.” That whole thing about Limbo? Nobody in my family ever believed in Limbo. It didn’t make sense for God to think that way! So the church was wrong!Report

    • Angie in reply to Sam M says:

      How can you say you don’t believe in Limbo, as that “doesn’t make sense for God to think that way”? You’ve just questioned others in their convictions regarding such matters….how would you know? (unless you prescribe to bibical literalism)…

      As to defining Catholicism “exactly as we practice”, I would say, yes, as political ideology has everything to do with how we understand how things “are”. This is where we” weigh in” on our ideological commitments. But, if you’re talking about how things “should be”, this is where the “ideal” doesn’t meet the “real world” politick. What do we do with that? Conservativism accepts that humans will not be able to rectify everything. We are limited by space and time. Do conservatives then, fight to protect that which is “right”, as to thier understanding of “rights”, in the Constitution? Liberals, on the other hand, want to “revolutionize” the world to fit the “ideal”, as to “natural rights” in the Declaration of Independence. This is where the liberal wants to revolutionize our globe so that humanity can live at peace and goodwill. It is Utopian dreams. Do we dare to believe such idealism?Report

      • Sam M in reply to Angie says:

        “How can you say you don’t believe in Limbo, as that “doesn’t make sense for God to think that way”? You’ve just questioned others in their convictions regarding such matters….how would you know?”

        That’s my whole point. Everyone defines it for themselves and calls everyone else nuts.Report

    • Angie in reply to Sam M says:

      BTW, I am not dismissing those that want to believe in these ideals, as they are humanitarians, political activists, and such. I’m just not that optimistic, as to the “ideal” anymore.Report

  4. MFarmer says:

    “I use Washington and Madison as examples because there are questions on what they exactly believed. They left fewer “smoking guns””

    Unless you discount Peter Lillback’s Sacred Fire.Report

  5. Jon Rowe says:


    See my next post (maybe today; maybe tomorrow). I don’t discount Lillback’s Sacred Fire. Rather, I’m his most persistent critic.Report

  6. Steve S. says:

    “But that’s not the only test for ‘what is a Christian?’”

    Myself, I consider the first test to be the only one of interest, because how Obama self-identifies tells me something about him as a public figure. I’m not sure why I should care about any of the other things, even of I was some flavor of Christian.Report

  7. Robert Cheeks says:

    I think Barry’s a cultural Muslim and a Kenyan Marxist. But I’ve said that before.Report

    • Barrett Brown in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      What do you mean by cultural Muslim, exactly?Report

      • Robert Cheeks in reply to Barrett Brown says:

        Barry said that the most beautiful (human?) sound was the Ahrab ‘call to prayer.’ I extrapolated.Report

        • Angie in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          That is scary. Government mandating prayer, and enforcing a “standard” way to pray, (as if there is one acceptable way to pray). That would be oppressive, as such mandates would be a State sanctioned religious activity, and the activity would be judged by government “standards”.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          I recently returned from my second trip to the Middle East. Cumulative I’ve spent almost a month in Muslim countries. Not very long, but long enough to go from finding the call to prayer annoying (especially early in the morning) to experiencing it simply as yet another noise among the cacophony of car horns and revving motorcycles, to finding it a distinct and beautiful element in the aural landscape.

          I’m a midwestern farm kid raised in a protestant church, who likes to drink and advocates pre-marital sex (with the exception of my daughters, of course). So I’m most definitely not a cultural Muslim. So I’m having a pretty difficult time with your extrapolation, unless it’s tongue-in-cheek and I just don’t know you well enough to get you yet.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          Barry said that the most beautiful (human?) sound was the Ahrab ‘call to prayer.’

          More accurately “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth.” Nothing wrong with that. I think church bells are quite pretty, and that doesn’t begin to make me a Christian.Report

  8. Michael Heath says:

    Jon – you can do better than this. Why not blockquote specific texts directly from Barack Obama rather than link to people who’ve repeatedly demonstrated an inability to consistently make honest arguments, i.e., Joe Carter and Joe Farah.

    What Barack Obama actually asserts regarding his faith, which seems to missing in this thread though one can eventually get some assertions via the links (from a link embedded in the David Kopel link). This one is from this year’s Easter Prayer Breakfast’s transcript:

    what I can do is tell you what draws me to this holy day and what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice and what inspires me about the story of the resurrection.

    For even after the passage of 2,000 years, we can still picture the moment in our mind’s eye. The young man from Nazareth marched through Jerusalem; object of scorn and derision and abuse and torture by an empire. The agony of crucifixion amid the cries of thieves. The discovery, just three days later, that would forever alter our world — that the Son of Man was not to be found in His tomb and that Jesus Christ had risen.

    We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him. We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.

    And such a promise is one of life’s great blessings, because, as I am continually learning, we are, each of us, imperfect. Each of us errs — by accident or by design. Each of us falls short of how we ought to live. And selfishness and pride are vices that afflict us all.

    It’s not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption. But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.

    Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season. And I think of hanging — watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion. He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath.

    “Father,” He said, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today. Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children.

    So, on this day, let us commit our spirit to the pursuit of a life that is true, to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord. And when we falter, as we will, let redemption — through commitment and through perseverance and through faith — be our abiding hope and fervent prayer.

    Many of you are living out that commitment every day. So we want to honor you through this brief program, celebrating both the meaning of Easter and the spirit of service that embodies so much of your work. And our first celebrant today is Reverend Dr. Cynthia Hale, who will deliver our opening prayer.

    Here’s a broad-ranging speech from 2006 (prior to the Jeremiah Wright broohah) on the conservative Christians who bear false witness against Mr. Obama regarding his faith, his objection to secularists, his conversion experience, and other religious matters:

    Jon – I’m not sure what the link limit is at your new site to avoid moderation? Two or is it more?Report

    • Jon Rowe in reply to Michael Heath says:

      I’m not sure what the link limit is either.

      But you are right that speech is what I had in mind when I made my assertion about BHO providing more of an explicit orthodox minimum than GW or JM ever did.Report

  9. Michael Heath says:

    I must have had a broken HTML link above, sorry.Report

  10. Michael Heath says:

    From a Christianity Today interview in 2008-01. CT asks:

    You’ve talked about your experience walking down the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ, and kneeling beneath the cross, having your sins redeemed, and submitting to God’s will. Would you describe that as a conversion? Do you consider yourself born again?

    Then Sen. Obama answers:

    I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. I didn’t ‘fall out in church’ as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn’t want to walk alone on this journey. Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.
    There is one thing that I want to mention that I think is important. Part of what we’ve been seeing during the course of this campaign is some scurrilous e-mails that have been sent out, denying my faith, talking about me being a Muslim, suggesting that I got sworn in at the U.S. Senate with a Quran in my hand or that I don’t pledge allegiance to the flag. I think it’s really important for your readers to know that I have been a member of the same church for almost 20 years, and I have never practiced Islam. I am respectful of the religion, but it’s not my own. One of the things that’s very important in this day and age is that we don’t use religion as a political tool and certainly that we don’t lie about religion as a way to score political points. I just thought it was important to get that in there to dispel rumors that have been over the Internet. We’ve done so repeatedly, but obviously it’s a political tactic of somebody to try to provide this misinformation.

    I have received numerous conservative viral emails from conservative Christians who claim that the President is a Muslim, subservient to the House of Saud, an ally or member of al Qaeda, and should be “taken out”.Report

  11. Lee says:

    That Volokh post certainly demonstrates that Dave Kopel knows very little about liberation theology, if nothing else.Report

  12. Jason P says:

    It’s true that Obama calls himself a Christian and expounds on some of the key points of his beliefs. Recently he’s called himself a fiscal conservative and claims he wants to reduce the government debt.

    Self-proclamations aren’t automatically true.

    I have no problem accepting Obama’s Christianity because it doesn’t matter to me. I have a big problem accepting his claims to fiscal responsibility. It matters and the facts are inconsistent with his professions.Report

  13. Mike Schilling says:

    This stuff used not to matter. No one cared that George Romney was a Mormon; what killed his presidential aspirations was his honesty about Vietnam. But his son’s Mormonism, and whether it’s acceptable to the Christian Right, is one of the central issues of his campaign. We used to be a better country.

    1 His son learned a great lesson from that, which is to avoid honesty whenever humanly possible [2].
    2. As well as to avoid humanity whenever robotically possible.Report

  14. Robert Cheeks says:

    Barry is a low man, of no discernable talent.Report

  15. pat says:

    This strikes me as such a non-issue. Why in the world would I want a seriously christian president? I elect politicians to be non-christian for me, so I can peacefully be christian in my own little sphere, knowing that somebody else is doing the morally questionable things that keep that sphere intact.

    There’s something wrong about hiring people to do things that are not even remotely christian, and then requiring them to pretend to be christian. Somebody is doing a lot of lying in this process, and I think the politicians are the least of the liars.Report

  16. Pinky says:

    What is the point of asking such a question when anyone (everyone?) knows that the term, Christian, is a purely subjective one.

    America’s institutional idea of religious belief is based on a single foundational value and it is not the definition of what it means to be a Christian. We are a pluralist society and the question to ask has to do with the president’s adherence to the basic value of our religiosity which, more certainly, is not based on anyone’s idea of what it means to be a Christian.Report

  17. Angie says:

    I just found your last response in my “Spam” folder, as I was checking it this morning. I agree wholeheartedly!!! This is what is wrong nowadays.

    We cannot allign ourselves with a politicized religion, otherwise, we will be falling in line with “radicals”. Our political climate was to be “open” regarding things of conscience. Now, we have to fight to define what things should be considered of one’s private conscience…..Report

  18. Angie says:

    I just came back to read some comments that had gone into my SPAM folder. And I want to add to my comment above about the cultural and political Christian.

    The cultural Christian has diverse meanings. A cultural Christian is an Eastern mystic, that believes that transcendental values should impact the real world of the political. The problem becomes culture, as culture determines how we live in the world. Our nation affirms diversity, while Eastern faith either mysticize their faith altogether (Buddhism), and others politicize it absolutely and leaves not room for conscience (Islam). The West bases their understanding of the political on reason.

    The political Christian is one that adheres to a political ideology that affirms diversity as an absolute, without subjugating “the absolute of diversity” to a religion. These Christians understand that the transcendent, as to values, cannot be implemented politically without discriminating against other convictions of “faith”.Report

  19. Pinky says:

    I remember when I was a boy in grade school back in 1942 when the teacher gave us her explanation of what it meant to be a Christian. Apparently some parent had made some sort of a complaint. She gave some dictionary type definition about American Christians being “good” people. I suppose that’s what you mean by a “Cultural Christian”?

  20. Angie says:

    And what definition of “good” do you have, Pinky?

    A cultural Christian is a Christian that adheres to the cultural standard, right? Whatever that cultural standard is. But, in our diverse ways of understaning faith, one can’t define “good” in an absolute way, except that one is law-abiding…the ” Judeo-Christiany” aspect of American ideals…each finds his own way….Report

  21. Pinky says:

    I suppose your statement is what my teacher meant in using the word, good, to describe Christian.
    I think what happens to some people is that they associate with only like minded others and they get to agreement regarding their particularist values forgetting the universalist. So, in their conceit, they think their values are the foundations upon which all others should act.
    That’s a human characteristic quite widely spread.