A Faith-Based Presidency

Despite two bestselling autobiographies discussing President Obama’s faith, many Americans remain confused and, frequently, skeptical about the President’s Christianity. Last week, John Blake tried to set the record straight at the CNN Belief blog. I recommend his thorough examination of President Obama’s religious beliefs in “The Gospel according to Obama.”

National Prayer Service during President Obama’s Inauguration with First Lady Michelle Obama, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State–designate Hillary Clinton, January 21, 2009. Photo credit: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Adelita C. Mead

Blake rightly locates Obama’s religious identity in the history of liberal Protestantism, especially the Social Gospel, and African American Christianities. Blake sees the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. more than, say, Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

The emphasis on community uplift – not individual attainment – may strike some Americans as socialist. But the emphasis on community is part of [Martin Luther] King’s “Beloved Community,” Bass says.

King once wrote that all people are caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”

“When I listen to Obama, I don’t hear communism, I hear the Beloved Community,” Bass says. “But a lot of white Americans don’t hear that because they never sat in those churches and heard it over and over again. It’s the whole theology that motivated MLK and the civil rights movement.”

But many white (conservative) evangelicals see things differently. Conservatives from James Dobson to Glenn Beck have not only questioned Obama’s religious beliefs but even proclaimed them as un- and anti-Christian. For instance, according to Blake, Rev. Gary Cass, the President of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission insisted:

“I just don’t see or hear in his accounts the kind of things that I’ve heard as a minister for over 25 years coming from the mouths of people who have genuinely converted to Christianity,” says Cass, pastor of Christ Church in San Diego.

Quite tellingly, Cass explains his objections according to his own entrenchment in a particular Christian tradition. He “just [doesn’t] see or hear” progressive Christianity because remains insulated from a broader Christian history, assuming any  expression of Christianity other than his own as not “genuine.” Conservative Christian objections to Obama’s faith, then, have less to do with Obama making spurious claims to Christianity and more to do with their own claims of “true” Christianity.

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