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Can we discount the President’s Christianity?

Can we discount the President’s Christianity?

Randall Balmer, Episcopal priest and professor at Dartmouth, asks if any of us are fit to question if the President is Christian.

Balmer remembers an evangelical childhood in which he tried to convert his best friend, a Roman Catholic, before playing a game of catch. It’s in this tradition, he argues, that many American Christians can’t see President Obama as a fellow Christian.

Citing surprising results that found only 9% of Republicans polled believed Obama to be a Christian, Balmer explores the idea of what makes a Christian, and by what standards can our Christianity be judged.

From the column:

Is Barack Obama a Christian? I stand by my refusal to render such judgments, which properly belong to the Almighty. But I will note that Jesus said we should evaluate others “by their fruits.” Elsewhere, in the same passage where Jesus describes the last judgment, when God separates the sheep from the goats, he characterizes his true followers as those who acted with compassion toward “the least of these.” In this final reckoning, Jesus commends the actions of the faithful: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”

redeemer

Balmer has previously written about the faith of Jimmy Carter, in his biography, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. This biography traces the rise of evangelicals in modern politics through the campaign, presidency, and fall of Carter.

 

Posted by David Streever

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Anand Gnanadesikan

Jean,

I think one of the issues with many positions is that we really have no way to know how a governor or president will behave once they have to make executive decisions, especially in areas where they haven’t had to make decisions at the local level. So I think it is useful to know what their moral universe looks like. For example, the fact that Obama said that Neibuhr was his favorite philosopher is actually quite relevant to how he has governed- as a realist rather than as an idealist.

That said, I agree that the fact that a person pays lip service to a higher authority tells one very little about whether they have a vital faith, or one which actually exercises any authority over their actions. Nor, sadly, does it appear that personal character is determinative of whether one is an effective leader (if it were, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter would have been among the most effective presidents…). And I completely agree with you that religion is often used as a tribal affiliation.

-Anand

Anand Gnanadesikan

Jean,

I think one of the issues with many positions is that we really have no way to know how a governor or president will behave once they have to make executive decisions, especially in areas where they haven’t had to make decisions at the local level. So I think it is useful to know what their moral universe looks like. For example, the fact that Obama said that Neibuhr was his favorite philosopher is actually quite relevant to how he has governed- as a realist rather than as an idealist.

That said, I agree that the fact that a person pays lip service to a higher authority tells one very little about whether they have a vital faith, or one which actually exercises any authority over their actions. Nor, sadly, does it appear that personal character is determinative of whether one is an effective leader (if it were, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter would have been among the most effective presidents…). And I completely agree with you that religion is often used as a tribal affiliation.

-Anand

Jean Lall

Harry, I hope you’re right; we could use a little levity on this topic. I do agree with H. E. Baber that if President Obama were an atheist, SO WHAT? We do need, as a nation, to get over the childish insistence on our leaders being religious believers.

Anand thinks “it is appropriate to ask whether [our] leaders . . .recognize a higher moral authority” — but there are plenty of people who recognize a higher moral authority whom I would not want running my government. I want to see the person’s character in action. People who have been in public life for years generally have revealed their character sufficiently for us to gauge their fitness for office. It should not be necessary to ask them to bare their souls and divulge their theological beliefs.

I do think the President has had an interesting religious journey. There is a very thoughtful article on “Obama’s Religious Roots” written by an African-American Unitarian-Universalist minister, about Obama’s Unitarian background and how and why he eventually found a home in the United Church of Christ. It’s worth reading not only in connection with the topic of this post but also for the author’s insights into her own church and its gifts and limitations.

http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/220156.shtml

Anand Gnanadesikan

I’m also dubious of the idea that “Baptism is what makes a Christian”, absent any evidence of sanctification or belief. I certainly know plenty of atheists who were baptized as kids.

H.E. Baber: you might be surprised. Some of us raised as agnostics/seculars with advanced degrees actually find Christianity attractive (secularism actually has a slightly lower retention rate than Episcopalianism). There is evidence that this was true for Pres. Obama. On the other hand, politicians are often very good at convincing themselves that they believe what is good for their own careers. I hope Pres. Obama is not lying to us. But (despite the fact that I voted enthusiastically for him twice and continue to think that he’s doing a good job), I acknowledge the possibility that he is acting out of political expediency.

That said, I think it is appropriate to ask whether the leaders to whom we give secular authority unparalleled in human history recognize a higher moral authority. But we shouldn’t place too much stock in their answers.

H. E. Baber

It’s highly unlikely that Obama is a religious believer. His parents, with degrees in political science and anthropology, weren’t and with an academic background himself it’s unlikely that he is a religious believer. And it’s highly likely that he affiliated with a church, of the appropriate sort for a liberal black politician, for political purposes.

I’m pretty certain that Obama is an atheist, like most people of his demographic (and absolutely certain that he’s no a Muslim). But: SO WHAT? I look forward to the day when American politicians don’t have to dissemble about their religious views or lack thereof.

Obama is an atheist. Live with it.

Jean Lall

H. E. Baber: Seriously? – “with an academic background himself it’s unlikely that he’s a religious believer”? All of the Episcopal parishes I have attended over many years have included a great many people with significant “academic backgrounds”, including a number who had Ph.D. degrees and taught at the university level in the sciences, arts, and humanities. I also know many Episcopalians and other Christians whose parents were not religious.

Statistical likelihood (based on what “demographic” you think a person belongs to) is a poor basis on which to guess at his or her religious beliefs.

H. E. Baber

I am an academic. Of course there are Christians like me with PhDs who are college faculty. But only 14% of academics in my discipline—according to a PhilPapers survey—are ‘theists or lean to theism’, and that’s about average across disciplines.

Apart from faculty at small denominational colleges, the overwhelming majority of academics are atheists. Secularism is the norm, the world taken for granted—not even anything anyone thinks is worth commenting on. In addition, statistically, being brought up secular contributes heavily to being secular as an adult. I’m just guessing on the basis of statistics and the odds are that Obama is not a religious believer.

It’s a damn shame that to succeed in politics one has to make religious noises and exhibit church going behavior. That’s the reality and I of course don’t blame Obama for doing what he has to do.

I do not think that it’s appropriate to ask whether leaders ‘recognize a higher moral authority’. Religion has nothing to do with ethics—Americans need to grow up. And I also find it disconcerting that people take the suggestion that Obama is an atheist as a slur.

Harry M. Merryman

Jean Lall: Let’s hope the answer to your first question (“Seriously?”) is “No.” I find it easier to “live with” the assumption that this post was written with tongue-in-cheek!

JC Fisher

H.E. Baber, you’re not God, to see into Barack Obama’s soul (and be able to tell us he’s lying about his professed Christian faith). You’re not God: live with it.

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