James T. Kloppenberg is the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University and he spoke with Religion and Politics about his lecture “Barack Obama and the Paradoxes of Progressive Christianity.”
R&P: This faith and doubt—is that part of the paradox of progressive Christianity, the phrase from your keynote last night? Is that tension part of the paradox?
JK: I think so. It prevents you ever from resting easy in your faith, and to some people that doesn’t sound like religious faith at all, because to them, religious faith is a rock. Nothing changes. That’s true for many people, but is it true for everyone? In most religious traditions there are always people who are asking questions, people who want to unsettle what other people take to be dogma. And it does seems to me as though that is a part of the Christian tradition that, although it has not received very much attention in the United States in recent decades, is older than most forms of dogmatic Christianity. And I think there has been a conversation about what Christianity means from the very outset, and I think that notion of a conversation that continues is the conception of the Christian tradition that Obama himself embraces.
R&P: You convey that Obama’s conception of Christianity can be unusual, or even incoherent, for large swaths of the American public. I wonder why that is and how do you think that affects the public perception of his faith, which is so contested?
JK: Right. Well, for a lot of people, what religion means is certainty. There are absolute truths, and you live your life based on trying to adhere to those absolute truths. And that is certainly one tradition that is present in the history of Christianity. But I would contend that that’s not the only tradition in the history of Christianity; there have been people who are committed to opposing that conception of Christianity. In fact, I think that much of the scholarly work on the early history of Christianity for more than a century has focused on those contestations. Scholars have pointed out how long it took, and how much of a struggle it was, to establish these Scriptures, these four books of the New Testament, as the authentic books of the New Testament, and how we are to understand what the Scriptures are and what they mean. In part, this I think is an understandable development from the historical study of the Bible that begins in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and gathers momentum up to our own day. For us historians it becomes a lot harder to argue that this is other than a contested tradition from the very beginning and easier for us to accept that it remains contested to our own day. But many people see their religious faith in an altogether a different way: they think of the sacred Scriptures as having a fixed meaning, given by God, and their obligation is to align themselves with that truth. The idea that truth itself could be fluid is a very foreign concept to millions of people in the United States, and elsewhere, who consider themselves to be Christian. Between those two poles, there are of course infinite numbers of stopping places, so different people put themselves in different locations. But, it does seem to me that Obama, through some of the things he has said and written about Christianity, occupies a position closer to the skeptical than to the absolutist end of that spectrum.