Will History View Obama as the Wrong Kind of Christian — or the Father of a New Progressive Faith?
Is President Barack Obama the “wrong” kind of Christian? This is the question that CNN’s John Blake asked in an article published on the outlet’s web site over the weekend. The question, itself, is a fascinating one. Naturally, some would ask, “Who defines what and who the right kind of Christian is?” In addition to this curiosity, though, is the overarching issue of what it means to be an adherent. This latter point differs depending upon the denomination and religious tradition being consulted.
Perhaps, the most explicit way — and arguably the most universal – to frame the term “Christian” is to say that it comprises any individual who believes that Jesus Christ was and is God’s son. Another definition would simply be: Any man, woman or child who lives his or her life based on the examples of Christ’s teaching. Again, these are general explanations. Evangelically-speaking (and among most Christian denominations), both of these notions, teamed with the additional claim that Christ also died for the sins of humanity, would be embraced by the majority of believers.
So, when it comes to Obama, does he pass the litmus test to qualify as a “Christian?” This question, of course, isn’t being posed in a conspiratorial manner. After all, the president calls himself a Christian and, based upon that proclamation, he should be taken at his word (at least nominally). Despite his claim, though, critics still question just how devoted he is to the faith. We do know that, for two decades, Obama attended Trinity United Church of Christ, a Chicago-based house of worship that embraces black liberation theology.
Certainly, a large proportion of mainstream Christians would have qualms with this strain of Christian ideology. These individuals, especially based on the fiery sermons of Obama’s former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, may even claim that black liberation theology is a rogue version of the faith that places focus more upon liberation and ethnicity than it does biblical tenets. Others will — and have — accused the president of attending the church for two decades mainly for political reasons (a sentiment Wright, himself, has agreed with), while having little attachment to Christian theology.
Taking all of this into account, though, Blake writes that Obama is “a religious pioneer” who has successfully changed people’s views on who can be president. Beyond this notion, he has purportedly, according to academics and pastors, alike, also expanded “the definition of who can be a Christian by challenging the religious right’s domination of the national stage.” Blake continues:
When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-sex marriage, framed health care as a moral imperative to care for “the least of these,’’ and once urged people to read their Bible but just not literally, he was invoking another Christian tradition that once dominated American public life so much that it gave the nation its first megachurches, historians say. [...]
Obama is a progressive Christian who blends the emotional fire of the African-American church, the ecumenical outlook of contemporary Protestantism, and the activism of the Social Gospel, a late 19th-century movement whose leaders faulted American churches for focusing too much on personal salvation while ignoring the conditions that led to pervasive poverty.
For many faithful Christians who describe themselves as right-of-center, progressive Christianity is an anomaly. Attempting to understand how believers could be so lenient on issues like abortion and gay marriage is difficult for more conservative Christians to comprehend. On the flip side, progressive faith leaders like Jim Wallis fault the right for a perceived notion that they focus too much on personal faith and social issues and not enough on the poor.
This difference is presented most adequately by historian Diana Butler Bass who is, herself, a progressive Christian.
“The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.,” she said, according to CNN. “He’s a different kind of Christian, and the media and the public awareness needs to reawaken to that fact.”
While some, like Bass and Wallis, certainly believe that Obama is a Christian and they herald the fact that he’s discussed his faith so openly, others feel the president lacks an overtly emotional attachment to the Christian tradition (although Blake notes that the president did address these themes in his books) that most believers expect to observe.
Many believers, particularly evangelicals, have a dramatic or noteworthy personal conversion story — or they speak about God in elevated and faith-driven terms. Obama’s mentions of God are typically attached to policy issues and do little to let the American electorate into the president’s raw and personal faith walk.
One of the religious leaders that Blake spoke with for his article, the Rev. Gary Cass, of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, pointed to these very issues in his assessment of Obama.
“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,” Cass, a conservative faith leader, said. “Joining a church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian. You can put me in the garage, but that doesn’t turn me into a car.”
Cass maintained that his own belief in helping the poor is important. However, he said that such action shouldn’t be taken “along the lines of communistic redistributing.” Understanding the issues that Cass, among others, have with Obama is predicated upon comprehending how the president’s theology was shaped.
Obama became a Christian while he was a community organizer in Chicago. He joined a predominately black United Church of Christ. The UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to officially support same-sex marriage in 2005.
Obama’s faith showed many of the elements of a liberal Protestant church: an emphasis on the separation of church and state, religious tolerance and the refusal to embrace a literal reading of the Bible.
In a 2006 speech before a Sojourners meeting, Obama talked about his approach to the Bible:
“Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?”
On the issues, the nation is divided. While progressive Christians see health care regulation as a Christian tenet that seeks to help those in need, more conservative believers think Obama is bent on embarking on a socialistic path. As for gay marriage and abortion, many progressive believers are okay with both; conservatives, obviously, are not.
Plainly stated: Progressive Christians believe that Obama is upholding Biblical scripture — or, at least, the spirit of it, while right-leaning Christians feel he is acting in a manner directly contradicting religious sentiment.
As for Obama’s legacy on the faith front, there’s much to be said about how he will be viewed. As TheBlaze reported earlier this month, religion is at a crossroads in America. For the first time, less than half of the nation considers itself Protestant (48 percent) and the fastest-growing cohort in the faith sphere is Americans who consider themselves religiously-unaffiliated. While some are already writing obituaries for American religious adherence, others see a golden opportunity.
With progressives often complaining about the role that right-leaning religious leaders have played in the political arena over the past few decades, this same group may now be seeing an opportunity for a new brand of faith — one reminiscent of left-of-center values. Assessing where young evangelicals stand is key.
Marcia Pally, author of “The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the common Good,” sees an increase in support for government programs to help the poor among young evangelicals. Additionally, she sees young people supporting “economic justice and environmental protection issues.”
“What’s interesting is that these values, associated with Obama and the black Protestant tradition are now also the values of a growing number of white evangelicals,” Pally told CNN.
According to the author, Obama will either be viewed, in a historical context, as the face of the final installment of progressive faith — a theology that could inevitably go extinct. Or, he will be seen as the figure who helped to resurrect and expand a dying breed of leftist faith in the coming generation. Considering younger peoples’ beliefs, which do appear more accepting of government programs, anything is possible.
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