November 18, 2008
Can Obama Call Himself a Christian?
A mini debate has exploded on several blogs over whether President-elect Barack Obama can call himself a Christian.
If you're just catching up, first read this 2004 interview with Obama, but here are the relevant sections.
FALSANI: Who's Jesus to you? (Obama laughs nervously)
OBAMA: Right. Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he's also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher. And he's also a wonderful teacher. I think it's important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history.
FALSANI: What is sin?
OBAMA: Being out of alignment with my values.
FALSANI: What happens if you have sin in your life?
OBAMA: I think it's the same thing as the question about heaven. In the same way that if I'm true to myself and my faith that that is its own reward, when I'm not true to it, it's its own punishment.
Obama: ?There's the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they're going to hell.
FALSANI: You don't believe that?
OBAMA: I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.
I can't imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity. That's just not part of my religious makeup.
FALSANI: Do you believe in heaven?
OBAMA: Do I believe in the harps and clouds and wings?
FALSANI: A place spiritually you go to after you die?
OBAMA: What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don't presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.
Here are just some of the bloggers weighing in.
1. Obama is not a orthodox Christian. He may call himself a "Christian" in the same way that some Unitarians use the term to refer to themselves. But his beliefs do not seem to be in line with the historic definition.
2. In the 20 years that Obama attended Trinity, did he never hear a clear exposition of the Gospel? Did the Rev. Jeremiah Wright never once preach on the need for a saving faith in Christ? If not, then that is more scandalous than any of the anti-American remarks Wright made from the pulpit.
3. Although I already pray for Obama (as the Bible commands me to do) I now realize that I also need to pray for his eternal soul and not just that he be an effective leader of our nation. I also pray that he will find a spiritual leader who will help lead him to a true knowledge of Christ.
Unless Obama was being incredibly and uncharacteristically inarticulate, this is heterodox. You cannot be a Christian in any meaningful sense and deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. You just can't.
So when people say "I am a Christian" I accept them at their word, just as I hope that they accept me at my word when I make the same claim.
But the conversation doesn't have to end there, does it? It seems to me that, having taken President-elect Obama at his word when he claims the Christian faith, we can then go on to discuss what he thinks Christianity is, who he thinks who Jesus is, what obligations he believes a Christian takes on by virtue of being a Christian, and so on. And as that conversation proceeds we might say to him that we think his understanding of Christianity sadly limited, or the place of Christ in his theology to be insufficient and wrong-headed, or whatever.
Rod and Carter are correct that by any formal, credal standard of traditional Christianity in any confession, Obama is heterodox. It is important to distinguish this from the more loaded question of whether or not he is a Christian. It is relatively easy to demonstrate heterodoxy, but more difficult to show non-Christianity, and this is as it should be.
Now it's true that if he had been asked about Christ's nature, Bush - or Ronald Reagan, to take another conservative President with an idiosyncratic religious sensibility - might have given a more Nicaean answer than Obama did in the interview in question. But then again maybe not! (And God only knows what John McCain, the most pagan Presidential contender we've had in some time, might have said.)
The Incarnation is just such a bridge and a mystery. I guess I find a modern Christianity that is not attuned to that mystery, not willing to reimagine and undergo God in ways that may not always merely repeat orthodoxy to be ... well, moribund as a faith. I don't think Obama's engagement with it to be unChristian, merely modern.
So I'll end with this: It seems that there is one sine qua non for Christianity, and it was articulated by St. Paul in Romans 10:9,
That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
And it is abundantly clear that Barack Obama has, on many occasions, affirmed that Jesus is Lord.
I have nothing to offer, except to offer our readers a place to comment (on theology, not Obama's politics).