Obama Flunks (Another) Theology Test


“…I actually think we can know whether Obama’s public professions of faith are fraudulent by looking at his actions. And before you say it’s “unchristian-like” to consider whether another man’s public professions of faith are fraudulent, Bible-believing Christians are obligated to call out those who do not live as Christians but profess they are”. (David Rufful, the blog Young Conservatives, 2/22/15)

There’s nothing particularly novel about a sitting president’s sworn enemies hating on him for religious reasons. John Adams was repeatedly pilloried for his low Christology, and Jefferson’s political foes branded him a closeted atheist bent on replacing every Bible in the land with his own (highly edited) version of the New Testament.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries hence, this staunch and starchy (if uncodified) insistence on presidential theological conformity remains.

It’s a threadbare image in 21st-Century multicultural America, this archetypal vision of a pious leader on bended knees receiving orders from on high. The long tradition of European-style divine right was rejected as the young nation crafted a government sans royalty; yet there remain (most especially among religious conservatives) lofty and narrow theological expectations when it comes to the Executive. This reality was not lost on candidate Obama who in 2008 resigned membership with a progressive Chicago church in order to distance himself from the congregation’s often caustic pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It was the one instance in which Obama engaged the Fox News crowd on their own grounds. But while assailing the President’s faith has since been a constant and lucrative means of attack from the rabid religious right, their current screeds branding him an apostate are in a word despicable. There is an uptick in the number of more nuanced but equally unscrupulous accusations emanating from the Republican mainstream.

Last February it was Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s turn to publicly parse Obama’s spiritual life. In an interview given during the winter session of the National Governors Association, Walker responded to a question asking if he believes President Obama is a Christian with a quick, “I don’t know”. When the interviewer followed up by noting Obama has frequently and publicly spoken of his Christian faith, Walker demurred, “I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that …”

Walker’s seemingly straightforward reply belies a political context at times fixated on all things religious – a context in which he in particular has long and loudly engaged Obama on theological matters, citing his (Walker’s) evangelical beliefs as the touchstone for tea-party grade positions on equal marriage, reproductive freedom and in de facto fashion, creationism.

As progressive Christian Century blogger Jacob Lupfer notes in his February 27, 2015, post, Walker’s subtle right jab at the President’s religion is a historic, recurring reenactment of the tension between progressive and evangelical Christianity:

“Obama is a liberal Protestant … evangelicalism emerged largely as a reaction against liberal Protestantism. In many ways, mainline Protestantism is a foe that evangelicals have largely vanished in our time, so the persistence of Christians such as Obama and Hillary Clinton in positions of power and influence is maddening to conservative evangelicals who feed on a narrative of their own ascendancy and mainline decline.”

It’s left to the reader to decide if Lupfer’s analysis overgeneralizes in the service of a point, yet there can be no doubt that from time to time evangelical/mainline religious cold wars look and sound more like religious gang wars.

As the pressure of this electoral cycle ratchets ever higher, it behooves Teams Obama and Hillary Clinton to anticipate more not fewer Republican theological tests, overt and covert.

For his part, President Obama has intentionally flunked seven years worth of conservative religious conformity quizzes – not because of theological ineptness but because he early on recognized there is nothing to be gained by debating with religious bullies. We should hope for a similar tack once the evangelical/mainline standoff shifts from the Obama presidency to the Clinton candidacy. Sometimes scoring a zero is a good thing.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2015


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