Virtual Voices

The president's confusing messages on religion

Religion

President Obama attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington yesterday. His own denomination---the United Church of Christ---has been teasingly described as "Unitarians considering Christ." I don't know how much he is considering Jesus, but he sure is quiet about it if he is. Even among Christians, the president seems to believe in a Christless Christianity.

He quoted President Kennedy's inaugural---always a good idea. "Civility is not a sign of weakness," he said. But as with omitting Jesus, the president skipped the rest of the JFK quote: ". . . but sincerity is always subject to proof."

We are seeing little proof of his sincerity these days. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson recognized Barack Obama's great gifts---as all Americans once did. When he first appeared on the scene, it seemed Obama could be eloquent reading the telephone book. Of late, Gerson points out, more and more Americans think the president is just reading the telephone book.

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Obama has told the world he is a Christian, not a Muslim. We have his word on it. We even have the word of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on it. There has never been a religious test for any federal office, including the presidency. In fact, the candidate elected in 1908---a full century before Obama---was not a Christian. William Howard Taft was a fine president. But as a Unitarian, Taft rejected the Holy Trinity; he rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ.

When President Obama took the oath of office last year, he made a stunning rhetorical shift in his inaugural address. He described America as a nation of "Christians and Muslims, Jews, Hindus and nonbelievers." Where did that come from? This was the first time in U.S. history that the Jews had been so displaced.

Jews first arrived in America in 1654, in the New Netherlands colony that was then owned by the Dutch. Jews have been an integral part of our history as a people ever since. They have fought in all of America's wars.

Though a small minority, the influence of the Jews has been great. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wanted the official seal of the United States to depict Moses leading the Children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. My fellow black Americans took inspiration from the Hebrews in our own 300-year struggle for freedom.

Even though a small percentage of America today, the Jewish people are by all counts a larger percentage of the American population than Muslims. And since Jews are, in the phrase of Pope John Paul II, "our elder brothers in the faith," Jewish ideals and the Hebrew Scriptures have animated Christians in this country from the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

So why has President Obama pushed them aside? It's not just a rhetorical slip. A president's inaugural address is freighted with meaning.

The president ventured deeper into theological confusion in his Cairo address. He referred to "the Holy Koran." He described the Middle East as the region "where Islam was first revealed."

Muslims are certainly free to believe these things. But Christians cannot regard the sacred books of any other religion as holy or revealed. If they do, they are denying their own faith.

No one expects the president of the United States to use his state powers to Christianize the world. Previous attempts to advance Christianity with the sword have led to great discredit to the Church.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to meet with the King of Saudi Arabia. FDR met Abdul Azziz aboard the U.S.S. Quincy on Feb. 14, 1945. Because of this historic meeting, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is known as Quincy House to this day.

Roosevelt was described by his son Franklin Jr. as "a very religious man." FDR found no need to bow to the Muslim king. The president attended Christian services on board the Quincy and made no apologies for his faith.

When President Obama makes theological statements about Islam that no Christian can believe or accept, he is not reaching out or simply engaging in diplomatic niceties. He is sending a most confusing message.

I am not questioning his beliefs, but I think the mixed messages he has sent only fuel speculation about those beliefs. These speculations then fly around the internet and undermine the sincerity of his own professions of belief. This has created a credibility gap for him with millions of Americans.

You can be diplomatic and culturally sensitive without surrendering your Christian faith.

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