Cover Story

What they believe

"What they believe" Continued...

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

Postmodern piety

If President Barack Obama was watching the Republican National Convention, he might have been surprised to hear former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee refer to him as “the only self-professed evangelical” in the race. (Huckabee used the moment to suggest that Romney’s positions align better with most evangelicals, even though he’s a Mormon.)

But if the president is an evangelical, he hasn’t stated it. In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Sun Times, Obama resisted the label. Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC)—his church home in Chicago for 20 years—is part of one of the most liberal Protestant denominations in the country. The UCC was the first denomination to ordain homosexuals openly. In 2005, the UCC passed a resolution supporting “gay marriage.”

Obama left Trinity Church in 2008 after a series of incendiary sermons surfaced featuring Jeremiah Wright, a longtime pastor, friend, and mentor to the Obamas. Wright’s sermons included scorching rants against “the Great White West,” and conspiratorial accusations of racism against whites in America.

Obama distanced himself from Wright, but not from the thread of black liberation theology that interprets the Bible as a story of the struggles of black people and emphasizes social justice. Since living in Washington, the Obamas have visited a handful of churches, but haven’t joined another congregation (a dynamic often typical for presidents while they live in the district).

Still, the president has underscored his Christian profession, and spoke at a 2011 prayer breakfast of how he came to “know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my Lord and Savior.” He has described visiting Trinity Church after college, and hearing Wright preach. “And in the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ,” he said. “I learned that my sins could be redeemed.”

But while Obama professes Christianity, he has publicly resisted some of its orthodox tenets. In his political memoir The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote: “When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must continually be open to new revelations.”

Viewing the Bible as changing text may have paved the way for the president’s shift to support gay “marriage.” Obama invoked Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 (known as “the golden rule”) to endorse a practice that most evangelicals consider unbiblical.

The president has also rejected the exclusive claims of Christianity. He told the Chicago Sun Times in 2007: “I believe that there are many paths to the same place and that is a belief there that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people.”

In his book The Faith of Barack Obama, author Stephen Mansfield tracks Obama’s language about Christianity, but also quotes evangelical advisers who say some of Obama’s views have changed. Joel Hunter—pastor of Northland Church in Florida and a spiritual adviser to Obama—told Mansfield that Obama is in transition on some of his Christian views, and insists the president is a born again believer.

But if the president has changed his views, he hasn’t mentioned it publicly. That’s troubling to Strachan of Boyce College, a former White House staffer under former President George W. Bush. Strachan says a mark of positive spiritual growth would entail repudiating serious error. Instead, Strachan sees growth in the opposite direction, particularly with the president’s support for abortion and “gay marriage.”

Even Mansfield—whose book paints an often positive picture of Obama’s faith—admits that the president’s views reflect a broader trend: “He is the product of a new, postmodern generation that picks and chooses its own truth from traditional faith, much as a man customizes his meal at a buffet.”

Theologian J. Gresham Machen warned against that kind of spiritual buffet in Christianity and Liberalism—a 1923 classic work that resonates today. For Machen, the proposition was simple: “Christianity is founded upon the Bible … Liberalism is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.” But the proposition was also hopeful: “The Bible, to the Christian, is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty.”

—with reporting by Marvin Olasky

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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