Is Obama a Christian?

Monday, November 10, 2008

There are basically two ways for an Evangelical to answer that question. One if focused on affirming a certain set of doctrinal statements, the other is focused on a conversion experience. I would maintain that the doctrinal definition is one that is often upheld by Evangelical leaders and academics (i.e. those with a voice in the public square), while the second relational definition is held by the masses.

For example in "American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving" sociologist Christian Smith views Evangelicalism in context of its doctrinal positions in contrast to Liberal Christianity. However in interview after interview the actual Evangelicals in Smith's sociological study continually define their own faith not in terms of orthodox doctrine per se, but as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. What we see here a discrepancy between how Evangelicalism is understood as doctrinally focused by its leaders, and relationally focused by its laity.

Along these lines, former Moral Majority VP Cal Thomas bases his definition of an Evangelical on a set of doctrinal issues, and concludes that "Barack Obama is not a Christian". But if we instead ask whether Obama is a Christian based on the relational criteria that most Evangelicals actually hold to, we get a very different answer. Obama can speak very naturally about his relationship with Jesus Christ. For example addressing a church he tells the story of alter call experience when he was introduced to,

"someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life. It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith... kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works." (full text HERE)

It is interesting to note that in the interview from the Chicago Sun-Times which Cal Thomas references as the sole source for his conclusion of Obama's non-Christian status, Obama is quoted there as well as describing himself as having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ". Thomas omits that part, and only focuses on his doctrinal disagreements.

But let me throw a wrench into all of this. I would propose that whether a politician is a Christian (using either of the two definitions) is actually pretty irrelevant. What we need to know is how the Christian faith plays out in how he does politics. A politician's personal faith is something that I have no connection with since I do not know them personally, where we interact is on a political level, and so what I need to know is how they conduct their public and political life and the values and policies they have. Are those vales influenced by the character and values and way of Jesus? Are their actions and values reflecting Jesus and his kingdom? That is what matters to us.

We Evangelicals have in the past paid way too much attention to politician's personal faith, and way too little (if we paid attention at all) to what it would mean to govern in a Christ-like way, or what Jesus would do if he were them. As a result it has been enough for a politician to simply say they were "one of us" and we simply assumed that this must automatically translate into them making all the right choices, with relatively zero reflection on what those choices might be, or what Christian leadership on a political level might look like. This kind of naivete has lead to us evangelicals being easy targets for politicians to take advantage of. Former White House Aide David Kuo tells an eye opening insider story of this which you can check out online HERE.

I'd say based on this that this biblical illiteracy of what it means to be a Christian politician - or better how to be a politician in a "what-would-Jesus-do way" is of major importance. What I would like to do over the next few blog posts is to outline what I see as a biblical criteria for Jesus-style politics, leadership, power, and public life. But that will have to wait for the next post...

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At 6:50 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

I think this is the first time I've ever disagreed with you on this blog, Derek.

I lean towards the positions of the Mennonites/Anabaptists when it comes to Christians and politics. To me, the questions, "What would Jesus do if He were them?" and, "What does it mean to be a Christian politician?" Are really a bit off the mark.

For one, I don't believe Jesus would be them. I don't believe He would accept such a political office. Also, while I acknowledge and understand that there are a great many politicians who are also Chritians, I am of the opinion that this is a bit of an oxymoron.

I don't know if you are familiar with Greg Boyd, but he does a much better job of explaining this position than I ever could. You can see what he has to say about Christians and politics at:

Even if you disagree with his conclusions, it might give you something to work off of when writing your next entry.

Looking forward to it.

in Him,

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Zack,
You bring up some really important issues that I think deserve a more detailed response than I can give in a comment. So if you don't mind I think I will respond to you in the next blog post. I hope you will continue the dialog with me there.

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

Awesome, bro.

Looking forward to it.

be blessed,

At 6:12 AM, Blogger Stacy Wills said...

now that's a picture i never saw on the 6 o'clock news...


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