Saturday, August 21, 2010

Questioning Obama's Faith

For Christianity, itself, is an essentially contested concept.
James McClendon

President Barack Obama is not a Muslim, he just plays one in the minds of 24% of Americans. That's what the Time Magazine poll revealed yesterday. Is this not one of the weirdest poll results in recent memory? Obama, who grew up in a "secular" household and whose mother was an atheist, became a "Christian" about 20 years ago. Here's his "testimony" that he gave to a Connecticut church about 3 years ago:

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me 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. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But 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.

So, why is there any question about Obama's faith? James Dobson proclaimed a couple of years ago that Obama distorts the Bible. He was (over)reacting to these comments that Obama made at the Call to Renewal Conference in 2006:

Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

Obama's point is very important. Who has the final say on matters of biblical interpretation and how literally should the Bible be translated, especially concerning socio-political-economic policy? These questions are at the very core of debates over the convergence of faith and politics in the United States and with the consistent dialogue that EasyYolk seeks to embody. Obama was not distorting the Bible. In fact, he was pressing the vital point that biblical interpretation is contested and not self-evident.

Of course, even Glenn Beck (of all defenders) is convinced that Obama is a Christian, but Beck harps on the particularly unrecognizable brand of liberation theology that Obama espouses:

Here's the problem with this. I find that a disturbing poll, because I don't think -- I think that is the easy answer for people who are like, 'Well, it doesn't make sense. Nothing makes sense.' And I think the easy thing is to say, 'I think he's a Muslim.' I don't -- I really don't. I think he is a Christian that Christians don't recognize...When he did get Jesus, he got it from Jeremiah Wright. This is liberation theology...So the story of Jesus takes on a whole different light.

There is a huge, awkward irony in Beck's comments. Beck has claimed the mantle of Martin Luther King's legacy multiple times on his program. When you really study Wright's theology and biblical reading strategy there is very little difference from King's. Most of White Christian America shuddered at Wright's YouTubed sermon soundbites during the 2008 election season: "God Damn America." Remember? What ahistorical Americans do not remember (or do not want to remember) is that the title of Martin Luther King's prepared sermon (which was supposed to be delivered just days after his assasination) was "Why America May Go To Hell."

Rush Limbaugh, in a similiar vein, calls for Obama to present the evidence of his Christianity and also ties his beliefs inextricably with Jeremiah Wright:

The guy holds an Easter egg roll -- the White House website promoting the Easter egg roll does not mention Jesus or Christ. It talks about environmentalism. Obama says he's a Christian, but where's the evidence? Reverend Wright's church is a weird brand of Christianity. The Reverend Wright's church -- black theology is what comes out of that pulpit, which is not exactly mainstream Christianity.

A good friend of mine who is finishing up his PhD in religious studies tells me that the best way to understand a preacher like Jeremiah Wright is to read the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible: Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc. Prophets expose the insanity and unfaithfulness of a society by their weird, crazy rhetorical brilliance. And Wright, following in the tradition of King and most of African-American history, reads the Bible as a personal, social, political & economic script, not as a textbook of personal piety, timeless truths and road to individual salvation in a disembodied heaven.

And then there's Franklin Graham's recent comments:

I think the president's problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name.

Graham is obviously disturbed with the kinds of convictions that Obama's Christianity espouses, much different from the Evangelicalism of personal piety and salvation from hell now basically married to the GOP party (recall what Billy apparently said about Sarah Palin this past Fall). Throughout it's history, Christianity has always been a faith tradition with a multitude of brands and blends. As theologian James McClendon wrote, Christianity is "a contested concept." Leadership requires conviction and humility, rejecting both arrogant absolutism and wishy-washy relativism. Unfortunately, most Christians in the US do not know there is a "third way" because the most outspoken and powerful leaders within the American Body of Christ are not modeling it.

In the United States, there will always be conspiracy theorists who postulate all sorts of wild speculations, but when we start polling a quarter of the American population believing something this absurd, we've got to hold our pundits and pastors personally responsible. Polls like this really unveil how much power and influence these "leaders" have over a population scripted purely on what they hear on talk radio, cable news and the pulpit. Every Christian pastor who considers him/herself a truth-seeker should denounce this insanity.

NOTE: All sorts of related posts could/should branch out from these basic comments. Sample titles include:

-Obama's Not A Muslim...But Would It Really Matter If He Was?
-How Liberating is Obama's Liberation Theology?
-When Will Franklin Graham Stop Talking?
-If Obama's Wright Then 24% of America is Wrong

-Theological Autopilot

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