Beliefs Politics

Theological purity tests will ruin presidents and the presidency (ANALYSIS)

obama easter
President Obama and his family pray during Easter services at Allen Chapel AME Church in Washington on April 4, 2010. As many as four in 10 Americans cannot identify the president as a Christian. RNS file photo courtesy Pete Souza/The White House.
(RNS) President Obama and his family pray during Easter services at Allen Chapel AME Church in Washington on April 4, 2010. As many as four in 10 Americans cannot identify the president as a Christian. RNS file photo courtesy Pete Souza/The White House.

(RNS) President Obama and his family pray during Easter services at Allen Chapel AME Church in Washington on April 4, 2010. As many as four in 10 Americans cannot identify the president as a Christian. RNS file photo courtesy of Pete Souza/the White House

WASHINGTON (RNS) American presidents need wisdom, integrity, good judgment and humility. They should, if they are inclined, be free to draw strength from belief in and devotion to God. What’s more, Americans prefer their presidents to have religious faith.

Yet pundits, conservative religious elites and the public increasingly have hounded, judged and derided President Obama over his Christian bona fides, and the ways his private Christian faith finds expression in his public and political life.

Last week, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani trotted out the he’s-not-really-one-of-us dog-whistle that conservatives have employed against Obama for years. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani said. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was at the fundraiser where Giuliani blasted the president, declined to say whether Obama loves America and then, amazingly, punted on the question of whether Obama is a Christian.

Walker’s office later clarified, “Of course the governor thinks the president is a Christian.” But many of Walker’s fellow evangelicals are not so sure.

Prominent commentator Erick Erickson, now studying at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, took to Twitter to declare: “I don’t think Barack Obama is a Christian. He certainly is not one in any meaningful way.” That’s remarkable insight into the state of another man’s soul from a first-year seminarian.

More sensible conservatives settled on conceding that Obama is a “professed Christian,” a backhanded way of implying that there is a great difference between what the president professes and what he actually believes.

Evangelical blogger Justin Taylor explained in a recent commentary that “evangelicals would want to hear more from the professing Christian,” specifically what he or she believes about sin, atonement and the authority of Scripture.

There are arguments for and against our need to know what presidential aspirants believe about such things. Not so long ago, it was enough for most Americans that our culture’s vibrant religious traditions fostered personal morality, civic virtue, public-spiritedness and a commitment to the common good. We expected our presidents to adhere to some faith, but few were obsessed with parsing out his views on specific doctrines.

Conservative evangelicals may want to know more about the specific content of Obama’s beliefs, and if political parties want their nominating contests to include doctrinal debates or religious tests, that is their prerogative. But our national election every four years is for a chief executive of a secular state, and they should be careful what they wish for.

Imagine if a reporter asked the 2016 Republican nominee: “Do you believe God will condemn Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians to hell?” Most people likely do not want a president who believes that his or her religion alone is true and that Americans of all other faiths (and of no faith) deserve eternal torment for rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Evangelicals have very clear ideas about what it means to be a Christian, particularly a “born-again” conversion experience, belief in the Bible as the Word of God and a commitment to spreading the gospel to unbelievers. President George W. Bush’s religious experience and rhetoric reflected evangelical sensibilities in a way that Obama’s do not.

Obama is a liberal Protestant. Evangelical leaders loathe liberal Protestants, and many consider them modern-day heretics. In fact, evangelicalism emerged largely as a reaction against liberal Protestantism. In many ways, mainline Protestantism is a foe that evangelicals have largely vanquished 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.

Boundary maintenance is very important to white evangelicals; they like to be clear about who is in and who is out. Given the rapid acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, even in some evangelical circles, leaders are especially preoccupied with their gatekeeping role.

The trouble with making presidents’ religiosity just another weapon in our ongoing ideological war is that we may have ruined religion for presidents themselves.

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

There is very little upside for presidents to be devoutly religious in office except to pander to certain constituencies. Presidents do not regularly attend religious services, and their religious expressions are often relentlessly scrutinized and condemned.

Even once-innocuous celebrations of faith have become fodder for vicious attacks. The National Prayer Breakfast now exists primarily to boost the careers of whatever speakers will insult and defy the president to his face. Given the reaction to Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it is no wonder Obama has been reluctant to subject other clergy to media scrutiny for the most provocative statement they’ve ever made in a sermon.

If we are not careful, we will end up pushing presidents to the point that their faith becomes muted if not invisible in an office where they need guidance and inspiration, wherever it is to be found. It would be a shame that they should believe that in the White House, the benefits of religious devotion do not nearly offset the costs.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.)

KRE/MG END LUPFER

 

About the author

Jacob Lupfer

A contributing editor at RNS, Jacob Lupfer is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.

62 Comments

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  • I am waiting for a presidential candidate to tell these wannabe theocrats to go eff themselves. Someone who says, “My religious beliefs are my own and none of your business. Do you want a president of the United States or defender of your faith?”.

    The leader of our nation has to be beholden to the principles of the Constitution, not some right wing evangelical’s sectarian agenda. Even GWB was savvy enough to know that pushing sectarian agendas doesn’t fly in national politics. Although he was a “born again” he also clever enough to be ecumenical politically. If any Republican presidential candidate spoke on behalf of Muslims the same way GWB did after 9/11, they would be tarred and feathered.

    All these conservative Christians are doing is ensuring nobody sane comes out of the Republican primaries for some time. Any candidate which meets their approval will be so divisive and offensive to those outside of their faith that they will ensure Democratic presidencies.

  • I am waiting for a President to have the balls to include his religious thinking into his actions as President. Obama never let’s us forget that he is black, and he has gone out of his way to comment on even the most tedious incident of racial discrimination, so why can’t a Jew or a Catholic include the same reactions in their governance of this country?

  • This story is yet another example of the harms of religion – as if we needed any.

    Requiring a President to genuflect to a Leprechaun King
    invites mockery and disdain on religion.

    I believe Obama is an Atheist. He goes through these dishonest motions at church because he is already hated enough and doesn’t want to bring on more trouble with politics.

    Shame on those who require presidents to speak positively about your pet superstition. Mind your own business and grow a pair yourself.

  • More sensible conservatives settled on conceding that Obama is a “professed Christian,” a backhanded way of implying that there is a great difference between what the president professes and what he actually believes.

    Cannot imagine how they got that idea. The President had no religious upbringing, his father and stepfather were both nominal Muslims, his sister calls herself a ‘philosophical Buddhist’, and he sat in Jeremiah Wright’s obnoxiously political Africanisant congregation for 20 years rather than join an available African Methodist or Convention Baptist congregation. And, of course, he is in everyother way incorporeal planes. When there isn’t much there there, of course you think its just another pose.

  • Given the reaction to Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it is no wonder Obama has been reluctant to subject other clergy to media scrutiny for the most provocative statement they’ve ever made in a sermon.

    Actually, it was Wright’s whole ministry they were reacting to. That aside, partisan Democrats tried to make hay over John McCain’s tangential association with John Hagee (in whose church McCain had not spent 20 years worth of Sundays.

  • Even once-innocuous celebrations of faith have become fodder for vicious attacks.

    Yeah, terribly vicious taking the president to task for his blatherskite about the Crusades.

  • Evangelical leaders loathe liberal Protestants,

    Really. Care to name names?

    and many consider them modern-day heretics.

    Well, if your business is replacing Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium (or some sort of apostolic authority) with personal experience, therapy culture, and contemporary fashion, people just might think the term was appropriate.

  • Boundary maintenance is very important to white evangelicals; they like to be clear about who is in and who is out

    We’d noticed that about Laura Turner. High school never ends.

  • Memo to Jacob Lupfer:

    The press — you guys — were the ones who asked Walker whether Obama was a Christian.

    And now you’re mad because he had trouble answering it?

    In a recent op-ed, right on this same web site, as you mentioned, Justin Taylor explained what made Walker hesitate:

    Irony of ironies, it was precisely because Walker did not wish to judge another man’s spiritual state….since from Walker’s evangelical theological perspective, answering whether someone’s a Christian is an invitation to do exactly that.

  • Then go after the media, Atheist Max. They asked Walker the question.

    And he refrained from answering…..because from an evangelical perspective, that would be an engraved invitation to judge another person’s spiritual position, something that’s hard enough if you know someone and harder still if you don’t.

  • This article was written simply because a reporter asked Walker to judge Obama.

    And it beats up on Walker….when he refrained from doing so?

  • Last week, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani trotted out the he’s-not-really-one-of-us dog-whistle that conservatives have employed against Obama for years.

    You know, Jacob, if you can hear the whistle, you’re the dog.

  • Good point. I’ll wager that Jacob Lupfer’s cranial-rectal inversion is sufficiently severe that it never occurred to him. (Or is it more charitable to assume it’s all just a con?).

  • Jacob Lupfer evidently doesn’t know much about the political history of America.

    American politics has always been filled with tussles of numerous kinds, including whispers and shouts about the beliefs of virtually all presidents, particularly in the golden age of American participatory democracy — ie the 19th century, when virtually everyone who was eligible to vote did vote.

    It was really much of the 20th century that was a bit of an outlier, with the rise of the imperial presidency.

  • Not sure. The thing is, most recent Presidents have been curious characters regarding religion.

    1. Warren Harding: persistent sexual misbehavior, freemasonry
    2. Franklin Roosevelt: ditto.
    3. Harry Truman: freemasonry (and a high position in the order)
    4. Jack Kennedy: gross and persistent sexual misbehavior
    5. Lyndon Johnson: gross and persistent sexual misbehavior; financial scamming; candidate at a Masonic lodge.
    6. Richard Nixon: Quaker joined the Navy
    7. Gerald Ford: freemasonry, canonically-invalid marriage.
    8. Bilge Clinton: gross and persistent sexual misbehavior..
    9. BO: as Glenn Reynolds says, a projection on fog, just like a Scooby Doo cartoon.
    8
    7.

  • The “media” being conservatives trolling for who is on the Christian Right bandwagon. The only reason such questions are asked is because theocratically minded people are using such answers to gauge their support.

  • The “media” is not a monolithic entity with its own political agendas.

    Walker didn’t answer the questions because they would make him look foolish to anyone outside of the religious right wingnuts. But he still needs those wingnuts to vote for him.

  • More reason to tell Christianist theocrats who make such issues somehow relevant to political discussions to stuff it. Nobody needs to give a flying crap what a candidate’s religious affiliations are. If they aren’t wearing their religion on their sleeves to garner votes, it is nobody’s business.

    Frankly the next president can be a Cthulhu worshiper for all I care, as long as they uphold the Constitution.

  • “I am waiting for a President to have the balls to include his religious thinking into his actions as President. ”

    We already had two. Two of our worst: Jimmy Carter and GW Bush.

    How about instead we simply have presidents who are willing to uphold the constitution and respect for the religious freedom it entails. Nobody needs politicians trying to legislate their sectarian beliefs. Religious freedom means nobody has to be compelled to care what you or anyone else thinks God wants.

  • You missed our 2 born agains: Jimmy Carter and GW Bush.

    2 Presidents who were absolutely terrible at their jobs.

  • There is evidently no “separation of church and state when it comes to running for office (even for President) in the USA.

  • To deny that the mainstream media is without political bias is to take a pretty strong stance against objective reality.

  • “Recent presidents” being the term you used. They definitely fell into that categoy.

    Given the failure of the presidencies of the two born again Christians, I can see why you omitted them.

  • Which part of the media? Some biases are more blatant than others. It depends. We have biases on both conservative and liberal elements of “the media”. Fox News and MSNBC are hardly of the same political bias. Some are rather neutral.*

    Using the term “the media” as if it has a single POV or is controlled by a single source is naive.

    *In the case of Fox News, claims of bias are usually correct given their tendency to confuse op-ed with news.

  • Article six of the United States Constitution:
    ” . . . The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

    The media including bloggers should just stop talking about the president’s religion. It’s such a waste of time. Such a non-issue. We should care little about your’s or the president’s religion.

    Interestingly, the folks most worried about the president’s religion are the ones obsessed with the president violating the constitution.

    Let’s deal with the real issues.

  • Richard Maus,
    Thanks for actually bringing the Constitution “no religious requirement” into this discussion.
    I will refer to the First Amendment portion of religious freedom.
    Those attacking Obama’s religious beliefs or supposed lack of beliefs (what they call beliefs) are attempting to deny him the same rights of personal beliefs given to them.

  • Mr. Lupfer, you’re out of line here:

    “That’s remarkable insight into the state of another man’s soul from a first-year seminarian.”

    Firstly, you’re out of line to take a crack at the man being in his first year of seminary, as though he has to have already earned a post-graduate degree to have formed an intellectually-sophisticated faith.

    Secondly, the comment regards discipleship – not the state of another man’s soul.

    Get over yourself.

  • The major, non-cable media has a well-deserved reputation for being very biased in a left-leaning direction.

    As for cable, MSNC is MSNBC and Fox is Fox. In each case, the big draw is commentary, not reporting, and people generally know what they’re getting.

    On Fox, anyone who thinks O’Reilly, Kelly, or Hannity is doing reportage rather than commentary is truly out to lunch. They’re doing commentary and they don’t pretend otherwise.

  • I just think he’s taking the lazy man’s road to article writing, that of loosy-goosy connections between things. If A is within 1500 miles of B, that’s a connection in his mind.

  • Dear Max

    My president is a liberal Christian, not an atheist. The spectrum of our search for unity with some kind of a higher power is wide.

    Heaven forbid that I should give advice to better educated people, but I cannot help it: Your writings might be more effective if you took an hour or so to read Julian Baggini “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction”.

  • @dmj76,

    BARACK OBAMA MOCKS USING THE BIBLE AS A GUIDE

    “Even if we had 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 it be 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 an abomination? Or we could go with 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 now. Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles.”


    – Barack Obama, 2006

  • I omitted them (and a mess of others) because there is nothing odd about the juxtaposition of their religious profession, their sundry associations, and their mundane behavior. The point is not difficult to infer and grasp — for an ordinary person.

    Given time and diligent effort, you may at some point utter a remark that is not both arrogant and obtuse.

  • Richard Maus, the constitutional provision in question debars legal prescription of a religious test for officeholding. Pretty irrelevant to public discussion of a candidate’s religious viewpoint and the influence of that viewpoint on policy.

    It’s such a waste of time. Such a non-issue.

    You’re religiously indifferent and we’re all obligated to imitate you. Thanks. We all need a lesson that advanced age is no bar to self-centeredness.

  • He’s lost his right of free exercise because he’s criticized?

    I’m beginning to think you can understand the portside take on public discussion, social relations, and policy if you just understand daily life through the prisms used by a raging narcissist.

  • Here’s a good belief, attitude or philosophy to guide anyone whether a private person or someone in the public eye —

    Whatever faith you have and whatever things you believe in, ‘keep’ them to yourself and God………Romans 14:22

  • Finally Atheist Max, you said somethimg of worth:

    “I believe Obama is an atheist.”

    And of course the fruit and proof of your assertion is legalized drugs and sexual depravity, abortion as a plague on the human condition and depravity as a civil right.

    Oh and let us not forget the ever exploding numbers of the dangerously mentally ill that are the products of a godless leader and a secular morality. Oh yeah, and the mandatory anti-rape laws needed for an ever-growing problem in our secular institutions of higher learning.

    By the fruit . . .

    Ya got it right pal. This time.

    Ken

    Of course. The fruit falling from the correct tree.

  • Two Christians dealing with the ever-growing unruly mob of demanding Sodomites.

    No wonder they both had trouble.

  • Yeah Chap, but Obama is forcing his secular immorality onto all of us. Violating our First Amendment rights.

    The guy is as Christian as Judas iscariot.

    To believe that a person’s private moral convictions will not influence his political power is idiocy.

  • You mean like Ahab and Jezebel?

    Another committed couple of powerful political leaders.

    But I won’t get into your judgmentalism . . .

  • Says the demanding secular Troll.

    It’s laughable how totalitarian the mad dog secularist truly is. Yet cries the diversity mantle.

  • Right, says the person who understands that religious freedom demands secular government. Says the person who understands the concept is not meant to be self-serving and to further just your own beliefs.

    Totalitarian mad dog secularist!?!

    LOL! That is like saying I am a totalitarian moderate. A radical ecumenialist!

    Someone who wants government to respect all religious faiths and beliefs by not entangling the two is hardly “totalitarian”.

    I can’t help it if you have trouble understanding concepts of religious freedom.

  • Right there is nothing odd about the juxtposition of a Born Again Christian and being a lousy President in Chief. It seems like a natural conclusion to make.

  • The Hollywood Muslim stands alone. We have never had one of those in the White House before. You have to look far and wide to find another person who embraces the beliefs of these two groups. I see nothing good coming from him. Only evil continually. He is a sign of the times. The fact that many people can’t see him for who is also is a sign. Many are given over to strong delusion that God foretold for the last days. Those days are here. Jesus Christ is our only hope to escape the judgment that will surely come. Judgment of this world, and more importantly the final judgment. Receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and turn away from evil and know God’s peace and forgiveness and blessings. God Bless

  • Fox News (faux news) is all about pretension. But then again, so is religion. They fit well together, sick as they both are.

  • Methinks you won’t know First Amendment rights until your cell door locks behind you and your new cellmate Bubba.

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