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Barack Obama: Evangelical-in-Chief?
Image: Courtesy of the White House
Barack Obama: Evangelical-in-Chief?

The 2012 campaign has placed evangelicals in a paradox. A recent PRRI/RNS poll reveals that white evangelicals support a Mormon presidential candidate over Obama by an overwhelming 49% margin, but are simultaneously the religious group most likely to say it is important for a presidential candidate to share their religious beliefs (67%).

While there are plenty of legitimate policy reasons that evangelicals might support Governor Romney, their willingness to overlook their desire for a coreligionist candidate may also have at least something to do with the fact that 24% of them—higher than any other religious group—believe Obama is a Muslim, and even more are unaware (or unconvinced?) he's a Protestant. What if more evangelicals knew Obama largely shares their religious beliefs?

That the true religious identity of the world's most famous, most powerful man could remain a mystery to so many is itself a mystery. Before and especially during his presidency, Obama has been extraordinarily open on matters of faith, providing ample evidence for his repeated claim to be a devout Christian. The evidence may even suggest Obama is our evangelical-in-chief.

In his excellent religious biography of the President, The Faith of Barack Obama, author Stephen Mansfield spends several pages exploring whether Obama has been "born again." Mansfield's interviews with the President's spiritual advisors suggest so.

"I know he's born again," said Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in an interview with Mansfield. A pastor's kid who served briefly in a Pentecostal pastorate himself, DuBois has queried the President about his faith and found that he "believes what the majority of Christians believe."

Joel Hunter, pastor of Florida's 15,000-member Northland Church and Obama's closest spiritual mentor, is even more emphatic. "There is simply no question about it: Barack Obama is a born again man who has trusted in Jesus Christ with his whole heart."

These assertions of Obama's "born again" status are instructive but only tell us so much. The Christian experience of spiritual rebirth is internal, subjective, and thus difficult to disprove. Moreover, it constitutes only one dimension of what it means to be an evangelical.

Admittedly, the meaning of evangelicalism is contested, and in the United States the term has become loaded with political baggage. Evangelicalism is an exceedingly diverse and diffuse global movement, lacking a unifying political agenda, institutional structure, or doctrinal basis (that's why the e in "evangelical" is usually not capitalized). Yet we can identify core features shared by evangelicals across all continents.

The most widely accepted definition of evangelicalism comes from British historian David Bebbington. According to Bebbington, an evangelical is a Christian marked by four distinct emphases: "conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross."

If Obama is an evangelical, we should expect to find him in alignment with at least this minimalist "Bebbington Quadrilateral." Let's look at how he squares with each of the four elements.

Conversionism: Barack Obama has a conversion story, if not an entirely traditional one. In his bestseller, The Audacity of Hope, Obama recounts how he warmed to Christianity, and the black church tradition in particular, while attending Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. One Sunday, Obama writes, "I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth." Obama's eventual decision to be baptized "came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear."

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Barack Obama: Evangelical-in-Chief?