Is Barack Obama a Christian?
This perennial question came to the fore recently after American President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage in an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts. Speaking of his views on the issue as the result of "an evolution," Obama relayed that he had decided that it was "important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married." Referencing the ethical witness of his daughters, the President made his argument on biblical grounds, specifically the "golden rule," the idea that we should "treat others the way you'd want to be treated," as he paraphrased Matthew 7:12.
The question of whether any person is a Christian is important, not just a President or celebrity. Scripture offers numerous examples of people who claim faith and yet are not necessarily converted (Matt. 7:22; Luke 8:421; 2 Tim. 4:34). Christians and local churches act biblically when they examine a confession of faith to see if it is backed up by a holy, God-pleasing life (1 John 4:1; 1 Thess. 5:22). Though a vocal Christian contingent argues that such analysis is hostile, it is necessary for us to examine the faith of those who profess it.
At first blush, President Obama can certainly sound like a Christian. As seen above, he cites Scripture as an inspiration and moral guide. At the 2012 Easter prayer breakfast, he explored the "all-important gift of grace" that came through the endurance of "unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world." At the 2011 prayer breakfast, he spoke of how he came to "know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior." The President had sounded similar themes in his 2004 interview with Cathleen Falsani.
Yet in that interview, his most fulsome statement to date of his religious views, President Obama diverged sharply from Scripture. In the interview, never refuted in print or in word, spirituality boils down to values: "I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power … there are values that transcend race or culture." Accordingly, to sin is to fail to abide by these values, not to dishonor a holy God per Exodus 20. In terms of salvation, "there are many paths" to an undefined "place," not one exclusive path to heaven, contradicting John 14:6. Disavowing belief in hell, the President opined that "if I live my life as well as I can … I will be rewarded." This reward, though, does not mean "harps and wings" but rather successfully "transferring values that I got from my mother" to his daughters. Heaven, then, is not the perfected realm of God found in Revelation 21. It seems to be the perfected civic order found in liberal Protestant theology.
President Obama's understanding of God as well presents a few problems. God is conspicuously absent from surprising places. When it comes to prayer, for example, the President has spoken of pausing to "take a moment here and a moment there to take stock, why am I here, how does this connect with a larger sense of purpose." The act of prayer, as the President said in 2011, is not only a chance for confession but "itself is a source of strength." Prayer offers a kind of Protestant Zen moment, a dialing-in to deeper currents and larger realities. So too with conversion. Though the President speaks of God as his savior, he does not picture his conversion as a rebirth from righteous damnation per Ephesians 2:1. Instead, it "allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith." This version of his conversion is a centering of the self, a Western remix of Eastern spiritualism.
President Obama's Christology also veers into unbiblical territory. In his 2012 Easter prayer breakfast talk, he spoke of Jesus' "doubts," casting Jesus as not able to fully trust the Father. Surely Christ knew immense sorrow over his fate, but as Denny Burk has suggested, Jesus never sinned by doubting God's goodness or wisdom (John 17:4). To update the language of German liberal theologians like Martin Kähler, this is the Jesus of postmodernism, Christ for a generation that has baptized doubt as a virtue and questioning as an imperative.
Given all this, what does actionable faith look like for the President? It seems to mean personally participating in a pan-religious mission of cosmic justice: "I can still help whoever I can, however I can, wherever I can, for as long as I can, and … somehow God will buttress these efforts." Not only Christians undertake this work, however: "It also helps to know that none of us are alone in answering this call.It's being taken up each and every day by so many of you—back home, your churches, your temples and synagogues, your fellow congregants—so many faith groups across this great country of ours." We can read this as mushy politico-speak. It also reveals, crucially, the strain of non-exclusivistic ecumenism that runs throughout President Obama's religious pronouncements. Those who are not Christians—Jews and Mormons, apparently—can "answer the call" of God and work for justice.
It is not only President Obama's confession of faith that is troubling, but his policies. Though in response to Rick Warren's question he famously argued in 2008 that the question of life's beginning was "above his pay grade," when compensated by the citizens of Illinois in 2001 he knew no such humility. As a state senator, he actively opposed legislation that would have mandated care for fetuses that survived abortions. He has also made it a point of presidential pride to let the Defense of Marriage Act go unenforced, contributing substantially to the weakening of the traditional and biblical view of marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman.
The culture, not Scripture, is the primary driver of President Obama's views. With abortion, his own values matter, not Psalm 139; with homosexuality and marriage, his daughters' opinions matter, not Genesis 2 and Romans 1. But it is not merely President Obama's isolated policies, troubling as they may be, that give many Christians like me pause. It is the whole worldview. As seen above, there are deeply unbiblical ideas running beneath the surface of the President's orthodox declarations. The President's oratory sometimes smacks of Billy Graham, but those who listen carefully will also hear the dulcet tones of Harry Emerson Fosdick. His is a no-injury Protestantism, liberal Christianity enrobed in a revivalist shell.
Faith as construed by the President gives no offense and draws no boundaries. In the final analysis, what is missing from his theology is nothing other than the gospel, the message of God-given righteousness grounded in the cross of Christ that when received by faith and repentance runs roughshod over a sinner, transforming a ward of Satan into an angel of light. This exclusive reality—and the top-to-bottom ethic it creates—is noticeably lacking in President Obama's actions and proclamations.
This, then, is why evangelicals come away so confused from the President's faith-friendly speeches. He sometimes sounds the thrilling chords of the gospel of life, but his policies smack of the culture of death. How can a man who shows such charm toward his wife help to destroy the foundational institution of human society? How can a man who so clearly loves his adorable daughters stand on the floor of the Illinois senate and declaim the right to life of a child who, against the terrible odds only a womb-bloodying scalpel can produce, miraculously survives an abortion? Saving faith creates a relentless desire in the name of Christ to heal the wounded, restore the weak, and defend tiny fetuses that kick and spin and wave their miniscule arms when they hear their parents' voices. Saving faith causes us to weep and yell and wrestle with God in prayer for infants that are savaged in the womb. Saving faith cannot abide unlawful death. It must and will decry it.
So when someone professes faith, yet has none of these instinctive reactions—and actually opposes such instincts despite years of membership in supposedly Bible-teaching churches—we realize, chillingly, that something greater than right morality is missing. The gospel, the ground of our ethics and the animator of our conscience, is very likely missing. Perhaps the person speaks of faith and their nearness to God. In reality, though, they are far from him. They may have come near at some point to the kingdom, but like the rich young ruler who chooses reigning with sinners over reigning with Christ, they are desperately far.
I do not write this with politically-driven glee. I write it in sorrow, because I am all too aware of the deceptive nature of depravity. Yet I also write it in hope, because I am aware of the stunning power of the gospel that has saved a wretch like me. I write it as one who knows because of Scripture that he must pray for President Obama (1 Tim. 2:13). He and I have major differences, but he is my President. Beyond this, however, we are at base the same: fellow sinners in desperate need, as we all are, of divine grace.
Owen Strachan is assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College. Author of essays in The Atlantic and First Things, he has worked for the White House in the U.S. Department of State and for the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.