Barack H. Obama, a liminal black Christian

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2012 8:17 pm

 

It is well known that President Obama has a religion issue. The big looming one has to do with whether he is Muslim or not. My own position that he’s as Muslim as I am. With that out of the way, is Barack H. Obama a Christian? To borrow a turn of phrase from Hillary Clinton, I accept him at his word that he is a Christian. But not everyone does. Some people, such as my friend Eliezer Yudkowsky, Steve Sailer, and Ann Althouse, believe that he is not particularly religious, and his avowal of Christian faith and identification is a matter of political necessity.

Obama has said some things which have raised eyebrows. For example, that evolution is more grounded in his experience than angels. Or his lack of certainty about the afterlife. Finally, there is Obama’s tendency toward universalism, which is a major bone of contention in many quarters.

 

But after engaging the comments below I realized that his choice of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago is a window into what type of Christian Obama is. When Obama’s affiliation with Trinity came to light most of the emphasis was placed on its radical black racial nationalism. What exactly did it say about our future head of state that this is the church he would join when he became a confessing Christian? Yet I realized that there’s another aspect to Trinity often forgotten: it pairs black nationalism with a liberal theology relatively rare in black Christian circles. The black Christian community’s relative social conservatism, derived from a tendency toward Protestant fundamentalism, is well known. Trinity, and its pastors, are not oriented in that conventional direction. Obama’s rather perplexing Christian faith, to believer and unbeliever alike, make more sense when you observe that his gateway to Christianity was the United Church of Christ, arguably the most theologically liberal mainstream Christian denomination in the United States of America.

To clarify the issue let’s look at some survey data. I used the Pew Religious Landscape results, and the GSS. I selected respondents who were National Baptists, the largest historically black denomination in the nation, United Methodists, probably the most representative denomination of mainline Protestantism, and finally those who adhered to the United Church of Christ. From the GSS I also found questions which resembled some on the Pew survey, and limited them to black American respondents from the year 2000 and later, of all religious persuasions.

Black National Baptist United Methodist UCC
Certain of belief in God 83 92 78 65
Bible is Word of God 59 68 25 15
Own religion one true way to heaven - 34 11 5
Homosexuality should be accepted - 35 51 69

On all these sorts of questions the UCC lay at the extreme end of the range for Christian denominations. Respondents are invariably the most theologically liberal, the most equivocal in assertions of their faith, and the furthest to the Left on social issues. In contrast, the black community, and historically black churches, have more in common with white evangelicals in matters of theology and social politics. President Obama’s responses are very peculiar if you expect him to be a modal black American Christian, but entirely unexceptional for a member of the United Church of Christ.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Politics, Religion
  • Clark

    That’s fascinating. In all the silliness in how the liberation theology was being reported I didn’t even realize it was a United Church. Good call about the theological liberalism.

    It’s interesting that if Romney becomes as expected the R. nominee that we’ll have two religions a lot of conservative Christians are rather uncomfortable with.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    It’s interesting that if Romney becomes as expected the R. nominee that we’ll have two religions a lot of conservative Christians are rather uncomfortable with.

    and, the UCC and mormons share a historical-genealogical connection. mormons too are arguably universalists (obama’s maternal grandparents attended universalist churches).

  • Jason Malloy

    Obama: “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life.”

    Seems pretty cut and dry.

  • Dwight E. Howell

    Obama says a few things when it is politically expedient but does he walk the walk?

    I think he joined an African American church as part of his neosocialist political activism because of the historic role the African American Church plays in the black community and is more or less agnostic.

  • prasad

    Positions like #3 don’t make sense to me – sure, that’s what he says, but what exactly would you expect him to say if he didn’t believe it? I myself find the case that he’s doing the Christian thing for political reasons quite plausible (subjective p=0.6). Not calling him an atheist/agnostic of course, any number of spiritual/higher power/deist/all-religions-are-valuable type views are just as plausible. One data point that may be of interest – UCC officially supports gay marriage.

  • Joseph

    So we’ve had our first black president. I’m looking forward to the day when religion is no longer an issue in politics.

  • deron

    I find it plausible that people do the Christian thing for group identification reasons. We are all very political in our daily lives.

  • Scott

    Obama has a liberal Christian theology. I don’t see how this is at all in question. Anyone who has questioned that isn’t evaluating the facts.

    And it’s ridiculous to say that Obama joined the black church for political reasons only. Bill Mahr has made similar statements suggesting that Obama doesn’t really believe all that religious nonsense. That’s just as ridiculous as liberals who say that conservative politicians don’t really believe all that religious nonsense, they’re just pandering to their Christian conservative base. It’s atheist wishful thinking at best but more closely resembles paranoid comspiracy theories.

    If Obama were really a secret atheist/agnostic, he wouldn’t have appointed Francais Collins to head the NIH. That appointment fits perfectly into his liberal Christian world view there are no conflicts between science and religion.

    Look, any religious belief is poisonous. Liberal athesits who like Obama just have to accept that he’s poisoned too (as is most of the electorate). Conservatives would be more successful if they spent more time attacking his true wishy-washy liberal Christian theology rather than making up ridiculous stories about being a Muslim or a black nationalist.

  • ST

    @#4 How many Christians do you know that “walk the walk”? And how many of them that do walk the walk solely do so because of social pressures?
    If Obama joined the church for political reasons, he might be even more like people who “inherited” their religious affiliation.

  • leviticus

    Is Obama’s religious affiliation that surprising? He is, after all, the child of an anthropologist, and he was raised in a series of cosmopolitan environments. His mother, who was physically and socially removed from her Midwestern roots, was part of the 1960’s general break with tradition. Obama has no ancestral connection to the African American community, or its religious traditions, only joining the community as an adult.

    Michelle is Obama’s real connection to the black community; indeed, I suspect she proved very helpful for him, politically speaking, with the black community. That said, I don’t mean to accuse Obama of a Gingrich-style politically motivated marriage.

    On the Muslim question, not to go all postmodern, and call identity simply a relative, contextual category, I do think that a person’s self ascription isn’t enough. Group affiliation is a three way street, with self, group members, and outsiders all playing a role. Look at the debate about whether or not Romney is a Christian.

    I am under no illusions as to the negative, bigoted motivations of those who would call Obama a Muslim, but they aren’t the only ones.

    Late in the race, when it seemed that Obama was on the verge of winning, I was at a dinner party with a bunch of Turkish guys. They all regarded Obama as a Muslim, Obama’s personal statements notwithstanding, because of his father.

    Dwight,

    “walk the walk”? You’ve gotten into the man’s head? Save if for Sunday morning or revival week. Based what is known of Obama’s bio, personal and political behavior, it isn’t a stretch to say Obama’s religious affiliation conforms to what one would expect.

    Let’s be fair, people join churches for socializing and networking purposes. There’s a reason why doctors and bankers have historically been Episcopalians, not becoming Evangelicals until the later had become more economically respectable. Politicians are social creatures; hermits don’t tend to do very well, politically.

    If Obama had gone extremely socially conservative Baptist, that might be seen as a cynical political move above and beyond typical politician behavior, if not an act of rebellion against his mother. And re: “walk the walk,” let’s discuss the personal morality of any number of other church going politicians.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Look at the debate about whether or not Romney is a Christian.

    the romney debate is different because mormons and non-mormons agree on the basic facts and disagree on the criteria. non-mormons have a more stringent set of propositions which define ‘christian,’ which mormons reject (though mormons have their own set). the is-obama-a-muslim debate is much less clear, because many people just disagree with obama’s self-characterization of facts.

    I was at a dinner party with a bunch of Turkish guys. They all regarded Obama as a Muslim, Obama’s personal statements notwithstanding, because of his father.

    there was a milder form of this with john kerry and his ‘jewish roots.’ and kerry’s connection with judaism was even more tenuous, since it looks like his paternal grandparents didn’t advertise their jewishness at all after conversion.

  • isamu

    #7
    What is the difference in belief between a liberal Christian and a liberal atheist?

    Nothing.

    Liberal Christian theology has evolved to the point where it has rendered all spiritual and metaphysical claims as vestigal. The liberal atheist (and 99% of high-church atheists are liberal atheists) has simply opted to remove the vestigal God-appendix from his belief system. Otherwise, he functions just like a good little insane liberal Christian. Sorry, but your mind is “poisoned” with belief too.

    No one can look into a man’s soul to see if he “really” believes. But that does not mean one cannot look at statements and actions and make a reasonable guess. I wouldn’t consider Obama to be a Christian even if he were sincere in his statements because his theology is post-Christian. However, I don’t think he is sincere about his spirituality to begin with.

  • observer

    Jeez.

    Why on earth would anyone take any of Obama’s professed religious views at face value?

    He’s a politician, for Christ’s sake. He will say what he needs to say to get ahead with the voters, so long as it doesn’t come back to bite him in the posterior. What he really believes about God is, of course, well hidden in the recesses of his cranium. He has, then, free rein to claim any damn thing he wants on the subject.

    So why try to get to the bottom of his “actual” views on a subject upon which he most likely has no views?

  • Clark

    Razib (2) It’s certainly true there are many parallels between universalists and Mormons. I think a lot ends up being that Mormons tend to see everything in degrees rather than black and white. The whole universalist debate makes best sense in a binary sense which is largely alien to Mormon theology. It’s kind of hard to explain to people with more traditional conceptions of the debate.

    Observer (12) I think that’s true. I’m really skeptical of what most politicians say. They are self-selected for a certain personality type. I think even a lot of people who wear religion on their sleeve are really adopting a more Straussian view dividing the private from the public. i.e. religion is important for the coarse masses but not for elites but elites have to portray themselves as part of the masses. (Note here claiming to know much about Strauss – more just what goes under that label a lot)

    Politicians are, from my view, a kind of necessary evil. They have some very important skills for democracy to function but their very strengths are often regarded as flaws which leads to some weird selection forces. I think we could have very different sorts of politicians but the public wants someone like them. Given the relative diversity of the public that leads to the types of figures we see.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    Apart from President Obama and Trinity in particular, the UCC has an interesting history in its own right.

    After the Puritans stopped being called Puritans, the established church (i.e. official state religion) of most of New England was the Congregational Church. Over time, the Puritan fervor faded and this established church was known for its overeducated very theologically liberal ministers — too liberal for average New Englanders. Those pastors continued to have legal control over their local church buildings when the Congregational church was disestablished. Majorities of the local congregations allied themselves with what would become the United Church of Christ (which took its current name after a series of mergers with a number of small immigrant denominations in the Reformed tradition in an echo of the United Churches of Canada and Australia which managed to merge in almost all non-Roman Catholic and non-Episopalian churches in their respective countries — Canadian and Australian Presbyterians denominations were rolled into those country’s respective United Churches). Since the proto-UCC didn’t legally own the church buildings they had to build new ones and the liberal ministers who got to keep the old New England establishment church buildings became the Unitarian Church.

    Two notable non-Catholic dissenting churches emerged in New England not long after the direct ancestors of the UCC and the Unitarian Church arose. The Universalists got their start in Boston in the early 1800s and was demographically comparable to the store front Pentecostal churches of a few decades ago, but much more theologically liberal (everyone goes to heaven). The other dissenting denomination that emerged in New England at that time and survived to have an impact was the Church of Latter Day Saints, which was and is conservative and radically outside the theological mainstream in unique directions.

    The Unitarians stagnated (like most mainline white New England protestant churches) and the Universalists never got very big. In the 1960s, they merged to establish the Unitarian Universalist denomination that exists today, which is doctrinally a mix of religious humanists who are not specically Christian, secular humanists, and Unitarian Christians. The denomination as a whole at this time is ecumenical to the extent that it is not a Christian religious denomination even though some people who are affiliated with it are Unitarian or Universalist Christians.

    The upshot of all of this is that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are formally affiliated with denominations that have their genesis in New England.

  • observer

    I tend to credit a politician’s professions of religious belief only when they would seem to go against his interests.

    I think, for example, that Romney is a genuine Mormon.

    My evidence:

    1. Being a Mormon is major obstacle to his election.
    2. The man is obliged to tithe, and apparently has done so. Since, supposedly, he’s worth a quarter billion dollars, he must have given about 25 mil to the Mormon Church. That’s sincerity.

    In contrast, Newt “Open Marriage” Gingrich is quite another matter.

  • Clark

    isamu (12) I think often the distinction between an atheist, deist and liberal Christian is how they choose to define terms. Lots of atheists I talk to seem willing to have something in their thought that sure sounds to me like the God of the deists. They’re just unwilling to use the god term. By and large though all of them reject the same sort of things within theism – i.e. an interventionist God and claims to revelation, miracles and so forth. The move is to a kind of allegorical reading of religion to give rise to some sort of ethical basis. However this move (as opposed to the commitment) seems kind of hand waving. Much like many literary critics talk about truths of the human condition discovered in great works of literature. Which isn’t to say many don’t appeal to ethics in more formal ways – like say Utilitarianism. However there appears to be this attempt within liberal Christians to instead draw them out of tradition.

    What’s funny is listening to squabbles amongst these groups. The atheist attacks on agnostics in particular remind me a lot of old inter-Protestant theological battles. (Here thinking of some of Penn Juliet’s writings – and for the record I love listening to him but some of his attacks on agnostics seem pretty weak)

    There was interestingly a similar move to all this back during the rise of philosophy as a movement among the Greeks. Many refused to break from religion but the old Greek religion became highly allegorized. What was fascinating is how even in late antiquity there were many religious rites practiced by people we’d probably call atheists. (Here thinking of the neo-platonic tradition in particular)

    I’m particularly fascinated how how religion remains in Europe among many atheists where the content is removed but the rites and traditions remain. (Look at how many Anglicans love to go to Church yet appear fine with saying they are atheists – ditto for Lutherans in the more northern countries) In many ways it appears to parallel what I see in the ancient world in my limited knowledge of it.

  • leviticus

    @Razib,

    Kerry’s Jewish ancestry is a better parallel, I agree.

    All the talk about whether politicians are hypocritical or not isn’t particularly helpful if one wants to deal with religion from an anthropological or sociological perspective or from a political scientific standpoint. I’ve yet to see where Obama has strayed beyond what would be considered appropriate for a liberal, urban, but still politically centrist Christian.

    @isamu, Certainly, with text-based religions like the Abrahamic faiths, which also historically emphasis communal concensus, it is easy to delineate, theologically speaking, who or who is not a Christian, Muslim or Jew, and therefore a statement like post-Christian or a denial of LDS’ Christian status has merit. Within a religion like Christianity there is room for divergence, but at a certain point it no longer makes sense to include extremely heterodox movements within the parent faith. However, if a large enough community makes claim to a certain identity, and are accepted as such by outsiders, then those claims must also be respected. It all depends on which academic discipline you are using to analyze the group in question.

  • http://www.eurasian-sensation.blogspot.com Eurasian Sensation

    Perhaps it’s because I come from a country where most Christians are secular and liberal (Australia), but I have no trouble accepting that Obama is a Christian. He seems very similar to a lot of people I know here – having a basic Christian outlook, but open-minded about it and not really into displays of overt religiosity.
    The debate about Obama’s religion is a construct of US society and politics, which seems to place heavy importance on whatever it is a “proper” Christian should do.

    Personally, I find the Christian-ness of Gingrich and Romney more questionable than Obama. I find their general attitudes to wealth to be anathema to the teachings of Jesus.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #19, the USA is dominated by a particular radical protestant conceptualization of xtianity. in what the anglosphere is when the puritans ended up winning. so there’s a fixation on proper and precise belief. it’s gotten worse with greater democratic populism; jefferson got attacked for his heathenry, but wasn’t a deal breaker.

  • vel

    Considering that Christians can’t agree on what makes a TrueChristian, the only way you can tell is indeed if someone says they are. Then watch all the other Christians scream “no true scotsman” fallacies trying to claim only “their” version is the “right” one.

  • Ronald Wall

    Our nation will come of age as a truly secular, enlightened democracy when we elect a president who is openly an atheist or agnostic. Instead, it appears we are headed toward a theocracy led by politicians who do not understand why our founding father’s wrote and ratified the first amendment. The evangelicals think they can turn us into a religious state that will not repeat the terrible repression the Iranian people suffer. History begs to differ.

  • Clark

    I think that’s a bit hyperbolic Ronald. Lots of Presidents don’t appear to have been terribly religious. There certainly is a kind of resurgence of religion in the country but that ebbs and wanes over time. In any case I think religion is far less dominate in society now than through much of the previous history of the US. Seeing us on the cusp of a theocracy seems a bit silly when we don’t have school prayer and when there isn’t anything like the religious persecutions of the past. In the 19th century there were sometime de facto religious requirements to even teach in many colleges. There are still a few now – primarily religious run institutions. But it’s not like you’ll be persecuted at Harvard for not being religious now.

  • http://www.iSteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    Obama writes at length about his motivations and experiences in joining Rev. Wright’s church “Dreams from My Father.” In Obama’s description, it was much less of a religious than a racial experience for him.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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