September 27, 2010
Recent reports that nearly 20 percent of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim have been widely discussed and analyzed. Moreover, according to surveys, only a third of Americans believe he is a Christian. Evangelicals are almost evenly divided, with 29 percent saying he is a Muslim and 27 percent saying he is a Christian.
Several factors have promoted this false perception: Obama's family background, some of his public statements, his lack of church attendance, belief that his philosophy of life is more secular than Christian, and deliberate attempts to discredit the president. Pundits on the right including Ann Coulter, David Limbaugh, and Chuck Norris have vociferously questioned Obama's claim to be a Christian.
Clearly, the Muslim influences upon Obama as he grew up make his religious background unique among American presidents. The only church to which he has belonged is Trinity United Church in Chicago, which he left during the 2008 campaign because of the inflammatory statements made by its pastor Jeremiah Wright. This, coupled with his infrequent church attendance as president, has contributed to considerable confusion about his faith and skepticism about his public professions to be a Christian.
However, Obama has repeatedly declared that he is a Christian, and in some cases he has made very straightforward affirmations of his faith. Obama's profession to be a Christian is actually much clearer than that of George Washington. Some authors argue, and many Americans believe, that Washington was an orthodox Christian, but the evidence for this claim is not strong. Washington did attend church almost every Sunday while president, continually asked "an all-powerful Providence" to protect and guide him and his army and nation, professed belief in the power of prayer, and remained an Anglican/Episcopalian all his life.
However, Washington referred to Christ only a handful of times in his public statements or extant private letters and never once declared that Jesus was divine or his personal savior.
Obama, on the other hand, has explicitly stated that Christ is his savior. In an interview in "Christianity Today" in 2008, Obama declared, "I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ." "Accepting Jesus Christ in my life," he added, "has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals." Obama also stressed that he had been a member of the same congregation for almost twenty years and asserted "I have never practiced Islam."
At a breakfast for pastors and parachurch leaders held two days after Easter this year, the president stated that he wanted to "continue the Easter celebration of our risen Savior" and "to reflect on the work to which His promise calls all of us." He discussed the lesson he derived "from Christ's sacrifice" and the inspiration the story of the resurrection supplied. Obama celebrated the discovery that forever changed the world—the empty tomb and Christ's resurrection.
Obama expressed gratitude for Christ's "sacrifice ... for the sins of humanity." "As Christians," he proclaimed, "we believe that ... faith in Jesus Christ" leads to our redemption and brings "eternal hope." He insisted that like "our Lord and Savior" all Christians should commit themselves to God and "act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord."
Again, compare this with Washington. The first president never directly discussed Christ's empty tomb, bodily resurrection, or atonement for sin. Nor did he clearly and consistently affirm belief in an afterlife.
Obviously theologically conservative Christians disagree with many of Obama's views, especially on abortion and homosexuality. Many of us also think that Obama wants to use the government to solve problems that can be best (or in some cases only) dealt with by individuals or private organizations. This is not, however, a valid reason for believing that he is not a Christian.
The actions of some other presidents, perhaps most notably Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, have led Americans to question their profession of Christian faith. But few presidents have had their faith so closely scrutinized or so completely misunderstood as Obama.
In making this argument, I do not mean to suggest that Obama is comparable to Washington. The nation's first president deservedly occupies a unique place in American history and played an indispensible role in the creation and development of our nation. Moreover, I recognize that times and norms have changed greatly from the late 18th century to today. I am pointing out that Washington and Obama are being judged by very different standards. Looking at the evidence objectively leads to the conclusion that Obama's profession of Christian faith is much clearer than that of Washington's.
If Obama wants Americans to believe he is a Christian, he and his publicists could stop stressing that he reads a devotional that a staffer sends him on his BlackBerry every morning and instead disseminate his explicit declarations about the nature of his faith. The president might also be more careful and guarded in the statements he makes about Islam. And he could attend church more frequently. Doing these things would help put this controversy to rest except among those unwilling to take his statements and actions at their face value.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is the author of "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush" (Oxford University Press, 2009). He is also a fellow at The Center for Vision & Values.