The Case for President Obama’s Evangelical Faith: From Judd Birdsall

Most Christians care more about whether or not they agree with the political convictions of a presidential candidate than whether or not that candidate professes the Christian faith. That’s why in three months the majority of regularly worshiping Christians in this country will vote for a Mormon over a Christian, for Mitt Romney, over Barack Obama.

I know. Half of you refuse to believe that President Obama is a Christian. It’s not that you are unaware of his profession of Christian faith, or of his upstanding lifestyle and faithful marriage to his wife, the qualifications that would be sufficient to permit most people to hold membership in your church. It’s that he’s pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-socialism, and pro-the destruction of America. Surely no Christian could be described in those terms.

For myself, I want to be clear here. I do not think the personal faith of Barack Obama is a relevant issue in the 2012 presidential election, nor do I think the personal faith of Mitt Romney is a relevant issue in that campaign. I will vote for the man with whose understanding of justice and good government I most identify, and whom I think most capable of the job. That said, while I am quite sure that Mitt Romney is not a believer in Christ, I worry that most Evangelicals are far too eager to judge the faith and practice of Barack Obama.

My old roommate and friend Judd Birdsall has written two provocative pieces in the past few months at Christianity Today, one arguing that Obama is an Evangelical, the other arguing that Mitt Romney’s faith matters because the president is called to be our nation’s pastor in chief. Those of you who faithfully read this blog will understand that I do not share all of Judd’s judgments, particularly the emphasis of his second piece, but I do think Judd does us an excellent service in making a case for the Evangelical faith of Barack Obama. Regardless of whether or not you are persuaded (and whether or not it even matters), you should probably at least be familiar with the case. If you are going to take your chances judging Barack Obama – remembering what our Lord said about that sort of thing – at least make sure you have all the data.

Judd points out that after extensive research and interviews Obama’s religious biographer Stephen Mansfield (whose book on the faith of George W. Bush so many Evangelicals love) determined that he was indeed a genuine “born again” Christian. Numerous Evangelical pastors close to the president, such as Joel Hunter and Joshua DuBois, agree.

But as Judd points out personal attestations and subjective claims only matter so much. The question is, does Obama meet the qualifications of an Evangelical Christian as ordinarily defined? Here I want to quote Judd at length:

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.”

How does Obama measure up to these criteria? Obama seems most lacking in his weak view of the authority of Scripture, though he does quote it as an authority for some of his policy preferences. But on the points of conversion and the stress on Christ’s sacrifice Judd makes a strong case.

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.”

Only years later would Obama attach salvific significance to his embrace of the gospel. “I believe that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life,” he told Christianity Today in 2008. His more recent statements sound even more evangelical. At the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast Obama spoke of Jesus, in typical evangelical idiom, as “my Lord and Savior.” Still, the President acknowledges that his “faith journey has had its twists and turns”—a testimony that comports with a younger generation of evangelicals who are more likely to conceive of conversion as a process rather than a specific point in time.

On Christ’s work on the cross:

Crucicentrism: Obama has shared his reflections on the cross of Christ at his annual Easter Prayer Breakfast—a new White House tradition he started in 2010. At the 2012 event in April, the President described Holy Week as an opportunity to remember “all that Christ endured,” to “give thanks for the all-important gift of grace,” and to “celebrate that glorious overcoming, the sacrifice of a risen savior who died so that we might live.” That’s a summary of Easter all evangelicals can embrace.

Vague, to be sure, but certainly no more so than the various statements made by George W. Bush, whom Evangelicals enthusiastically embraced as a fellow believer in Christ. As with Bush, many of those vouching for Obama’s faith argue that he is becoming more articulate and orthodox with time:

Hunter explained to Mansfield that Obama’s theologically equivocal statements about sin, heaven, and other topics before entering the White House were those of a man with little biblical training. “He would not hold most of those views now,” says Hunter. “He is very much in transition.”

Hunter’s point is crucial. Critics can piece together dated quotes from the President to paint a picture of a hesitant, heterodox Christian. That is unfair as it fails to account for Obama’s progression from the highly unconventional, liberationist Christianity of Jeremiah Wright to the more mainstream evangelicalism of Hunter and DuBois.

So is President Obama an Evangelical Christian? Or to put it more importantly, is he a genuine believer in Christ? Whatever I may think of his politics I am going to go out on a limb here, trust our Lord’s warning about judging, and accept him as a brother in Christ. I know, I know, Jesus also said you are to judge a tree by its fruits, a man by his actions. But did Jesus mean politics when he said that? Did he really mean that we can be sure all Democratic politicians who refuse to promote pro-life legislation are bound for judgment?

I don’t think so. But whether or not you want to judge our president is up to you. Just remember, with the measure that you judge him, you too will be judged.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 16, 2012, in Barack Obama, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Case for President Obama’s Evangelical Faith: From Judd Birdsall.

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