Sunday, June 24, 2012

What religion is Obama?

Good question, isn't it? Gallup thought so too.

Did you know that many Americans can't name Obama's religion? Tsk, tsk. You Americans. Let's see what silly answers you give.

34% of you say Christian. Good boys and girls - you get a cookie.
11% of you say muslim. Bad boys and girls. Too much Fox News for you. No cookie.
8% of you say non/no religion. Let's... not talk about this right now.

44% of you say you have no idea. Tsk - Christian, ladies and gentlemen, Christian. No cookie.

And how do we know he's a Christian? Gallup to the rescue.

Obama is a Christian and has labeled himself as such as in his writings and interviews, and while living in Chicago he attended the Trinity United Church of Christ. Since moving into the White House, Obama has attended several different Christian churches.

Well. Glad we cleared that up. He said he's a Christian, he attended Church for a bit. Of course, he stopped going regularly once he became president, but he's gone now and then - usually with cameras in tow. Strangely, right around the times that Christianity has been subject to question.

Let me turn off the monotonous sarcasm and say this: there's something wrong with Gallup stating definitely that Obama is a Christian, on the grounds that "Well, he said he is, and also he's gone into a church here and there". Never, not once, is it suggested that maybe a politician would misrepresent his religious beliefs to curry favor. In fact, the very idea that one's religion or stated religion would have an impact on, say... election chances, is utterly glossed over.

It's as simple as, nope, he's Christian, he said he was, nothing to see here, you're all wrong. Saying Obama is Christian is "correct", period, end of story. Does He believe God created the world? Does He believe in the resurrection? Does He adhere to, say... the apostles' creed? Tut tut, what does that have to do with anything? He said he's Christian. End of story.

This is the sort of bias that flies under almost every radar - the little things.


Syllabus said...

You know what's awesome? How the Evangelical Right, during the Republican primaries, was all, "Oh, Romney's a Mormon! Mormons are evil! We can't vote for Romney!" and now, all of a sudden, now that it is in essence a foregone conclusion that he'll be the nominee, they're all, "Romney's our man! Romney's our guy! He'll defeat that Godless socialist in power!" And yet they still claim to be voting from their religious principles. Scratch that, of course they are. Their Republicanism has become their religion.

As far as Obama goes, it seems to me that he probably is a Christian. Not a very pious one or a very good one, perhaps, but still. I'm not a very good Christian either. He says he believes that Christ died on the cross for his sins, that he has a personal relationship with Jesus, and the like. Now, of course, what a person is and what a person says they are are two very different animals. But here's the thing: people like Perry, say, use their faith as a political tool. Sure, they might be sincere, but they milk their evangelicalism for all that it is worth. A faith like that seems more troublesome to me than one like the President's putative one.

Now, of course, Obama is playing to a different political platform, so it's expected that he's not going to always be talking about what a great relationship he has with Christ. And his faith is probably somewhat subject to his political agenda. He's probably more of a liberal (in the social sense, not in the particular theological sense that it took on in 19th century Protestantism) or progressive Christian.

That said, I agree with your point on the Gallup poll. It's incredibly naive to say that just because someone goes to church, they're a Christian. Mormons go to church, and they aren't really within the bounds of what we might call small-o orthodox Christianity. Heck, both Robert Price and Sir Anthony Kenny still take communion. That doesn't make either of them Christians.

Crude said...

I agree that there are plenty of Christian Republicans who are absolutely beholden to the Republican party to a degree that is a foolish mistake. But I did not see what you're claiming of the Evangelical Right. At least not out of anyone prominent.

Now, that could be because everyone could see the writing on the wall and knew Romney was eventually going to be the presidential pick, so they decided to get their ducks in a row. But what I saw during the primaries out of the Republican-loyal Christian Right was great skepticism of Romney on the grounds that they thought he was a liberal, and that his track record as a conservative was terrible in their view. The Mormon issue came up in terms of "Can we vote for a Mormon?", and the answer typically was cashed out as "Ideally, we shouldn't have to. But if push comes to shove, sure we can." And I think even now the support for Romney is transparently of the (Vox would love this) 'Vote for Romney, because he's less wretched than Obama' variety.

Regarding Obama, here's the problem. Whenever I've seen him discuss his faith, it's always in the cagiest terms possible. I've never seen, "I believe God created the universe" or "I believe Christ was resurrected". Instead - and I could have easily missed something - I've seen, 'Christ's teachings are very important to me.' level stuff.

If you've seen otherwise, please point it out to me. The only times I've ever seen Obama answer questions like these, they were ridiculous softball questions that got answered in vague ways.

Crude said...

Strike that. Obama apparently did say he believes God created the universe, and gave a proper answer to that at least in 2008. Point to him.

Crude said...

I also want to stress: I'm not in the 'if you're a liberal I bet your faith is all a big lie' camp at all. What I say here is based largely on Obama's past statements of religion ("Clinging to guns and religion"), his silence on it, some bad interviews, and his hostility towards religion in legal matters. He really starts to seem Christian in the way Ataturk from Turkey seemed muslim.

Syllabus said...

Right, well, like I said, I think that he does subordinate his faith to his political and ideological platforms. I don't think that's a good thing.

As far as the other statements he made, here are two links that I could find on short notice:

That said, Christ did say that "not all who call me Lord, Lord will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." If people say stuff like they believe in the resurrection and the atonement and salvation by faith (bypassing the particulars of grace/works and the like, since that's an in-house debate amongst Christians), then it's at least 50/50 that they're some kind of Christian. I leave the rest up to God, m'self.

I do agree that he does tend to pussy-foot around the issue, but I think that's more due to who his supporters are. He doesn't want to antagonize the partisan Democrats by using language that sounds "Republican".

Re: the Evangelical Right, I may be painting with broad strokes, I admit. I did hear guys like James Dobson and Franklin Graham say something to that effect, and I may have unfairly generalized from that.

Crude said...

I don't care about finding out the legitimacy of his faith in deep terms, really - it's impossible to gauge what people 'really think'. But I think it's fair game to at least look for some basic answers - what I found was some real, real sketchy Q&A that, to me, came across as the sort of answers I'd expect from an inventive bullshitter.

I've turned up quotes now with him talking about the resurrection and God creating the world. Good enough for me. Those were the bases I wanted to see covered. I still despise his moves on religion-state interactions, but I can't rightly call him out as non-Christian so easily. A general sellout, perhaps, but plenty of sellouts exist.

Syllabus said...

Well, yeah, obviously. That move with the contraceptive and insurance thing was stupid, on all counts. And I think he's done disastrously bad things when presented with these kinds of issues. Him being a person of being of a particular faith doesn't excuse any of that. That he has sold out, to one degree or another, is almost certainly true. There are, I think, enough grounds for legitimate criticisms that we needn't pursue false ones.

Crude said...

Yeah, as I said, I was going on what I saw out of him in interviews. Now I've seen some better ones.

I actually really hate - utterly despise - the recent bit of, "Society is entirely secular. You can practice your religion in church one hour a week on Sunday. Otherwise, your religion should have nothing to do with any of your public actions." is deplorable, and that seems to be the new popular line.

Syllabus said...

It's not like it's newly popular, though. People have been saying that since something like the middle of the last century.

You know what I dislike most about that thesis? The fact that people say, "Oh, we think religion is fine, we just think it should be kept out of the public sphere." Bullshit. At least the idiots at the unReason Rally had the balls to come out and say that they wanted religion privatized because they think it idiotic and unworthy of respect. They still continue to be idiots, but they're honest ones - on that area, at any rate. On others, they're anything but.

Crude said...

Yeah, but "public sphere" used to mean specifically "legislation". There are major problems with that view as well, but that was the limit. Now "public sphere" means "if you feel the homeless, run a hospital, or do anything in public that involves an interaction with another human, it's a 'secular' activity". Even the SCOTUS thinks that's ridiculous - we've seen, I believe, 9-0 strikedowns of Obama's laws on that front, and it's a new talking point.

Syllabus said...

Yeah. Language seems to always be the first casualty of attempted societal reform. So, in addition to marginalizing faith, the "reformers" destroy language. Ticks me off.

Crude said...

Man, the corruption of language thing spreads so far and so wide, and it's one of those things I can go on and on about.

And, feed the homeless. Feeling the homeless is generally not recommended.

Syllabus said...

I recently had an argument with a guy in which he was saying "there is no evidence for anything metaphysical" when he meant "there is no evidence for anything supernatural". When I asked his to stop using "metaphysical that way, he started laying into me about being disingenuous and dishonest. I think it's an intellectual laziness thing, in general. People just regurgitate what they've seen other people use, and so on - whether the thing be words, ideas, or anything else.

Crude said...

Yeah, I've run into - on this blog - atheists who have said "metaphysical views are all bull, philosophy and metaphysics are nonsense". When I pointed out that materialism and naturalism were metaphysical positions, I swear, they seemed honestly stunned at the news.

The 'supernatural/natural' one is a pet project of mine. Whenever a conversation or argument turns on that divide, I insist on hearing how natural and supernatural are defined. It never ends well.

Syllabus said...

Yeah, they usually end up saying that if anything supernatural were proved to exist, then it would just be another element of nature. They really don't see the irony. It's hilarious and saddening at the same time.

Oh, and then there's the canard about "the laws of nature can't be broken". They trot it out like it's the most basic ontological principle of life, the universe and everything.

Crude said...

There's a lot of butchering that goes on with that. I've run into one guy who said that if the supernatural existed, methodological naturalism would be the only way to find it. Someone in the "you can't even talk to them, really" category.

I think it's doubly funny, since I run into a good number of atheists who are big on transhumanism and love to entertain the possibility we live in a simulated universe. Ask them if that counts as supernatural to watch the conversation take an interesting turn.

Anyway, to get back to Obama - one thing that bothers me about the Gallup poll is that it confidently states 'Obama is a Christian', without acknowledging that that gets into some touchy issues. Are Catholics Christian? I sure think so, but I can point you at a number of protestants who think otherwise. Are mormons? You yourself seem to be in the 'no' camp, but again, I can find other Christians, non-Mormons, who would say yes. Is Michael Dowd, or Spong? Hell no, I say, but I won't have to search long to find people who disagree.

Think about it in another context. Is Obama pro-religious-liberty? Let's say he says "Yes, of course I am." Is that now a fact to just state?

Syllabus said...

I think that, in the interest of clear thought, it's helpful to make some distinctions. For example, what is meant when people say, "I'm a Christian?" Well, one of two things is possibly meant. First, the person could be saying that they are part of a sect, denomination or whatever that self-identifies as Christian. I will use the term nominal Christian to refer to these. Second, the person could be saying that they ascribe to the set of beliefs that are normative for that particular religion (in Christianity, I'd pretty much say the Apostle's Creed and the pre-Chalcedonian Nicene Creed would be the necessary conditions for that. I leave out the Athanasian Creed because it's absurdly specific about point of doctrine that are, at the best of times, very obscure. For the layperson, I think those other two present enough Trinitarian theology to be orthodox, since a little thinking from the Nicene Creed rules out stuff like modalism, though not stuff like the Eastern Orthodox view of the Holy Spirit). These persons I will call confessing Christians.

Given those two distinctions, I think that most professions of Christianity will fall into one or the other - or quite probably both - camps. Myself, I think that the second scenario is the more revealing and important of the two, since there are Christians such as myself who don't really consider themselves to be part of any denomination or sect (I know that technically, if you're not a Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox, you're a Protestant, but I've got grievances with all five of the solas, so I don't think I can in good conscience call myself a Protestant as the term has historically been understood) and yet would not hesitate to call themselves Christians.

That last distinctive can also be used to judge whether any given denomination can be understood to be within the realms of Christian orthodoxy. To give an example, I would classify both Catholicism and Presbyterianism as elements of the set of orthodox Christianity. I would not do so in the case of a sect like, say, Mormonism, because of both the effects their version of the Trinity has on their Christology, their fundamental polytheism, and what they think about the nature of God - that He was originally a human that was exalted, I believe the term is, to Godhood. This makes God an effect of the universe, and that's seriously outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

Now, when we move into the realm of whether a certain person is a Christian or not, I don't think it's helpful to judge their personal convictions on the basis of what denomination they belong to. A Catholic, for instance, might be a virtual atheist but still call him or herself a Catholic. Similarly, a Mormon may actually be an orthodox Christian because he or she is not aware of the teaching of that Church, considers him or herself a run-of-the-mill Christian, and therefore believes what he or she reads that all Christians believe.


Syllabus said...

So, to take your examples one at a time, I would classify someone who affirms Catholic dogma as an orthodox Christian, but I would not do so simply by virtue of them having been baptised a Catholic. I wouldn't classify a person that affirms Mormon dogma as an orthodox Christian, but I would not simply do so by virtue of them having been baptised as a Mormon. I wouldn't consider someone like John Shelby Spong or J. Dominic Crossan an orthodox Christian because their views on Christology aren't in line with the two creeds I gave as my criterion. They are - or Spong is, at least - nominal Christians, but not confessing Christians, since they belong to a Christian church but do not affirm the necessary creedal statements required for basic orthodoxy.

Now, granted, this is probably not totally exhaustive of every person on earth, and there's a good deal more that should be said, but that's the general framework I work within.

The question of whether Obama is pro-religious liberty gets into a slightly more tricky subject, since you can judge that statement by actions and basic definitions. With Christianity, judging someone's faith by their actions is a little trickier. While St. James and St. Paul do talk about the interplay of faith and works, I think that it's more of a once-you're-in'the-door debate. Perhaps two more subcategories would be helpful - good Christian and bad Christian. Additionally, if one makes policy, one's stance on religious liberty can be accurately judged from a distance. Judging the effect one's Christianity has on one's life is, from that distance, a damned sight harder.

Hope that all clears it up somewhat.

Crude said...

Well, you say it can be accurately judged, and I'd agree. The problem is that if there's an 'out' available, especially in various segments of the media, it's going to be used. You certainly don't see the media describing Obama as "anti-religious-liberty", even though I think it would be more than warranted. Instead, you see something closer to "he's pro-religious liberty, it just happens that he has a different view of religious liberty than most", if they discuss it in that context at all. Back to the language games.

Even if we're going by your standards, and I think they're reasonable even if I'd be looser about it all, saying "Obama is a Christian" in some definitive way is problematic. Saying "Gingrich is a Christian" is problematic too. Did anyone ask any of these guys running if they affirm these various orthodox doctrines? No, it gets as far as, "Well he says he is, that's that." It was particularly obnoxious in the case of the poll for one reason: they treated the people who thought that Obama has no religion as somehow clearly wrong and in need of correcting. The way Gallup writes it, they're under the impression that Obama is a Christian and it's just that various people haven't gotten the news. They seem to utterly bypass the idea "Maybe people think he's insincere."

Syllabus said...

Yeah, the crapshoot that is the media continues to display its fallibility.

As far as verifying the faith of come person or other goes, I agree. It's usually hard to judge the sincerity of someone's faith unless you know the person more or less well or have had a good deal of interaction. One can maybe extrapolate certain things from what a person has said and make a probabilistic sense, but definitive statements are hard to make. There are, of course, exceptions, but I think that that principle does hold, on the whole. So I can agree with you and really not understand how those polls can make statements like that with such smug arrogance.

As far as the religious liberty, goes, the equivocation reminds me of this t-shirt I saw someone wearing: 2+2=5, for certain values of two. Once language starts to bend, things get Orwellian very fast. New-speak and all that.