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Column: Who Are We to Judge Whether the President is a Christian?

Sunday, March 08, 2015
I grew up in a religious tradition, evangelicalism, that assigned the word Christian parsimoniously. I vividly recall, for example, the rainy summer afternoon that I finally mustered the courage to “witness” to Stanley, my next-door neighbor and playmate. Stanley and I shared a passion for baseball, and we regularly played catch in our postage-stamp backyards (where errant throws not infrequently shattered basement windows) or played baseball on South DeWitt Street in Bay City, Mich., whenever we could conjure a quorum of other kids from the neighborhood.

On that rainy afternoon, as we waited for the skies to clear, I seized the opportunity to convert Stanley to my family’s brand of evangelicalism. “Stanley,” I began, my voice quavering, “are you a Christian?” There. The opening gambit, I had been told, was the most difficult. After that initial query, “witnessing” would get easier.

Nothing, however, none of the hours of coaching or rehearsals or role-playing at church or Bible camp, had prepared me for his response. “Yes,” he replied. I was dumbfounded. I was ready with every argument imaginable, from Bible verses to proofs for the existence of God, to persuade Stanley to become a Christian just like me. But why would my best friend lie to me about his very soul? Stanley, I knew, was a Roman Catholic, not a Christian. He attended parochial school through the eighth grade, went to Mass with his family every week, and the living room of his home featured portraits of the two Johns: John XXIII and John F. Kennedy, along with the yellowed fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. But certainly no Catholic, no matter how brazen or benighted, would dare call himself a Christian. Stymied by Stanley’s response, I changed the topic; soon enough, as the skies cleared, we resumed playing catch and fantasizing about our futures with the Detroit Tigers.

What calls all of this to mind, other than the pleasant memory of summers long past, is the recent kerfuffle over whether or not Barack Obama is a Christian. When asked about the president’s faith, Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, son of a Baptist minister and contender for the Republican presidential nomination, responded, “I don’t know.”

President Obama has written and spoken eloquently and often about his embrace of the Christian faith. During the 2008 presidential campaign, as clips of Jeremiah Wright surfaced, the president was compelled to distance himself from his pastor’s incendiary rhetoric, but he did nothing whatsoever to distance himself from his Christian faith. He has regularly spoken about his faith, not only in the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfasts but also on other occasions.

And yet, one of the canards perpetuated by the far right is that the president is not a Christian. According to a poll conducted late in 2014, only 9 percent of Republicans believed that the president is a Christian; 54 percent think he is Muslim, and another 29 percent agree with Walker, claiming they don’t know the president’s faith.

Walker’s response, then, was politically adroit. Especially in neighboring Iowa, where, according to a recent survey, 24 percent of the population is white evangelical Protestant — in other words, those most likely to hew to a very narrow definition of Christian — Walker’s response resonated with their own sentiments, even more so since the Religious Right has redefined the faith so that it is virtually indistinguishable from conservative politics.

Walker’s response may be good politics, but is it good theology? I had this discussion several years ago with my sister-in-law (who lives in Iowa, by the way). I had been interviewed by ABC News about a child preacher who had told the correspondent, a Buddhist, that she was headed straight for hell. The correspondent seemed shaken by this, even weeks after the interview, and she asked for my opinion. I assured her that I did not share the young preacher’s sentiment and that my reading of the New Testament, in any case, was that God alone separated the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats; I found nowhere in the scriptures where Jesus authorized his followers to pass judgment on the religious destiny of others.

When the segment aired, my sister-in-law went ballistic, incredulous that I had passed up the opportunity — on national television, no less — to inform the correspondent that she was indeed headed for hell. God would save only true Christians, after all, and Christian was defined in very narrow terms; it did not include Buddhists or, for that matter, Catholics or Mormons or Congregationalists. Episcopalians? As they say in the Bronx (though rarely in Iowa), fuhgeddaboudit.

What has changed somewhat since my childhood is that some of the evangelical suspicion of Catholicism has waned, especially as evangelicals and conservative Catholics have found common cause on various socially conservative issues. Sadly, however, anti-Catholicism has been replaced by politically driven criteria, and that’s why the president remains in the crosshairs of the Religious Right.

Is Barack Obama a Christian? I stand by my refusal to render such judgments, which properly belong to the Almighty. But I will note that Jesus said we should evaluate others “by their fruits.” Elsewhere, in the same passage where Jesus describes the last judgment, when God separates the sheep from the goats, he characterizes his true followers as those who acted with compassion toward “the least of these.” In this final reckoning, Jesus commends the actions of the faithful: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”

If that is indeed the measure of a Christian, a follower of Jesus, I suspect that most of us fall shy of those standards, including both the president of the United States and the governor of Wisconsin. For those who care about such matters, we can hope — pray — that the Almighty will have a more capacious definition of Christian than that provided by Scott Walker.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the author of more than a dozen books, including God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

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