On President’s Day I interviewed Dr. Gary Scott Smith of Grove City College whose book, Faith and the Presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush looks at eleven U.S. presidents and their attitude towards God, Christ, Scripture, Church, etc. It is considered the best survey of presidential attitudes on faith and public life in English. Smith wasn’t testing for orthodoxy or spiritual depth. He was examining each presidents’ own self-designation based on their writings, speeches, letters, range of concerns, etc. Smith tried to apply his criteria evenhandedly and, according to that criteria, both President Obama and President Kennedy qualify as Christians.
This flies in the face of many Christians’ judgments of the men. Kennedy seems to many to be a secular humanist rather than a Catholic. He had many extra-marital dalliances and showed little interest in spiritual growth. On the other hand, he was regular in Mass attendance and his bishop, Cardinal Cushing, went to bat for him and even published a book of Kennedy’s favorite prayers and Scripture passages.
Obama seems to many to be a secular liberal who is a champion of abortion and even supported forms of infanticide. He changed his position on same sex so-called marriage and David Axelrod, a former advisor, is clear that Obama lied during the 2008 campaign when he said he thought marriage was strictly between a man and a woman.
On the other hand, when Obama was questioned about his faith by Christianity Today magazine in 2008, he confessed that he held to traditional Christian beliefs like the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, etc. His former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, in a lengthy interview, said he didn’t think Michelle had much interest in the faith and he wasn’t willing to vouch for Barak’s Christian faith. This was after Obama had thrown him under the bus for his “God damn America” remarks. ‘ President Obama has spoken at the National Prayer Breakfast. While I adamantly disagree with his feeble, clumsy effort to draw a moral equivalence between ISIS and the Crusades, he did speak clearly a common “sinful tendency.” “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith… and so as people of faith we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion, any religion for their own nihilistic ends.” Who can disagree with this message even if we don’t care for the messenger.
One listener wrote complaining that Smith “conveniently failed to recall the ’John McCain has not raised my Muslim faith’ statement by Obama to George Stephanopoulos. George had to attempt to hide that statement – with ‘my Christian faith.’” I’m not sure why the listener thought it was a convenient omission. Nothing in Smith’s overall work at Grove City College or his Center for Vision and Values suggests a desire to whitewash President Obama’s record. The listener also added that “Obama’s pastor’s statements: ‘Not God Bless America, but God damn America’ does not sound Christian to me.”
First, most observers regard the “my Muslim faith” statement as a slip of the tongue. He was dealing with the suspicion that he was a Muslim and I think it likely he just made a mistake.
Second, his pastor’s “God damn America” statement was blown way out of proportion because the critics were clueless as to its context. It is an example of a common preaching style in black liberal churches. Preachers of this sort adopt a prophetic tone toward America similar to that of the Old Testament prophets towards Israel or the nations, in particular Babylon. Materialistic, world dominant America is seen as a type of Babylon trusting in its riches and military might. By its injustice to the weak and poor, it is under the curse of God, justly deserving the damnation of God. These preachers don’t feel obligated to protect our patriotic feelings any more than Amos or Malachi. Patriotism and Christian faith shouldn’t be confused. We may not like it but that’s the way they see it. It may be bad preaching, bad theology, and bad politics but it doesn’t demonstrate that they aren’t Christians. If anything, their preoccupation with justice to the poor and God’s judgment on America show a commitment to some type of Christianity.
Any conscientious pastor, in fact any fellow Christian, should have confronted both Kennedy and Obama for their striking inconsistencies as Christians. Perhaps Cardinal Cushing and Jeremiah Wright did challenge them. Ultimately, however, we must be content to let God judge. When I returned to the Catholic Church, I stopped trying to judge whether people had been really, really, really “born again” or not. If they had been baptized and professed faith in Christ, I would receive them as brothers or sisters. Baptism and profession of faith are objective indicators that don’t require me to try and weigh the sincerity of their faith. As a brother in Christ then, I have an obligation to love them, encourage them, pray for them, bear their burdens and admonish, exhort or confront them. If I think they are not walking in the light as Christ is in the light, I am obligated to lovingly confront them and do what I can, not to punish them, but to restore them to full fellowship with Christ. As St. Paul writes: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal 6:1).
Gary Smith applied the same criteria to Obama as he did to Kennedy or Reagan or Lincoln. He wasn’t arguing for Obama’s Christian consistency or depth of faith. The two incidents that you present don’t go very far towards disproving Smith’s contention.