Religious Faith and Views of the President

by Reihan Salam

There’s a new report from Brookings on how religious beliefs shape the political environment. One of the findings highlighted by the authors is the following:

Much attention has been paid to the significant minority of Americans who say that President Obama is a Muslim. Rather than pose a question rooted in a falsehood, the PRRI survey sought instead to assess how Americans saw the president’s religious faith in relation to their own convictions. The survey found that 51 percent of Americans saw the president’s religious views as different from their own, including 16 percent who saw them as “somewhat” different and 35 percent who saw them as “very different.” Only 40 percent see the president’s religious beliefs as similar to their own, including only 12 percent who saw them as “very” similar. This question sharply divides Americans along racial lines: 74 percent of African-Americans see the president’s religious views as similar to their own, compared with just 35 percent of white Americans.

We do not want to exaggerate the importance of these new religious divisions. Views on the nature of President Obama’s religious faith parallel political attitudes toward the president. Voters who are hostile to him on political grounds are likely to distance themselves from his views on other matters, including religion. In the PRRI survey, 94 percent of those who said Obama’s religious views were “very similar” to their own had a favorable view of the president. Among respondents who said his religious views were “very different” from their own, 78 percent had an unfavorable view of him.

In addition, no one can ignore the fact that Obama is the nation’s first African-American president and that at least some part of the opposition he confronts is rooted in racial sentiments. These responses no doubt condition the attitudes of some toward the president’s religious faith.

I’m definitely not an expert on these matters, but my understanding is that President Obama’s spiritual mentor — the man who converted him to Christianity from what one might call secular humanism — was Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The president broke with Wright in 2008 when some of his fiery sermons “went viral” and proved a serious political vulnerability. But until then, Barack Obama spoke very warmly of Wright, dedicating a book to him and celebrating his religious vision.

Yet it’s worth noting that Wright’s vision was rooted in the Black Liberation Theology tradition in Protestant Christianity, which is far from the most common African American vernacular religious tradition, though I assume it’s had at least some influence in the wider world.

James Cone, often described as one of the founders of Black liberation theology, gave an impressively upbeat characterization this tradition to Terry Gross on her popular NPR program. But there have been other interpretations, among them the notion that Black Liberation Theology is a critique of the dominant strands of Christianity. By definition, this suggests that followers of Wright and Cone have different views from a large majority of American Christians, and certainly from American Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, and atheists. Taken together, we have more than 51 percent of the population who don’t embrace Cone-style Black Liberation Theology. 

The real puzzle is why so many Christians, including African American evangelicals who are not part of mainline churches shaped by Black Liberation Theology, believe that the president has religious views very similar to their own. It could be that feelings of racial solidarity are playing a significant role. 

Speaking only for myself, I’m completely indifferent to the president’s religious views. I care far more about his actions. This is informed by the fact that my religious views are shared by an infinitesimally small number of Americans, and I hate the idea of being judged by that criterion. If he acts in a way that is consistent with a decent and humane ethical system, and I think he strives to do exactly that, I’m satisfied. My disagreements with him rest on how we approach policy questions, and to a lesser extent with his intellectual and rhetorical style.

But the idea that Americans should be scolded for believing that the president has religious views different from their own — and I should stress that this is not the view taken by the survey’s authors — strikes me as silly. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.