Seven years after Jeremiah Wright came to national fame as President Obama’s radical pastor, a man who declared “God damn America” from the pulpit, the president’s faith is still a matter of controversy. With a new presidential election looming, it’s apparently urgently important for members of the media to know whether Republicans such as Scott Walker believe that President Obama is a Christian.
Walker’s answer — “I don’t know” — is not one the media want to hear. But how can any man know another man’s heart — especially the heart of a person he’s never met? Who but God knows our deepest beliefs? To the extent that a president bares his soul to anyone, it won’t be to a reporter or to any person likely to speak to a reporter. Thus, any pundit or commentator who purports to declare what a president “really believes” on matters of faith should be viewed with deep suspicion.
But while we can’t know the faith in a man’s heart, we can discern quite a lot about the faith he manifests. Discussions about religion should center not just on orthodoxy (correct belief) but also on orthopraxy (correct conduct). And while we can’t know a president’s inner walk of faith, we can know his conduct, and we can know how he publicly ties that conduct to his professed faith. In other words, we can discern how he practices his civil religion.
In the recent past, Bill Clinton’s public walk of faith was instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in the heavily churched South: the backslidden Baptist, fluent in the language of faith, struggling with personal demons, yet instantly able to make connections with pastors and the public.
Evangelicals who met with him privately often came away impressed with his awareness of his own sin, with his professed desire to be a better man, and with his knowledge and awareness of Scripture. He spoke of a desire to protect life, and they believed him. He spoke of his close walk with God, and they believed him.
His policies, however, frustrated and angered many Evangelicals and Catholics. Yes, he said that he wanted abortion to be “rare,” but in practice his support for Roe v. Wade was unwavering. And there were lingering suspicions that he was conning the public, that perhaps he wasn’t so much struggling with personal demons as he was regretting that he had gotten caught.
George W. Bush, by contrast, presented a form of mainstream Evangelicalism common to many of our nation’s so-called megachurches. Focused on a relationship with Jesus, heavy on stories of personal renewal and redemption (President Bush spoke of his past battles with alcohol), oriented toward reaching out to the poor (especially overseas), and plagued with an oddly unbiblical optimism about human nature, the mainstream Evangelical is hardly the religious scold portrayed in the secular media.
President Bush’s policies — including his greatest successes and most consequential mistakes — reflected this public faith. For a success, think of the launch of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the millions of lives it has saved.
For a mistake, think of the consistent failures to understand the cultural challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, where — it turned out — God may not have implanted in “every human heart” the “desire to live in freedom.” Some human hearts burn with much greater desires for vengeance and blood.
What about President Obama? What is his public faith? Much ink has been spilled — almost all of it wasted — attempting to discern what President Obama “really believes.” I’m a frequent guest on Christian radio shows, and even now — more than six years into his presidency — the occasional caller will proclaim, with confidence, that the president is actually Muslim.
When Jeremiah Wright exploded onto the scene in 2008, and sound bites of his anti-American rants filled the airwaves, millions of Americans familiarized themselves with the basics of “black-liberation theology” and wondered whether President Obama was truly that radical.
He sat listening to Wright’s preaching for years. He named his second book after a phrase in one of Wright’s sermons. By his own admission, it was in Wright’s church that he came to faith. He claimed that he attended the church “every week, 11 o’clock service.” How could he not have been heavily influenced?
In his public faith, he was. But not by black-liberation theology. Instead, he has publicly adopted the beliefs and practices of Wright’s denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), perhaps the most liberal of the Mainline Protestant American denominations. In fact, when one considers not just the president’s public professions of faith but also his public policies, his relationship with the UCC represents the perfect marriage of church and politician.
Obama’s public professions of faith have been in near-perfect harmony with his church’s teachings. The UCC, like many Mainline denominations, is scarcely Christian in any meaningful theological sense. Its roots lie in the Reformation, but its theology would be unrecognizable to any of the great reformers. Rather, it draws on selective Christian teachings and selective Christian traditions to provide general spiritual comfort and, specifically, to inspire its members to progressive social activism.
The UCC’s statement of its own beliefs is remarkable for how little traditional, orthodox Christianity it contains. The church proudly declares, “The UCC has no rigid formulation of doctrine or attachment to creeds or structures. Its overarching creed is love.” The church emphasizes each person’s “spiritual journey,” the “power of peace,” the “power of possibility,” and the belief that each person is “unique and valuable.” If you’re looking for the Apostles’ Creed, or any expression of beliefs remotely similar to the Apostles’ Creed, you’ve come to the wrong place.
In 2004, Barack Obama gave perhaps his most candid interview about his personal beliefs, which clearly reflect UCC influence. Here’s his basic expression of faith: “So, I’m rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people.”
Obama noted that Jesus was a “wonderful teacher” and said, “Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.”
In response to the question “Do you believe in heaven?” he responded dismissively: “Do I believe in harps and clouds and wings?” He went on to explain that he did, in fact, believe in some form of eternal reward: “What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded.”
Perhaps his most famous statement in the interview regarded sin, which he described as “being out of alignment with my values.”
To be sure, President Obama has said that Christ “died for our sins,” but viewed in context with his other theological statements, he is not speaking the language of most orthodox believers, of the necessity of substitutionary atonement to reconcile a soul with God, but rather in accord with a more progressive model. Journalist Lisa Miller — in a 2008 profile of Obama’s spiritual journey — described the concept well: “Christ’s gift of salvation was to the community of believers, not to individual people in isolation.”
Obama’s expressed beliefs do not, of course, represent traditional Christian orthodoxy, but they do represent a kind of Mainline orthodoxy, which holds that religions are roughly equivalent (so long as they’re not “distorted” into fundamentalism) and that Christ’s death didn’t represent an atoning sacrifice so much as an example of his love and commitment to nonviolence.
We see this line of thinking not just in the UCC but in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, and many others. Writing in First Things, Philip Turner, former dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, described the Episcopal drift from orthodoxy, a drift common to all Mainline churches:
The Episcopal sermon, at its most fulsome, begins with a statement to the effect that the incarnation is to be understood as merely a manifestation of divine love. From this starting point, several conclusions are drawn. The first is that God is love pure and simple. Thus, one is to see in Christ’s death no judgment upon the human condition. Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are. The life and death of Jesus reveal the fact that God accepts and affirms us.
The result of this theology is a transition of focus from a relationship with the divine to a relationship with man, and to advocacy of very specific social policies. Turner continues:
Accepting love requires a form of justice that is inclusive of all people, particularly those who in some way have been marginalized by oppressive social practice. The mission of the Church is, therefore, to see that those who have been rejected are included, for justice as inclusion defines public policy. The result is a practical equivalence between the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and a particular form of social justice.
And this brings us — from a public-policy standpoint — to the most ironic aspect of President Obama’s declaration of faith, that he is “a big believer in the separation of church and state” and that he’s “very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.”
President Obama’s church, at its core, is thoroughly and officially invested in politics. This is, of course, an accusation hurled at Evangelical conservatives all the time, mainly in an effort to silence them, to drive them from the public square. But when it comes to denominations such as the UCC, it is formal, doctrinal truth.
In 2007, Senator Obama spoke to the UCC’s Iowa conference, declaring, “My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work.” And what is the “Lord’s work” to the UCC? Politics.
The UCC has a Web page called “Understanding the Issues” that provides church resources on dozens of contentious public-policy issues, from major national and international issues such as “Immigration,” “Israel/Palestine,” “Pentagon Spending” (the church declares that the “federal budget is a moral document”), and “LGBT Justice” to more small-scale issues such as the “UCC Coffee Project.” In many cases, the policy positions are quite clear. The church calls on Israel to end the “occupation” of Palestinian territories, for example. In others, the church connects members to far-left social-justice resources.
Contrast this with the Web pages of major Evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention or the Presbyterian Church in America, which focus on man’s relationship to God while providing minimal to nonexistent commentary on public policy. Public policy for these denominations is largely a matter of individual conscience, applying the principles of faith, rather than an instrument for enacting formal church policy. To be sure, Baptist and Presbyterian denominational leaders advance pro-life policies (so does the Catholic Church), but the full breadth of public-policy positions embraced by the UCC makes it a virtual “ChurchPAC.” Yet it’s the religious Right, not the religious Left, that is consistently accused of improperly mixing faith and politics.
There is remarkable conformity, in fact, between President Obama’s words and policies and his church’s official positions on public policy — a level of conformity that would cause alarms to ring across the progressive spectrum if there were similar Evangelical church statements to which a conservative president adhered. With the exceptions of his apparent (temporary) lie regarding his opposition to same-sex marriage (which his church has supported since at least 2005) and the church’s opposition to some of his military policies, the president has advanced UCC positions again and again.
But there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. Does President Obama hold these views because of church teaching, or did the church essentially spiritualize views he already held? There’s evidence of the latter. In his 2004 interview, discussing his conversion, Obama said that it helped “connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.”
The picture that’s painted is of a young man looking for a spiritual experience that would confirm and then deepen his values, not of a young man lost, recognizing his sinful nature (indeed, by contrast, Obama speaks eloquently of his pre-Christian good deeds) and embracing his Savior as the true and only hope in this life and the life to come.
And this brings us to the reason a man could, on the one hand, rebuke “religious certainty expressing itself in politics” while, on the other hand, essentially becoming an instrument of officially sanctioned church policy. The UCC and the rest of the Protestant Mainline offer little religion in the classical sense, but rather spiritualized politics supplemented with personal inspiration and self-created meaning — inspiration and meaning that they believe can be gained from virtually any other major religion.
And because the focus isn’t on God but on man, the practitioner is oblivious to the fact that he’s embodying a union of church and state that would repulse him if practiced by the orthodox.
Barack Obama may believe in black-liberation theology, or he may not. He may have a close relationship with God, or he may not. We can’t know his heart. But when it comes to his civic religion, President Obama is his church’s — and liberal Christianity’s — great and mighty instrument.
— David French is an attorney, a writer, and a veteran of the Iraq War. This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2015, issue of National Review.