Obama: The Christian as President

Recently President Obama made a series of important speeches in Western Europe and in Turkey. He said that “the United … Continued

Recently President Obama made a series of important speeches in Western Europe and in Turkey. He said that “the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam” and that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” He is right on both counts. These passages must be understood in the context of his sophisticated view of the role of religion and government.

This was demonstrated by his Inauguration and his frequent use of examples such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. There is a bipartisan American consensus on this issue.

President Obama is following the lead of President Bush in defending religious liberty for all Americans while using his Christian principles to govern. Understanding how he can do both is vital to helping the rest of the world imitate US success in securing freedom of religion without forcing religious people to privatize their faith.

Both North Korea and Iran have recently been in the news as threats to American peace and prosperity. Neither nation has achieved the constitutional compromise necessary to make a society moral and free. North Korea forces a secularist ideology on everyone and suppresses religious conscience. Extremists in Iran create religious conformity that is too pervasive and allows for too little freedom of choice to minority religious groups. President Obama is trying to be part of a long tradition of American governmental leaders balancing between the two extremes and urging other nations to do the same.

Both Bush and Obama have recommended the Islamic people follow our example, especially in unsteady but functioning democracies like Turkey. Many in the Islamic world are doing so, but not the terrorists who follow leaders such Bin Laden.

The terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 use Islamic language to mask fascist or socialist tendencies. They take God’s will into their own hands and their cruelty shows no true submission to the will of Allah. George W. Bush argued that this demonic religion is not the religion of the hundreds of millions of Islamic people worldwide. He frequently pointed out that thousands of American Muslims are loyal Americans. President Obama agrees and adds the credibility gained from his personal experience as a Christian who has lived in a majority Islamic nation to argue that Islam can follow a better path than that taken by extremists.

President Obama argued that the members of any religion, including Islam, could be good citizens of the United States. The Christian majority has designed a system in the United States where this is possible.

American is mostly Christian without being a Christian state.

Unlike Great Britain our nation is not identified with a monarch, but a set of principles. We swear an oath to a constitution and not a Queen. Historically the monarch is Britain just as the constitution is the United States. The Queen can be Christian, but a constitution cannot be a member of a religion anymore than it can join a political party.

President Obama could just as rightly have said that as Head of State he is not a Democrat or a Republican.

US Christians are a good example for religious people around the world about how to act on one’s faith in public affairs. Christians like President Obama govern as Christians without forcing others to be Christians. We know a good bit about President Obama’s values, for good and bad, by knowing the form of Christianity he embraces.

This has always been true.

Abraham Lincoln used Evangelical votes and values to gain the Presidency. Christian ministers like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his Christian values and an appeal to those values in other Americans to advances civil rights.

It is natural religion should shape public life. President Obama’s conscience has been shaped by Christian ideas and his decision-making is shaped, in part, by these religious ideas. One of these ideas is freedom of conscience and limited powers for the government.

If President Obama acts consistently with his faith, he will respect others’ right to practice a different faith. The US constitution was designed from hard learned lessons by Christian civilization to allow for such liberty.

Christians remain a dominant presence in the United States. Recent polling this Easter claimed that 79% of Americans believe Jesus rose from the dead, but this Christian majority refrains from acting in a way to exclude the non-Christian minority as much as possible. We have created a governmental framework by our lives and blood that allows for maximum participation from diverse peoples that can accept the constitution.

As the majority, Christians have done most of the work of building the nation, but welcomed other participants. They have managed to celebrate their faith in the public square without forcing others to believe as they do. This is a great accomplishment that secularists in places like Albania and religious in places like Russia have yet to achieve.

President Obama’s own inauguration demonstrated this wonderful balance. He took the oath of office on a Christian Bible and the music of the event was soaked in Christian language. We have been and remain a Christian majority without refusing citizenship to the non-Christian minority. Though practiced imperfectly this tolerance has been a great historical achievement. Other groups, religious and otherwise, would be wise to learn this American Christian tolerance.

President Obama has a theology and philosophy, which is informing his morality, which impacts his politics. To the extent that I disagree with his theology, I will disagree with some of his decisions. A few seem positively immoral to many of us and we use constitutionally guaranteed means to protest and try to overturn them.

Despite these strong disagreements with some of the President’s positions, as the constitutional head of state he remains my President. By showing respect and opposition, I am true to my faith while remaining a patriot. Hopefully even this small example of loyal opposition will demonstrate how a nation can contain many different theologies and philosophies while still sharing common space amicably.

John Mark Reynolds
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  • Gaby1

    Dear Professor Reynold:”President Obama is following the lead of President Bush in defending religious liberty for all Americans while using his Christian principles to govern”Man, all I can say is you are always good for a hearty laugh!!!President Bush defended religious liberty for ALL Americans??????Which America do you live in??? Certainly not the same I live in!!!And, like you state, Obama is following Bush’s lead, I and thousands of others obviously voted for the wrong man!

  • Gaby1

    Also Professor, you stated:” Recent polling this Easter claimed that 79% of Americans believe Jesus rose from the dead”Just exactly who conducted this poll and was it only taken in front of Christian churches???

  • justillthen

    Mr. Reynolds, We shall see, of course, but to this point I have FAR more Faith in the honesty, compassion, love and care that Obama has than I ever did with Mr. Bush. He appears to be much more the Uniter than his predecessor ever was, and he did not even say that. He appears to be far more the Christian than Bush was as well. At least my perception of what a Christian is. Though it is the PR of the Christian Right that they carry moral values worthy of Christianity, I am not much of one for most of that line. They do not emulate the morality of the Jesus that I grew up with. Bush spent the surplus of the Treasury to prosecute an illegal war, maiming and killing tens of thousands and sending a country and the world into turmoil in the process, depriving our children of the ease that they could have had if warfare was not required by the 43rd President. Not Christlike.I recognize that this rant is a bit off topic with your essay, but not so much with the question of if we are at war with Islam. President Bush repeatedly asserted that we were not, but I do not and did not believe that statement. Conservative Christianity is and has been ‘at war’ with Islam since it’s inception. If they ever were not we would be on the road to peace. But your neo-cons reaffirmed that fact by pressing war. Who needs Jesus when a derivative of that message works better for our selfish aims?You end on a optimistic note in your paper: “By showing respect and opposition, I am true to my faith while remaining a patriot. Hopefully even this small example of loyal opposition will demonstrate how a nation can contain many different theologies and philosophies while still sharing common space amicably.”In practice we are able to perform a wide range of expression in America. That is a crucial and fundamental difference to states that are more theocratically driven. In this way as well as many others we are blessed.

  • justillthen

    Hello Mr. Reynolds, I agree with the essence of the message of your essay. This is a great democracy and one of the central positions of it that allow America to maintain a strong democracy is the allowance for the religious freedom for all, along with freedom of speech, and the checks and balances that are in place, (and must remain so), to insure the continued health of these central tenets and so the democracy.You spent some time equating Mr. Obama with Mr. Bush. In the very general light that you shined on these two it is hard to disagree that they do not share some very basic common ground, but then that same alignment can be made for most people in America, and even the world. Past those commonalities the similarity appears to end. They are very different in their beliefs as well as their intents. Though Mr. Bush campaigned on a platform of being a “compassionate conservative”, fiscally conservative, morally conservative, and a “uniter”, (which by many accounts he was as governor of Texas), the result of his Presidency was on all counts converse to those proclamations. He was a divider in actions as well as in outcome and showed very little interest in seriously listening to diverse perspectives, in compromising to achieve harmonization in society or in governance, an itch to go to war that he could not satisfy in any other way, (how Christian!), and a hunger to spend surplus in order to achieve deficit far beyond any accusations of the most liberal spendaholic. He was you guy’s favorite gun! He was a hypocrite. I am sure that he loves God, but I am equally certain that he hates any God that does not fit into his Evangelical theory. I believe that he is a Rapturist and End Timer, as you are, but as a politician was astute enough not to voice these beliefs. He went into the Middle East to clear the way for Jesus to Come Again. While saying that he, and we, were not against Islam.At least ‘most’ intelligent people believe Obama when he says that we are not at war with Islam. Noone in their clear thinking mind believed George W. Bush when he said that. He, as an Evangelical, is at war with non-believers. It is the way of that brain. Because they, (yes, Mr. Reynolds?), believe any differing belief in God is an Evil and is the work of the Devil. Something to war against.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Just,I am a member of a church based in the Middle East. Your post pictured Christianity as being at war with Islam since its inception, but overlooked the fact that Islam invaded majority-Christian lands and took them over by force. Things change and this is not to rehash the past, but to put things in perspective regarding past Christian/Islamic relations. In today’s world, all people of good will accept that we must live peacefully while expressing our disagreements. Past injustices (on both sides) cannot poison our discussions.I am not at war with Islam, but I don’t agree with it. My Islamic friends disagree and have many good arguments, but I don’t want to kill them or stamp out their faith by force.Your views of conservative Evangelicals are really a parody of what we really think. I certainly don’t want to use war to clean out the Middle East (killing beloved friends!) to bring on Christ’s return and don’t personally know anyone who does . . . and I work in a very large Evangelical university. In fact, Judith Rood (in our History department see: I see no evidence that an eschatology informed President Bush’s decisions regarding the Iraq War, but if it did in the way you described I would certainly oppose such reasoning. Pardon typographical errors. . . my vision is not great for small space!

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Just,One final comment before I hit the road . . . as you helped me understand where you are coming from. Maybe I can help you see that Evangelicals are not (mostly) the way you think we are! You say:He, as an Evangelical, is at war with non-believers. It is the way of that brain. Because they, (yes, Mr. Reynolds?), believe any differing belief in God is an Evil and is the work of the Devil. Something to war against.I respond:We are not at war with any flesh and blood person. We don’t like wrong ideas . . . and I assume nobody does. Not all wrong ideas are the work of the Devil, since humans are pretty capable of messing up even clear things on their own! Sometimes (like any other group) we use war metaphors to discuss a fight against wrong ideas. I am sorry if that has caused confusion in communication. No sane Evangelical wants a “crusade” against people to forcefully convert them. Period. Every good person, including all the Evangelicals I know, are horrified by wars of religion . . . and are glad that most Christians have learned better.I am not a pacifist. I do think STATES have the right to defend themselves against evil doers, but that does not give the power of the sword to the Church. Like all traditional Evangelicals I do not think the Church should have that power. You may think our agreement regarding the bulk of my original post is trivial, but it is not. If the rest of the world could accept the way we handle religion-political tensions in the US we would all be better off. We allow for active faith without a theocracy. It is messy and non-ideological (one is never sure of where lines are), but it has worked (more or less) for 200 years.Let’s enjoy our relative agreement!John Mark

  • johnmarkreynolds

    I am thankful for those who comment. My goal is to learn from those who comment and try to explain my views as clearly as possible.While we will not always agree, at least I hope to demonstrate that Evangelicals are good citizens interested in open ended dialogue. While we may not always come to agreement here, we can discuss in good faith and be thankful for the Christian majority (in the past and present) that allows for dissent and supports the glorious Constitution of 1789.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Sigh. My dearest is calling me to the car, but I realized I had been unclear about something.In rereading one of my responses, I realized that I failed to mention that while Evangelicals don’t like wrong ideas and so try to change the minds of the wrong headed, this is not the only reason we engage in Socratic dialogue.We know we may be wrong. The only reason for dialogue is NOT getting people to agree with us, but it is also to learn and to test our ideas.We change our minds and I want always to be open to the possibility that other Faiths or no Faith may be correct. Evangelicals, after all, might be wrong too!I took the fact (as a Socratic teacher) that everyone would know this was one of our motives for argument/discussion for granted, but realized others might not take it for granted.

  • Gaby1

    Dear Professor Reynolds,Thank you for your response. I shall look up the survey and get back to you. Have a good trip! Gaby

  • johnmarkreynolds

    The link did not work for me to the poll numbers, but I found the results by searching on the Rasmussen site for Easter.Back to my the trip,John Mark (My i phone is great!)

  • justillthen

    Hello Mr. Reynolds,Thank you for the reply. I appreciate it and find it quite interesting. So that I am clear, I do not consider the structure of church-state arrangement in America trivial at all. I am in agreement with you that it is a great system. Yes, one could always hope for a more rosy reality, but considering the breadth of differences in religious belief alone, with no mention of racial, political and sociological differences, it does work amazingly well.I stand in respectful disbelief in your picture of Evangelicals. You are in the middle of that world and so it would follow that you are far more in touch with the realities of what goes on in that culture than I am. Yet it has been my experience that Evangelicals and more correctly Conservative Christians have been far from the compassionate and forgiving lovers of God that they present themselves to be. Indeed, they are lovers of God, and that is an aspect of them that I love. And inside their own culture and with like minded people they are wonderful. But the belief system is founded on the concept of elitism. Though you speak of leaving open the door to the possibility of being wrong around belief of the Divine, I know of no Evangelical grounded in his/her belief that entertains the idea that they are anything but right, (and so the spoken or unspoken certainty that others are definitely wrong!). So I am interested in what you write, it is contrary to my experience that it can be congruent with Evangelical belief that one can be both immersed in their belief and honestly consider that they could be wrong about their belief.I must go for the evening but look forward to returning to this line of thought. Thank you.

  • norriehoyt

    “The Queen can be Christian…’Actually, the British monarch must be an Anglican Christian and may not be a Roman Catholic Christian nor married to one.See The Act of Settlement of 1701.

  • justillthen

    Hello Mr. Reynolds,I do not think that Conservative Christians are war hungry or that they consider war to be the preferred way to deal with non-believers. But evangelism does have to do with the act of seeking to convert individuals from a perceived “wrong belief” to the true way, yes? The intent is toward witnessing and converting. It is a far better outcome to convert the infidel to true faith and salvage his soul than kill him outright! But Evangelicals generally believe in war as a path and are often the first and most consistently vocal supporters of warfare as a valid choice for the state. There is a high percentage of Conservative Christians in the military. They believe in the death penalty generally and in longer prison terms, are often ardent gun rights supporters, (not inherently a bad thing!), and yet are against most forms of social programs, welfare, social security, medicare… Against sex education but for teaching intelligent design. In many ways these beliefs still seem strange to me, even though I understand them. I was raised Catholic, so it would be easy to see that I have the conditioning that errs toward the more ‘liberal’ in terms of human life. I do not continue practicing as a catholic, but still find great sense in the pacifist leanings of the teachings of Jesus. Compassion and forgiveness ring true, as does peace and pacifism. Vengeance calls for feeding often enough in me, but choosing to kill never seems justified spiritually. The ease with which Conservative Christians embrace the death penalty as well as war in beyond me. It is un-Christlike, in my view, and detours from the Path.”No sane Evangelical wants a “crusade” against people to forcefully convert them. Period. “Metaphorically at least, this is what G W Bush did in Iraq. It was not a forced conversion of ‘faith’, but it was one of creed. It was a forced convergence to democracy. You may think that this does not apply, but I would ask you to consider it. Belief in a governmental form is in many ways very similar to a philosophical of religious form. “We are not at war with any flesh and blood person. We don’t like wrong ideas . . .”The obvious danger here is the definition of “wrong ideas”. This is a judgment call, a moral call. It is a belief system that defines as wrong what someone else defines as right. It is easier to justify judgment if it refers to murder, for instance, or child abuse. These are generally universally frowned upon, (exceptions can always be applied!). It gets far more gray when referring to religious beliefs or cultural conditioning. No? Still, it is easy to say that you are not at war with flesh and blood but with ideas. It always comes back to people, as they are tangible.

  • justillthen

    Mr. Reynolds, I do know Fundamentalists that have an openness to the possible inaccuracy of their beliefs. It is a natural thing to question, especially as the world around comes to deeper suspicion of literal interpretations of Sacred Texts. It is frightening and courageous at the same time to question what is bedrock belief in ourselves. It can also be courageBut then that should not be a challenge if the polling data is true that 79% of Americans believe in the Resurrection. That implies majority consensus for Christian beliefs and so cultural agreement. No need to fear having to defend minority beliefs against a disbelieving majority there… Just to be clear, I love most of the believers that I come across, and certainly that is often true for fundamentalist Christians. I prefer the company of believers, usually, over the company of non-believers. There is something that is congruent to me in belief in the “supernatural” and divine. It is exclusivity that spoils the pot, unfortunately. Believers that are open to varying ways of perceiving and being in communion with God are the most beautiful ones. Dogma becomes more inconsequential, communion with the Divine is the point. I love that.

  • justillthen

    Hello again Mr. Reynolds, “We know we may be wrong. The only reason for dialogue is NOT getting people to agree with us, but it is also to learn and to test our ideas.””I took the fact (as a Socratic teacher) that everyone would know this was one of our motives for argument/discussion for granted, but realized others might not take it for granted.”I believe it is healthy if one is honestly open to the possibility that their beliefs, (especially those concerning the vast and scientifically unsubstantiated arenas of religion, spirituality and supernatural cosmic causality). may be less than precisely perfect and true. Religious sacred texts are far from validated and supported and are clearly biased toward their own ends. Current theocratic beliefs based on this form of documentation and centuries of genetically and socially conditioned beliefs, habits and mores are deep seated, but are also foundationally unsound. That does not stop us from continuing to believe, without much conscious questioning, the conditioning of our tribe and people. But it has also brought us to conflict with other tribes of differing beliefs.Without religious differences we may be overly homogenized, which would be unfortunate, but we would have much less to be in conflict over. The essential point of contention is the assumed righteous truth that is claimed by each tribe or religion. There can be only one! Spiritual elitism. It is this aspect that I challenge and have the most issue with. I question this assumption of righteousness. I find it arrogance, hardly a spiritual virtue, and a distasteful expression of spirituality. Further, exclusivity or elitism seems to be the most pronounced in fundamentalist versions of any or the religions.

  • justillthen

    That said, there is no better way to live life than to do so in humble and appreciative awe at the wonder and diversity and fabulous uniqueness of life. Though atheists and agnostics are often in awe as well with life as well, lacking a conscious relationship with the spiritual and the divine is, to me, a void and emptiness that cannot be overlooked or avoided. Life devoid of humble gratitude and appreciation at the altar of the Unknown is life without the key to true fulfillment and realization. Life without God, then, is an empty one. How God is experienced, perceived and realized, (to the degree that It is), is not the point to me, but that It is Is the point. So I would rather spend any day of the week with you and your Evangelical Friends than with one that disses Divine Causality. But I would happily get out of your circle when I am told there is only one pathway to realization of my relationship with my Creator, and have that Path layed out to me, by your Evangelical Friends. That is the path of dying, not Living, in my view. I do understand that my rant is a bit off subject to your essay, and I respectfully ask for your understanding. But it is well connected to the question of if we are at war with Islam. We are at war with each other, and the sanctity of the individuals valid and unique relationship with his/her Creator.

  • INGOODFAITH

    “The LiON” Ye art as wise as Ye roar, indeed!

  • kert1

    Justillthen,What did you Bush to be more of a Unifier on and how is Obama doing better?Where do you see religious conviction in Obama? Personally, I don’t see much. His only church association, seemed to be racist and anti-government. He seems to show superficial signs but I have yet to see real conviction. In other words, he doesn’t go with his religious beliefs but with the polls and his backers.

  • justillthen

    Hello Kert1, Interesting questions and I find myself rethinking what I had come to accept as true without continuing to rethink them. Bush famously called himself a uniter as well as the decider. He did unite in some ways, but not in the ways that he was advertising himself as. He proved to be one of the most insulated Presidents, seeking no contrary positions or opinions, requiring loyalty above all else and surrounding himself with yes men. He had little care for those taking opposing viewpoints from his own. He did non or little of the compromise and conferencing that marked his governorship. He further polarized the political and social arenas by his tactics and in doing so caused more rifts and divisions. He was essentially a divider, not a uniter. Obama is far more receptive to a huge variety of interests and shows clear interest in bringing together opposing camps. He is, to me, far more genuine and believable. He has galvanized the youth like no other in recent history, and that is for some good reason. People believe in him more than they did Bush, even earlier in Bush’s Presidency. Obama has their attention and their belief. Obama is far more constrained at the same time. He is hobbled by a foundering economy, extremely polarized political and social tensions, and short fuses all around. He is operating so far quite well given the climate. As far as religious convictions, I am just fine with them. I was always uncomfortable with Bush. Social conservatism can be fine in many ways, but that is not the issue for me with Bush. His evangelical roots are too exclusionary for me. I am fine with someone that is inclusive over exclusive every time. Someone that believes they know what God wants I usually do not trust. History shows there is some wisdom in being suspicious. As for unity, I think it is great when it is achieved to degrees. Is anarchy better? There are unified groups everywhere, and it is when a majority can come together in a unified way that meaningful things can happen. Obviously it does not happen much in politics, but it is a great thing when it does. Recent years have shown greater degrees of polarization. Is this better, or more natural? America is named the United States of America. The concept of unity is built into the title.

  • kert1

    Justillthen,I think most every politician claims to be a uniter but what is the alternative. People always true to bring sides together but it is near impossible and often very damaging. Bush was successful after 9/11 but that didn’t last long. I don’t really see much difference then Obama. Obama is putting very left people that make me uncomfortable. I would hope he wouldn’t but let’s be realistic. It’s what you do as president. I don’t see him being much of better uniter than any president. I think he got like 56% of the vote, not exactly overwhelming. I guess he has united some people but some are also very worried. It seems mostly the same as every president except Obama is a little more liberal. Again I think unity is way overdone. I prefer my leaders to lead, not try to get everyone on the same page. That is a dream to me. While some unity is nice (like patriotism, etc), you just can’t have unity without force and that isn’t what I’m looking for. Besides if unity was what made a president great then Lincoln would be our worst president.Also, I understand you aren’t big Bush fan so you don’t like his religion. I read your statements and while I don’t agree much with them, I see where you are coming from at least. I still want to know where you see religious conviction in Obama. I really want to see where people get this because I’m not seeing it.

  • justillthen

    Hello Kert, You seem to be saying that you think that unity is overrated and not so important and that leading, or leadership is more valuable. Like you I value leadership, but unlike you I find a greater value in unity. Unity is the result of a consensus, agreement and like-mindedness brings harmony, and in harmony is strength. Great things occur with unity, and it does not have to be a rarity. In these more polarized times it is hard to find majority unity often. The aftermath of 9/11 was an example of it in America, as you said. The Congress vote for war powers to the then popular Pres. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 was another example, but one that shows that unity when pressured and based in falsehood is not such a good idea. As far as the religious conviction part, I am clear that non inclusive or exclusive versions of religious belief are inferior, in my perception. There is no validation that God exists, much less the Truth of God. All major religions are essentially social and cultural sets of conditioning based on myth. Myth, Kert. There is no one that is provable, though each have their faithful that believe. To have religious conviction in one is almost always a negation of the others. So, for me, religious conviction in a specific religious belief is negation of the majority of other possibilities of (also unsubstantiated) belief in God.I am far more comfortable with the Obama picture than the Bush one, precisely for this reason. I see Obama as a believer in God, but not in an exclusive or elitist way, as is Bush’s way. Bush is, again, a divider, in the religious context. Obama is far more apt to include and embrace the various religious ways at the table. That is a form of religious conviction that I can agree with.