President Obama’s faith challenge at the Democratic National Convention

AP President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he arrives at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport for the Democratic National Convention … Continued


President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he arrives at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on Sept. 5, 2012.

For the casual viewer of the major party political conventions, the ritual presence of religious leaders (who open and close each night’s events with prayer) may be lost. But the candidates and leadership of both parties are aware of the importance of invoking religion at political conventions: two-thirds (67 percent) of voters – including 66 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of independents, and 78 percent of Republicans – say that it’s important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs.

Last week, former Mass. governor Mitt Romney and the Republican National Convention largely embraced Romney’s Mormon faith, following a well-worn civil religion approach that made general references to God and faith while avoiding the potentially controversial specifics of Mormon theology that clash with his evangelical voter base. This week, as President Obama takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention, he faces a different, but also serious, challenge about how to address his faith while he makes his case for another four years as president.

Like Romney, Obama has faced some challenges on the faith front. As Daniel Cox and I noted in a recent chapter on Obama’s faith in “Religion and the American Presidency,” Obama made his entrance to the national stage with a speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention that was full of religious language, such as traditional biblical allusions (“It is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work”) and references to contemporary Christian music (“we worship an awesome God in the blue states”). This speech was also remarkable because it broke through at a time when the “values voters” movement was on the rise and Democrats were being lambasted for being perceived as unfriendly to religion.

View Photo Gallery: Faith is on display at the gathering of delegates in Charlotte.

As a senator in 2006, Obama also delivered a stirring, personal speech about the role of faith in both his private and his public life at a Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference.Commentators rapidly seized on the historic nature of the speech. In a column titled “Obama’s Eloquent Faith,” E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post called it “the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech.”And during the 2008 campaign, the Wall Street Journal noted that the race was shaping up to be an unusual one “in which the presumptive Democratic nominee is talking more openly about his Christian beliefs than the Republican candidate.”

But in the home stretch of the 2008 campaign and as president, Obama has had the somewhat strange challenge of managing both the aftermath of a very public falling out with his Christian pastor and persistent false rumors that he is Muslim rather than Christian.

As president, Obama has mostly limited references to his faith to official occasions such as the National Prayer Breakfast, Easter or Christmas. On these occasions, he has delivered genuine and theologically specific remarks about his belief in Jesus Christ, the power of prayer, and even the significance of the agony of the crucifixion. Earlier this spring, the president also cited the Golden Rule as part of his evolution toward endorsing same-sex marriage. But the data suggests that, despite the genuineness of his faith and the eloquence with which he can express it, President Obama is not convincingly connecting with a significant number of Americans on the issue of his religious faith.

After nearly a full term in office, fewer than half (49 percent) of voters correctly identify Obama as Christian. Around 1-in-5 (17 percent) voters continue to incorrectly say that Obama is a Muslim, up from 12 percent in 2008 (12 percent). Most strikingly, about 3-in-10 (31 percent) voters say they are unsure of his religious beliefs. Other questions confirm this identification problem: only 38 percent of voters report that Obama’s religious beliefs are similar to their own, despite his membership in the United Church of Christ, one of America’s oldest Christian denominations.

This dearth of knowledge about Obama’s faith could have an impact on his ability to sway the nearly 6-in-10 (58 percent) independent voters who care about presidential candidates’ religious beliefs.

Perceiving Obama’s religious beliefs to be different from one’s own is a significant independent predictor of holding unfavorably views of Obama, even holding other relevant characteristics constant. Americans who say Obama holds somewhat or very different religious beliefs than their own have, on average, a 72 percent probability of viewing the President unfavorably, while those who said his religious beliefs were somewhat or very similar had on average just a 13 percent probability of viewing the President unfavorably.

Obama’s campaign speech is, in this sense, an opportunity to clearly spell out his deep connection to his Christian faith. But his challenge is, in many ways, greater than Romney’s. While Romney needed to connect his Mormon faith primarily to an evangelical constituency, Obama must talk about his faith in a way that connects with a wide swath of religious groups that constitute the Democratic Party base – mainline, black, and evangelical Protestants; Catholics; Jews; Muslims; Buddhists; Hindus; and others – along with the religiously unaffiliated, an increasingly politically important group. But he’s successfully threaded that needle before. He could borrow a page from his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, where, he used theological concepts and language to conjure a national vision that included religion as a unifying, rather than divisive, force.

This week, Obama has the opportunity to remind Americans, once again, of his strong religious faith. He has little to lose by choosing to weave the rhetoric of civil religion into his acceptance of the Democratic nomination. And if he can remind the substantial minority of American voters who are not aware of his faith that he is, in fact, Christian, he will have much to gain.

Robert P. Jones
Written by

  • lomansmonkeychild

    It is extremely important to have God in our country, the USA, because I want FREEDOM OF SPEECH, once you take God out of the country, you will lose Freedom of Speech.

  • lomansmonkeychild

    Once you take God out of the USA, you take away FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

  • EthelredtheUnready

    We’re electing a president, not a priest.

  • ClarkKent1

    The first amendment to our Constitution is so important, in part because freedom of speech was historically NOT available because of theocracy. The genius of our founding fathers was to get religion out of the structure of government. That way, religion is free to be religion, but not to dictate beliefs to people who are not voluntary members. And goverment power to control or impose belief is taken away. Win/win!

  • indyguy3

    Repitition of “correctly identify Obama as Christian” won’t make it true. For the most part when Obama tries to explain his religion we’re thinking (correctly) that’s not what I believe and I have no idea how he could get that from the Bible. The rest of the time we understand his awkward explanations as just something he read from the teleprompter written by someone who has studied Christians and their language.

    Since neither Obama or Romney have anything significant in common with Christians I’m guessing the candidates religion will have little to do with outcome.

    An example of what doesn’t sell to Christians is this brother’s keeper thing. Christians understand it as their responsibility, Obama and the Roman Catholilc religion understand that as government responsibility.

  • John von Luck

    Christ was not just a sacrificial lamb he was a TEACHER from God. Two critical things he said that I would like to reference.
    (1) “In as much as ye do it unto the least of these my brethren, ye do it unto me.” (2)”Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them the same is my brother”
    The policies of the Democratic party are a conscious attempt to do as He commanded as far as is possible in the context of our modern society.
    Elizabeth Warren and a Catholic Nun who spoke at the convention made specific reference to this concern. The President too has been explicit when he says “I am my brothers’ keeper”..
    This is obedience.

    I believe that God prefers obedience to lip service.

  • indyguy3

    Thank you. Is there anyway I can communicate with those that believe as you do?

    Do you recognize a difference between yourself and government? For me, the two are completely different, each with a different set of rights and responsibilities.

  • missouribreaks

    you must be kidding. i watched the democrats boo God yesterday. get rid of the dems in november. vote them out.

  • indyguy3

    missouribreaks, I’m not sure they were booing God. The phrase in question, “God given talent and drive” is rather general and might not require belief in a God to understand. They might instead have been booing the resemblance between that wording and the Declaration of Independence reference to “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” They would no doubt like to amend the Declaration to remove that reference because the “right to health care” can’t fit into that concept of “unalienable Rights.” That makes their special rights rank lesser than the Bill of Rights, which is quite the opposite of what they believe.

    On the other hand, you may be right, Democrats seem to be very simple minded people, they may simply never think. I’ve never found one that would differentiate between government and individuals.

  • richard36

    Let’s see……. He very seldomly attends church. Democratic party members don’t want God’s name in their party’s platform. Althou, he did worship at Rev. Wright church while in Chicago. What does that say ?

  • richard36

    With Obama, we’ll get neither.

  • mqpham

    Freedom of religion and fredome of speech are different clauses of the 1st amendment!

  • motiv8ed

    Without a doubt, Mitt Romney selected his running mate, Paul Ryan to gain access to the Catholic voters. I wonder how those voters feel about Romney’s belief in this part of the Mormon failth?

    Mormon Apostle: Bruce R. McKonkie
    “It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church. Nephi saw this ‘church which is the most abominable above all other churches’ in vision. He ‘saw the devil that he was the foundation of it’ and also the murders, wealth, harlotry, persecutions, and evil desires that historically have been a part of this satanic organization. (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine [1958], 130.)

  • jhtlag1

    To turn that around, I never really thought Obama was really much of a Wright disciple, A) going because that’s where Michelle goes, and she’s a hearth and home person and B) Good political cover for claiming “blackness” eg, you have a firery reverend not unlike Jesse Jackson and other political operators.

  • quark2

    it always amused me that ronald reagan, patron saint of the rep party, rarely attended church & yet there was never any question of his religion.

    it amuses me that there are people who claim to love the constitution except for the part about separation of church & state. this country is not a theocracy.

  • tidelandermdva

    Jones puts the cart before the horse when he says, “Perceiving Obama’s religious beliefs to be different from one’s own is a significant independent predictor of holding unfavorably views of Obama” Study after study has shown that people select information sources that confirm their biases, and selectively receive informtion that confirm those biases. I say confidently that 100% of Americans, after nearly a full term in office as Jones says, know that Obama is a professed Christian.Those who question it know this; they just do not believe him. These people are not disfavorable to Obama because they doubt his Protestantism or are unaware of it, they doubt his Protestantism because they are disfavorable to him. And they patronise and seek out sources of information which have made a practice of questioning his faith. In typical rightwingnut fashion, a survey would reveal that the same people who say they doubt he is a Protestant will also throw up his longterm attendence at Rev, Wright’s church and his citing Rev. Wright as an influence in justifying their charge that Obama hates America and white people. Being a rightwingnut means you CAN have it both ways because the core of the belief is illogic.

    Oddly, Jones chose to write this evaluation of Obama’s faith and public perception of it before Obam’s speech. Which is too bad, because Obama’s statement that the pressures of office and especially sending people to war who are maimed or killed has often, like Lincoln, forced him to his knees, is the most profound statement of the role of faith in a president’s life ever.

    Of course, the really interesting part of this whole deal, which confirms my contention that people doubt Obama’s faith because they are seeking excuses to demonize a political opponent, not that they oppose him because they think his faith is not similar to their own, is the fact that Mitt Romney’s faith IS NOT similar to their own.When given a choice between Mitt Romney and a Christian clone of his

  • grobinso1

    The attempt by people like you to distort , demonize, diminish,divert and destroy this president because He doesn’t look like you is in keeping with the white supremacist , southern and aparthied profile of the GOP circa 2008-2012. The fear-mongering and trying to define others as “less than” is as old as the theft of persons, their labor and their land…+ the terrorism I grew up with. Bombing Churches, setting fire to and hanging people as well as taking credit for others accomplishments. That’s just what I taught my children was going to happen and to know that lies are not you. The person looks in the mirror and is so small they try to minimize others. The Devil is a LIAR.

  • tidelandermdva

    There is a profound and important misunderstanding of the role of government, the role of faith, and the difference between democratic American and Imperial Rome.

    One commenter cites Democratic politicians, including the President, as seeking to fulfill Christ’s injunction “In as much as ye do it unto the least of these my brethren, ye do it unto me.” This line used in a Sixties Catholic hymn formed my political ideology as much as any other, and helped convert me from a budding Libertarian and incipient admirer of Ayn Rand (thus my puzzlement that Ryan can reconcile the two — but he did not come of age in the sixties, did not know John XXIII or JFK).

    Antoher commenter rejoins, more rationally than the sentiment is usually expressed, “Do you recognize a difference between yourself and government? For me, the two are completely different.” This common GOP view holds that this is an injunction for individual charity, decided — or most often NOT — by the individual, and that the government deciding for one to help another is not what was intended, and more important, is inconsistent with the teachings of the prophetess Ayn Rand.

    It would seemingly go without saying that if these people HAD acted out of private charity –Christ undeniably said to the rich man, “Give EVERYTHING you have to the poor and follow me”– there would be no brother to need assistance by the government; government surplus cheese (as a metaphor) would rot in the warehouses.

    It is here that these people fail to understand that we are not Rome.

    Christ said, render unto Caesar that are Caesar’s. Certainly part of Caesar’s taxes went to bread and circuses, went to maintain the poor in some fashion. If the current government provides a safety net, then it is our Christian duty to pay taxes to support it.

    But America is not Rome. It is, these same dogs in the manger tell us, a Christian nation. As such, our government should reflect Christian virtues. As JFK said, “here on earth God’s work must trul

  • tidelandermdva

    Joe Smith grew up in the the Burned Over District during the Second Great Awakening. The motif of Rome as the Anti-Christ was a commonplace in the preaching he heard. He was motivated to invent a new religion by his conflicts between the rival claims of competiting religions, each claiming to be the sole path to heaven, all others (including ones that preached the same about themselves and their opponents) being the path to hell. The only way he could reconcile his conflicts was to receive a message from god that they were ALL false, and he was being given the one true religion.

  • tidelandermdva

    Nice slip, exposing your anti-Papism. Are you contending that Obama is not, in fact a Moslem, but is a secret Catholic? (OMG!) Something never before even hinted.

    Granted, I was raised Catholic, and that is my understanding of Christ’s message. I must confess that I was ignorant that Protestants did not believe that. Looks like Weber was right about Protestantism and capitalism.

    Really interesting subtile implication that Catholics — like Mormons –are not Christians. Really interesting since Catholics and Protestants (but not Mromons) pray the same Creed.

  • martymar123

    God is everywhere. You can therefore not take God out of this country.

  • CalypsoSummer

    There are a lot of differences between Republicans and Democrats — one being the attitude “we’re all in this together,” versus “you’re on your own.”

    Another is in the brand of Christianity that is both professed and lived. One leans more toward, “As you have done to the least of my brothers, so have you done it to me,” and the other is firmly entrenched in, “@#$% you; I’ve got mine.”

    The first dichotomy can be worked out. There is no way to reconcile the second set of statements. Ryan? He doesn’t reconcile the Catholic teachings of charity toward the poor with Rand’s Gospel of Selfishness – he gives lip service to the first and is dedicated to the second.

    That’s why the US Conference of Catholic Bishops “took the unusual step of repudiating the deep cuts envisioned in Ryan’s budget proposal as out of keeping with the teachings of Jesus. One of a series of their letters to congressional committees read in part:

    “I write to urge you to resist for moral and human reasons unacceptable cuts to hunger and nutrition programs [that would] hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find employment. These cuts are unjustified and wrong.”

    But young Ryan (or Lyin’ Ryan, as I’ve come to regard him) has no problem with deeply injuring the poor. He’s not poor, and their pain and desperation will make no difference in HIS life. He’ll be just fine! And that’s what’s important, right?

    Well, not if you think that Christianity should be lived, instead of just speechified.

  • kitchendragon50

    It is a bit confusing. There is a difference between faith and religion.

    Both Romney and Obama are of the Christian faith.
    Romney practices the Mormon religion.
    Very few know what religion Obama practices (I believe Protestant although Rev Wright was Church of Christ).

  • williambellah

    Don’t we realize that when we proclaim Jerusalem as the capitol of the state of Israel it’s more then a slap in the face to Palestinians, it’s a devastating blow below the belt to those who have systematically been separated from their land, homes and way of life to make room for new state of Israel. Do we even care if others must suffer that we can enjoy the good life?.

  • CT67

    “Earlier this spring, the president also cited the Golden Rule as part of his evolution toward endorsing same-sex marriage. But the data suggests that, despite the genuineness of his faith and the eloquence with which he can express it, President Obama is not convincingly connecting with a significant number of Americans on the issue of his religious faith.”

    The Golden Rule is frequently mentioned in conjunction with Jesus’ admonition that we first love God with all of our being. Potentially, that is where some Christians get confused and the “convincing connection” is lost. In the Bible, Jesus always points to obedience to God and discusses love within the framework of loving and obeying God. As a result, it requires more than a bit of contortion to suggest the Golden Rule provides space for Christians to endorse men having sexual relationships with each other or women doing likewise. It is strongly condemned in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible. For examples, see the Apostle Paul’s discussion in Romans 1 or Moses’ in Leviticus 18. (Please forgive me for citing such historical lightweights as Paul and Moses)

  • wiseowl50

    Well written article. I sense that Obama has shut religion out of his life in his desire to continue his presidency. He is supporting the cause of the left which is abhorrent to Christians. He attends church sporatically and did not find a church to belong to after he left Rev. Wright. His beliefs in Abortion and his persecution of the Catholic Church has left him appearing Godless!

  • slimething

    Your point, exactly? You’re quoting two men and are arguing that those are god’s views. Please explain the connection. What did god (ie Jesus) say about it?

  • slimething

    Why does it matter?

  • slimething

    wiseowl, I know many leftits christians. You seem to believe that a christian holding views different than your own is not a christian. You are truly deluded.

  • slimething

    Innuendo is the tool of the pathetic and the deceitful. Thanks, richard, for illustrating what type of god you believe in.

  • slimething

    Now, there’s a textbook example of false dichotomy. No connection between the two and no evidence offered in support. Congrats, loman.

  • slimething

    Ummm, no. Explain yourself. How can you take something that doesn’t exist out of something that does?

  • indyguy3

    It is as you say, Christ did tell the rich government official to give
    EVERYTHING to the poor. That was said to a specific person at a
    specific time. Supporting specificity, in Acts 5, Peter made it clear
    to Ananias that his land and money was his to do with as he saw fit. Lying however was not in his best interest.

    The Jerusalem Christians did share all, and as you said would happen, “there were no needy persons among them.” But then if you look some years later to Paul with his multi-year effort at collecting money to send to the poor in Jerusalem, you realize that when the people give away their means for earning wealth then all the people will become poor once they expend all their resources.

    Paul says that giving should be done joyously, not under compulsion. I don’t think I know anybody that celebrates April 15 or any other symbol of taxation. But, as you say, and Christians will not disagree, it is our duty to pay the taxes and we will.

    But also as you say, America is not Rome. We are free to change our government for the better. That is why we need to work to, for the most part, eliminate charity from government. History has shown that in some cases government charity has the effect of increasing poverty and, in a way, enslaving the people.


    ROMNEY is NOT a Christian Mormons do Not believe that Jesus Christ is Incarnate.

  • jessicaj

    The foundation of United States came from Christianity which is the reason why US prospered so much. It is not the economy that we have rescue. We have to rescue US from falling back by bringing back the faith we orginally had. If all citizens of America confess and brings back their faith as we used to have, God will bless America again. People can work hard, make great strategies to make it work, however, it is God who bring the ultimate results. I hope that America can think of God first more than which President can give extra dollar in their pocket. We need leaders who loves God, hence be responsible, has integrity, and knows what God wants them to do. and we need to become followers who love God, does hard work in their current positions, has integrity, and knows what God wants them to do now.
    If God/Jesus/Holy Spirit (not including mormon belief) is not in the formula there is no answer to the truth, and no answer for a ultimate result.
    Lord, thank you for the new day. Thank you for making me read this article and giving me the strength to share my belief to America. Lord, I have sinned. I am a wanderer without you who cant think right or walk straight. Lord, please forgive my sins, and please let the Holy Spirit be with me that I will not make the same mistake, because i am weak without You. God I pray for this country and for everyone who lives in this country. Lord, we are thankful for what You have given to this country, and there are times where we loose sight of you and make mistakes. Lord, please forgive this country. Forgive the bad intentions and the bad decisions we have made due to our selfishness and our greed. Lord, please be with us, so that we can make the right decisions. We know that You are good. You know what is best for us. We know that You are here to give blessing to us. Lord, please make us “the people” who you are pleased with. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
    It’s time to look back at the cross where it always was. look back at ourselves

  • persiflage

    ‘The foundation of United States came from Christianity……’

    A false belief held by many of the Christian persuasion. The foundations of America were based on Greco-Roman democracy,
    A purely secular form of government that emerged from pagan cultures.

    The separation of church and state is a fundamental founding principle of our particular constitutional form of government. Any particular religion has no place in the functions of the federal government.

  • sanity5

    The democrats booed God

  • IntellectOne

    Not true persiflage. To establish a government religion is not acceptable, but to bring your religion into the public square is exactly how the founding fathers arrived at the Declaration of Independence.
    However, to impose the secular religion of no prayer is against the Constitution, as it is done currently in the USA. The government has imposed “its religion” of forcing the taxpayer to pay for their ideas of abortion on demand and same-sex-marriage, that is not Freedom.

  • JustaDiver

    @wiseowl50 Funny, as an evangelical Christian myself, President Obama’s faith resonates strongly with me. He truly cares about “the least of these.” No, I do not agree with his stances on abortion & gay marriage but I get the sense that he has wrestled with these issues & has come to his convictions through his faith. yes, it is possible to be a Christian while holding those views. Remember, we are all saved by undeserved GRACE & not by works.

    For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
    (Romans 5:6-8 ESV)

    Mr Romney, OTOH, strikes me as someone mired in religion with very little faith. First of all, unlike most evangelicals this election term, I am not willing to just change my opinion on the Mormon religion because Mr Romney is the Republican candidate. Sorry, Mormonism was considered a cult 4 years ago & nothing about the religion has changed. I consider the evangelical switch to be hypocritical.

    Second, & more importantly, while we heard many heartwarming stories about how Mr Romney came to the aid of this one or prayed at the bedside of that one, it seems as if all those he helped were people he knew. In Luke 11 Jesus asks His followers the following. I correlate that further out. It’s all well to do good for those we know but what about the stranger, the person we don’t know? Are not they created in God’s image also? God sees & loves all of us- not just those in some small, intimate circle of family & friends.

    What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

    (Luke 11:11-13 ESV)

  • dixiesuzan

    I thought the Democratic Party was going God-less in 2012? Almost did. God got a lot of boo’s.
    Faith has an object to which it is directed. One can also have faith in faith. I believe in believing in what I believe, which is believing in what I believe etc ad nauseum.

    Some people once had faith in Adolf Hitler, or Chairman Mao Tsetung, or V. I. Lenin, or Pol Pot or their favorite movie personality. So big deal. Some even now believe in Our Obama. So big deal.