Political Animal


October 22, 2012 1:10 PM Cross To Bear

By Ed Kilgore

Josh Marshall saw a front-page headline on the CNN site this morning that freaked him out: “Obama the ‘wrong’ kind of Christian?”

I’ll note that the piece itself is not nearly as bad as the headline. Not even necessarily objectionable. But front page headlines on one of biggest news sites in the world usually matter much more than underlying story itself.

As you might guess, I read the whole piece (its headline has now been changed to “The Gospel according to Obama”) by CNN religion writer John Blake, and found it to be, as Jimi Hendrix might have called it, a “frustrating mess.” Reflecting the time-honored MSM tradition of ideological equivalency, Blake goes back and forth between Christian Right and “progressive” observers and so we get conflicting claims that Obama is either an authentic representative of the African-American Church or “an Anti-Christ,” and in any event is associated with a liberal Protestant tradition that’s either dead or dying or is the wave of the future. The article might actually be illuminating for those secular readers who may well think liberal Protestantism is some new-fangled watered-down Christianity for elderly sophisticates, instead of the dominant strain of Protestantism for most of the last two centuries, and the formal theology of denominations representing some 45 million Americans today.

You could argue all day long as to why Barack Obama has become the flash-point in the ongoing struggle for the soul of American Protestantism. To a large extent it’s because of his identity to cultural conservatives as The Other, the African Elitist Socialist who is a threat to all things American, particularly the peculiar strain of American Christian Nationalism that glorifies the accumulation of wealth and the conquest of other cultures as well as religions. And it may partly be a coincidence, in that his ascent to the presidency coincided with a crisis in confidence within the Christian Right, struggling with a variety of leadership problems and a problematic relationship with its chosen political vehicle, the Republican Party.

But in truth, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Barack Obama’s religious convictions other than his occasional eloquence in articulating fairly orthodox insights—such as the need for humility in divining God’s Will, particularly when it comes to questions of secular policy—that are particularly offensive to the revolutionary aspirations of a contemporary cohort of conservative evangelical leaders. It’s Obama’s cross to bear that he is the subject and object of contending forces in our religious culture that have been heading towards an ultimate confrontation for many years.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • martin on October 22, 2012 1:24 PM:

    (its headline has now been changed to “The Gospel according to Obama”)

    Christalmighty that's even worse, playing right into:
    1) the right's claims that the Dems, especially African American Dems, think he is The One, The Messiah;

    2) That somehow he isn't really christian because he interprets the inerrant word of god to fit his own (Kenyan, socialist, fascist) beliefs.

    Screw CNN

  • mellowjohn on October 22, 2012 1:35 PM:

    i hope to FSM that sometime before i die i get a chance to someone who answers questions about his/her religious views with a hearty, "none of your damn business."
    (i'd really like to vote for an "out" atheist, but i'm really not that big an optimist."

  • Peter C on October 22, 2012 1:39 PM:

    “Obama the ‘wrong’ kind of Christian?”

    as opposed to Romney, the mormon?

    Lord have mercy! (so to speak)

  • exlibra on October 22, 2012 1:41 PM:

    One wonders what CNN thinks about the US Constitution and its Article VI:


    Why should I give a flying duck about Obama's religious affiliation, unless he's running for the pastor of some church?

  • SecularAnimist on October 22, 2012 1:44 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "You could argue all day long as to why Barack Obama has become the flash-point in the ongoing struggle for the soul of American Protestantism."

    There's no need to "argue all day long" about that.

    It's the result of a Koch-funded, calculated, Madison Avenue-scripted, focus-group-tested, talk-radio-programmed propaganda campaign -- just like every other line of stupid, idiotic bullshit about Obama that has been inflicted on the brainwashed mental slaves of the right wing media for the last four years.

    And, yes -- CNN is part of the right wing media. Just in case that isn't obvious to everyone by now.

  • anonymous on October 22, 2012 1:46 PM:

    It’s Obama’s cross to bear that he is the subject and object of contending forces in our religious culture that have been heading towards an ultimate confrontation for many years.

    Imagine if Obama was a white man. They would not be writing about this at all. I don't remember anyone dissecting a white president's religion, ever.
    I am not privy to how other minorities feel, but before Obama was elected I had no feelings of dislike or animosity towards white men. But these four years have been so ugly that it shocked me to the core. The hatred directed towards Obama by white men (and the faithful women) of the republican party has been astounding. No policy differences, no thoughtful opposition, just ugly over the top vile hatred.
    Now I look at middle aged or older white men and wonder just how much racism is just below the surface. As a non white woman (non African-American) I cannot imagine voting for a republican. If other minorities feel only a fraction of what I feel, then the republican party has done a lot of damage to itself for short term gains. I don't know how any non-white would ever vote for them.

  • schtick on October 22, 2012 1:47 PM:

    CNN trying to become Faux Fake and BS Gnewz II.

  • scott_m on October 22, 2012 1:53 PM:

    This talk was around four years ago, but I think at least some of it today comes from the collective cognitive dissonance resulting from Christian fundamentalists resolving to vote for a Mormon.

  • BuffOrpington on October 22, 2012 2:04 PM:

    One could more convincingly argue that those mean-spirited and xenophobic individuals who comprise today's Christian Right, largely the spiritual descendents of a Southern Baptist faith established in the 19th century to provide slavery with a Biblical justification, are the ones practicing the "wrong" kind of Christianity.

  • c u n d gulag on October 22, 2012 2:19 PM:

    America's "Christians" are remarkably uncharitable.

    I don't think too many of them read any of the New Testament.

    I wish we could pull Jesus out from behind some door when today's Christians are talking about Christ, and how he entered their lives and hearts, and have him say, "You know nothing of my work and words."

  • KK on October 22, 2012 2:24 PM:

    Thanks CNN. Never realized my donomination was the wrong kind of Christian. He is UCC to the core, nothing remarkable at all. His religious convictions are exactly the same as the 1000 congregants or so in my mainstream, white, wealthy UCC Church in a very wrealthy white suburb. UCC is maybe 2 tics ahead of the Lutherns and Episcopals in terms of social justice. By 2 tics I mean a few years. I tend to think of UCC as espousing the real bible of help the poor, God forgives and turn the other cheek, u know all the do unto others stuff every Christian denomination pretends to care about.

  • jpeckjr on October 22, 2012 3:18 PM:

    @anonymous 1:46. John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholic religion was dissected to this extent, and he was white. Jimmy Carter's (then) Southern Baptist religion was dissected to this extent, and he was white. (He's still Baptist, but more aligned with another Baptist group, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.)

    Thomas Jefferson was officially Episcopalian, but was actually quite an independent thinker religiously. His religious views became campaign issues. He was white.

    To varying degrees, some attention has been given to every candidate's religious background. But it has been less important in some campaigns than in others.

  • boatboy_srq on October 22, 2012 3:31 PM:

    @jpeckjr - there's a substantial difference between the kind of scrutiny JFK and JEC got ("is he the right kind of Christian?") and the unGawdly-islamofascosociowhateverist the Reichwing is calling BHO. This is why I keep saying it all boils down to TABMITWH.

  • revchicoucc on October 22, 2012 3:33 PM:

    Although the Constitution mandates there be no religious test for public office, a candidate's religion and the way it influences their public policy views does matter.

    No one should be kept off the ballot or kept from voting because of their religion. Many voters are curious about it, though, and candidates see it as a way of connecting.

    So, if you believe that Iran is a linchpin in the final earthly battle (Armeggedon) between the cosmic forces of good and evil that will take place in advance of the Second Coming of Christ, you might favor a war in Iran. You might even convince yourself God has anointed you as President of the United States to initiate said battle.

    The United Church of Christ, with which Mr. Obama has identified, does not hold this view. Evangelical, conservative, and fundamentalist Christians do, as does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which Mr. Romney is a member.

    Now do you see how a candidate's religion might matter?

  • jpeckjr on October 22, 2012 3:42 PM:

    @boatboy. Don't disagree with you about TABITWH.

    JFK is more analogous than JEC. Protestants in the late 50s and early 60s certainly did not consider Roman Catholics to be "the right kind of Christian" and JFK had to over come that view to get Protestant votes.

    Look, my white, southern, Baptist 91 year old mom voted for Nixon in 1960 largely because she didn't trust the Catholic. She voted for Obama in 2008 with enthusiasm, even though he's black. She's very disappointed in the last four years. But she's early voted for Obama again largely because "I just can't trust a Mormon."

  • HMDK on October 22, 2012 3:43 PM:

    Seriously. It's weird how one of the countries with the most stringent State/Religion seperations are having such difficulty with it.

  • Rick B on October 22, 2012 3:43 PM:

    @c u n d gulag 2:19 PM.

    Not only have they not read the New Testament, they have not read Max Weber's description of the politics involved in the Old Testament.

    (A cheap used copy of the Collins book I referenced will explain the politics much more clearly than any attempt to read translations of a turn-of-the-century German academic. Academic German would be bad enough, the translations suffer from the source. Suffice to say that the prophets were rural anti-city leaders who objected to misrule by the city kings who were incompetent and outnumbered military leaders facing Babylonians. The Sodom & Gomorrah stories are propaganda against the incompetent city kings, for example. Weber is brilliant - and approaches unreadable for the non-academic.)

  • Rick B on October 22, 2012 4:03 PM:

    Just to comment on the previous comments. This is a very, very good discussion of religion in American presidential politics. I was going to list the especially good comments and as I tried I realized that the people posting above are all presenting ideas worth reading.

    Thank you all of you. This is why I still read and comment here. This whole thread is worth a second and even third reading.

  • Peter C on October 22, 2012 5:33 PM:

    The problem with mixing Religion and Government is precisely that it ALWAYS devolves into this sort of sectarian conflict. The very ESSENSE of the (spectacularly successful) American Experiment was to create a wall a separation between civic life and spiritual life. When government may make NO pronouncements about spiritual matters (if it cannot make laws about ‘belief’), then the physical power of the state cannot be used against people because of their spiritual beliefs. When people fight with only spiritual weapons, NO ONE GETS HURT! Sadly, history is replete with examples of spiritual struggles fought with physical weapons, where only death results. For 236 years, our form of government has been very effective at PREVENTING GENOCIDE. Those who deny this basic idea immediately disqualify themselves in my eyes for holding any public office. It’s like they want to feed their children hemlock, just in case it has stopped being poisonous.

  • Peter C on October 22, 2012 5:42 PM:

    Sadly, even our form of government has not prevented all genocide, as Native Amercians can attest.

  • TCinLA on October 22, 2012 6:39 PM:

    CNN: Cretins' News Network.

    It's a question of Southernist Hoo-rah vs. Real Religion

  • pebble on October 22, 2012 7:51 PM:

    @ anonymous 1:46 I am a 54 year old white woman, and I cannot echo your sentiments heartily enough. I was naive, I guess, but I have been thoroughly taken aback by the level of racism I have seen in my fellow citizens these last four years. It is appalling, and I am ashamed for my country. I find the grace and nobility with which both President and Mrs. Obama deal with this admirable to such a degree that I find that quality alone enough seal my decision to vote for the president.

    And just one more thing-Ed, as a member of a mainline protestant church, I can't tell you how much I enjoy reading your thoughtful defense of progressive (traditional) Christianity and critiques of fundamentalist/evangelical church "doctrine". You are a refreshing voice in the political blogosphere.