The President and Religion

September 14, 2010

President Barack Obama’s religious beliefs, like almost everything else about the man and his policies, are under scrutiny. A recent Pew poll found that roughly 20 percent of Americans believe Obama is not a Christian, but a Muslim, while a whopping 43 percent claim to not know Obama’s religion. Soon after this poll, Glenn Beck charged that Obama practices a form a religion that is neither Christian, nor Muslim. The social drama went far enough to prompt the White House to release a rather weird statement asserting that “President Obama is a committed Christian, and his faith is an important part of his daily life. He prays every day, he seeks a small circle of Christian pastors to give him spiritual advice and counseling, he even receives a daily devotional that he uses each morning.”

To be sure, the way in which the public is “discussing” or “critiquing” the president’s religion is not ideal. There is clearly no good evidence that he is a Muslim, and a whole lot of good evidence he is a Christian. His liberal brand of Christianity is surely more widely practiced than Beck’s Mormonism. And the public’s focus on religious affiliation seems shortsighted, as mere affiliation to any religion does not imply anything about the sincerity of one’s belief or the level of one’s religiosity. Consider that both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are Christians. You get the point (or should).

Yet does this mean a conversation about the President – not just Obama, but any President – and religion is worthless? Some people have answered “yes.” Several writers at The Washington Post’s On Faith section argue that the presidency is a secular job, and therefore a president’s religion should not be a matter of discussion. Other commentators have noted that the nation currently faces an enormity of serious challenges that are way more important than Obama’s religion.

Many proponents of the first argument cite the well-known 1960 speech given by then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy on his Catholicism, and more generally, church and state separation. In that speech, Kennedy said that, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Yet Obama considered this line of thought in his book The Audacity of Hope, and rejected it. In that book, Obama recalled the 2004 race for United States Senator from Illinois, in which he ran against radical Christian rightist Alan Keyes. During his time on the campaign trail, Keyes continually slammed Obama for his liberal religious views, even suggesting that “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama” because of his record on abortion rights and equality for gays. Obama, winning handily (70 to 27 percent), was advised to ignore Keyes’ remarks. But Obama could not do that. He answered with what he said has come to be “the typically liberal response in such debates – namely, I said that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can’t impose my own religious views on another, that I was running to be U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the minister of Illinois.”

Yet this reply didn’t completely please Obama. He knew the answer “did not adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs.” Obama had religious beliefs, and they influenced the way he interacted with the world – how he created legislation, voted on bills, and treated others. He couldn’t discount this. Obama wasn’t running for a position as a minister, but his religious beliefs did influence how he governed.

With this in mind, I certainly don’t disagree that the Presidency is a secular governmental position – in theory. That is, our lawmakers, judges, and presidents are sworn to serve the secular Constitution and the people, not their own Gods or holy books. But secularists too often forget that things are somewhat different in practice. Secularists might desire religion to be a private matter, but it is currently very public. Religion should not matter, but it does matter, because most Americans are religious (at least the ones being elected), and because any religious belief a person holds will likely influence their actions. As such, it ought not be ignored, but fully discussed.

The second argument is that it is of questionable importance to have a conversation about Obama’s religion because the country faces a range of more serious issues. Some of these more important concerns include: Afghanistan, Iraq, the economy, Wall Street, taxation, immigration, poverty, and gay marriage. For example, as David Schultz wrote, “the official unemployment rate is almost 10%. The real rate is more like 17%. I don't care if the President worships a goat.” What Schultz cares about is the president solving more pressing issues.

Personally, I would care mightily if our President worshiped a goat, but that is not the argument I am trying to make. Instead, two points need be considered.

First, it is hard to separate religious belief and policy, for very often religious belief shapes one’s policy. As Nathan Diament writes at the Post, “A person's faith commitment is a key window into their system of values and beliefs.” That is, a President’s religious beliefs might suggest how he or she will perform, and how dedicated he or she will be to the Constitution. For example, recall former President George W. Bush, while in office, made clear that he was governing the country with divine guidance (or so he thought): “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job.” I cannot see where the sentiment behind this statement would not impact his policy decisions. Indeed, it was reported that Bush said the following in August 2003, after the United States had invaded Afghanistan and before it invaded Iraq:

“I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.’ And, by God, I'm gonna do it.”

Or remember the Republican presidential candidate debate in 2008. Asked to raise their hands if they did not accept the scientific fact of evolution, four nominees did so. One of the four, Ron Paul, would later state that the question was “inappropriate” because the presidential election should “not be decided on a scientific matter.” Yet it is quite easy to see how one’s rejection of the the fundamental theory of the life sciences, and more generally his related rightist religious beliefs, would impact his policy decisions. Where would he stand on religion in the science classroom? Stem cells? Gay marriage? Abortion? The list goes on. The point is that the problems we face might actually have been largely caused or influenced by religious beliefs. The solution, in part at least, is to have a robust and honest discussion about them, not to push aside their impact.

Many write off Bush as some weird twist of fate, never to be repeated. The same people might also dismiss Paul as having no chance at the presidency. But Bush and Paul are not the exceptions many think them to be. Very often politicians in high-ranking positions publicly declare their religious beliefs in the political realm, defending their politics based on religious beliefs. Even Obama does this, albeit less often than Bush.

Which brings me to the second, related, point. I agree with Schultz that the nation currently faces more important matters than Obama’s religious beliefs. But this is because Obama’s religious beliefs are benign compared to Bush’s. Yes, Obama’s religious beliefs do play a role in his policymaking – his position on gay marriage, for one – and they ought to be discussed. But Obama is not steeped in religiosity like Bush. He is a rather secular, liberal Christian President. I agree there are more important issues to worry about, yet keep in mind that this conversation would be completely different if someone like Bush – or Sarah Palin – were in office. The President’s religion matters insofar as how religious he or she is and the nature of their religiosity.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.