Two months ago, a political consulting firm called The Eleison Group wrote a public letter signed by many Christian luminaries that called on "public officials, faith leaders, and the media to offer no further support to those who misrepresent and call into question the President's Christian faith" by asserting that he is a Muslim.
This letter garnered some significant national attention, and because I agree with the basic request, which I'll explain in a moment, I was ready to sign it myself. But just before clicking "Submit" I reread it more carefully and stopped.
The title of the letter is "Faith is not a political issue," by which I think they meant, "Faith should not be a political issue." I agree with this in the sense that in any discussion we should stick to the point. If we're hiring or evaluating someone whose job is public policy, let's talk public policy. Let's not talk faith or sports or cooking or auto maintenance. Unless a particular public policy position of the President stems directly and unambiguously from his religion, there's really no reason for his religion to come up. There's certainly no reason for it to dominate political conversation.
But the letter goes too far when it says, "We understand that these are contentious times, but the personal faith of our leaders should not be up for public debate."
Allow me to make a fine but important distinction between "political issue" and "public debate." A "political issue" is an issue that has to do with the well-being of the polis, the society governed by the state. "Public debate" is discourse that happens in the public sphere, especially facilitated by the media. Public debate includes discussion of political issues, but it also involves anything that happens in public (i.e., more people than the people in my household or private group observe it).
The very reason that President Obama's Christian faith shouldn't be a political issue and in fact shouldn't be a controversial issue at all is because "personal faith" is public, especially when it has been publicly professed, as Obama's has.
Now before going on, there's another distinction I should make, and it has to do with the word "Christian." Setting aside where the word "Christian" came from, it has two meanings in the United States in 2010. The sociological definition of "Christian" is basically "someone who calls him- or herself a Christian, especially if they perform the practices that other people who call themselves Christians perform." The theological definition of "Christian" might differ somewhat among Christian traditions, but it basically means "someone who has been born again through faith in Christ, whose name is written in the Book of Life, who is adopted into God's family and an heir to his kingdom." The theological definition is narrower than the sociological definition—in other words there are some Christians sociologically who aren't Christians theologically. (This concept has substantial biblical support—see for example Matt. 7:13-23.) It's important to understand that when Evangelicals use the word "Christian," they're generally using the theological definition, but when non-religious people use the term they're generally using the sociological definition. (I'm not sure about non-Evangelicals who profess to be Christians; that might be a case-by-case situation.) Does it surprise you that we're talking past each other?
Anyway, I contend that without a doubt President Obama is a Christian, sociologically speaking, not a Muslim. The guy has said repeatedly that he's a Christian. He said it early in his presidential campaign to Christianity Today, and he directly denied being a Muslim in that interview. He said it last week in a backyard in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He said in the CT article that he "believes in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ." That's something Christians say. He hasn't been heard saying, "There is no God but God [Allah], and Mohammed is his prophet," something Muslims say. He's been seen praying, worshiping, and hearing the gospel in church on Sunday morning with other Christians. Those are things that Christians do. He hasn't been seen bowing down in prayer five times a day, fasting through Ramadan, worshiping in a mosque on Friday afternoon, or making hajj (pilgrimmage) to Mecca, things that Muslims do.
In other words, the reason that people shouldn't be calling the President a Muslim is that he does things in public that back up his claim to be a Christian, at least sociologically. His "personal faith" is validated by his public actions.
But let's pretend that the President's public actions were more confusing. Let's say that he repeatedly called himself a Christian but was rarely seen in churches and frequently seen in mosques. Let's say he took the oath of office with his hand on a Qur'an instead of a Bible (as has been wrongly alleged). Let's say he has been seen bowing down toward Mecca five times a day. If he was known to do these things but kept calling himself a Christian, would it be right to say with The Eleison Group's letter that "the personal faith of our leaders should not be up for public debate" and that "We believe that questioning . . . the faith of a confessing believer goes too far"? Absolutely not! It isn't acceptable for a public figure to claim a religious identity for whatever benefits that profession might garner if it's actually a masquerade. A civic leader's walk matching his talk is always a matter for public debate, because integrity and honesty are qualities we demand from our leaders. Failures of integrity and honesty are always to be publicly questioned, including if the failure is in religious territory.
But this leads us to the interesting realm of policy positions. As I said before, there is no inherent reason for a public official's religion to come up when talking about his or her policy positions. Those positions should be considered on policy merits. But what do we do if an official advocates a policy that violates the tenets of his or her religion? Pointing out the inconsistency doesn't really matter from a policy perspective. But it does matter from an integrity perspective. For example, the Roman Catholic Church explicitly teaches about numerous social issues—abortion, war, capital punishment, and economics among others. If a politician claims to be Catholic but acts in the public sphere in total violation of Catholic social teaching, it is legitimate for citizens of all religions to ask if that politician is really being sincere about him- or herself, aside from the question of whether the politician's policies are good ideas.
Publicly questioning a politician's personal faith is all the more legitimate for people who share the politician's religion. This is certainly true for us Christians. The Eleison Group's letter says, "As Christian pastors and leaders, we believe that fellow Christians need to be an encouragement to those who call Christ their savior"—I'm totally on board with that—"not question the veracity of their faith." I don't always agree with the latter part. In most circumstances, sure, it's not my business to get on a professed Christian politician's case about whether he or she is walking with the Lord. That person has a pastor and Christian friends who are much better positioned to do that. But in extreme cases, if I believe that a politician consistently threatens to bring shame to the name of Christ or confusion to the gospel by his or her actions, then I might have to question whether his or her faith is genuine not for the sake of the state but for the sake of the gospel and the kingdom of God.
The thing is, I think that the signatories of The Eleison Group's letter agree with me on this point. The Eleison Group happens to be a firm that consults with Democrats to reach out to and mobilize Christians toward progressive public policy objectives. So not surprisingly, the signatories of the letter neatly represent Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, and the Evangelical Left (and a tiny number of Catholics). At least one of the signatories that I know of, and probably more that I don't, openly questioned the veracity of George W. Bush's faith when he was in office. (I think the self-congratulatory euphemism for this is "speaking truth to power.") In other words, during the prosecution of the Iraq War at least one signatory of this letter didn't believe that Bush's "personal faith" was not "a matter for public debate."
Regardless, don't call President Obama a Muslim, and correct those who do if you can do so winsomely and gently. If you're a political conservative this is even more important, because it truly isn't a policy issue, and it bolsters your integrity if you don't put up with someone else's integrity being wrongfully questioned (and it's loving your neighbor as yourself). But don't buy into the idea that faith is "a private matter" that has no bearing on one's life in public, including for public officials. Every religion I know demands that faith be represented in action, and Christianity is at least as emphatic about this as any. Everyone who makes a faith-claim is daily proving or disproving it before a watching world and is constantly being judged in public. That includes President Obama and me and you. And that's as it should be. "Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).
Oh, and one more thing: I don't know if President Obama is a Christian, theologically speaking. Like many people, there are things he says and does that tell me he is and other things that raise concerns (which is probably how people view me too). But for now, I'm going to hope that he is, trust that God has placed believers in his life to encourage and challenge him appropriately, and otherwise, God helping me, take care of myself and the people around me that I can encourage and challenge, a posture I commend to you too.