Who Says Who is a Christian?

The President made a connection between his personal beliefs as a Christian and his executive decisions last week at the National Prayer Breakfast. That part of his speech has enraged some conservative Christian voters, who have made some pretty vitriolic statements in response. The offensive piece of prose:

And when I talk about shared responsibility, it’s because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.

But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.

Given the context, it is a little bit surprising that some Christians were so upset with the President expressing his spiritual inspiration. When you look at the core values that are challenged, the reasons behind the outrage are more understandable and predictable.

After reviewing some of the rhetoric against the president on Red State, several examples in this article from Huffingtonpost, and at Christianity Today, it is apparent that some Christians took offense to not just the Presidents mention of the word “tax” and the quotation from the Bible, but to the mere fact that he claimed to be a Christian. They thought that he was faking his spiritual belief system, that he was lying.

There are about 38,000 different denominations of Christianity the last time anyone tried to count. As big as that number is, it could not possibly cover all of the splits of congregations, differences of personalities, flavors of denominations, and nuances of belief systems that happen beyond the formal denominational organizations. New Christian churches are formed all the time.  Some Christian churches offer “salvation”, some do no such thing.  Some believe the Bible is a literal directive from God, others do not believe it should be taken literally; a broad spectrum of biblical interpretations exist under the “Christian” umbrella. Conservatives do not have a monopoly on Christianity, but some are either unaware or ignoring the fact that there are millions of progressive Christians; the spectrum of political ideology for Christians is as varied as the population. Millions of Christians applaud Obama’s statement about being inspired by Jesus’ comments about the poor; the meaning and context ring true.

A very vocal minority of Christians do not accept this fact of diversity within their own religion. They believe that most people who call themselves Christian are not actually Christian. They have established their own requirements for being a Christian, then feel free to become judge and jury of someone else’s ability to uphold those requirements.  Their view is one of religious intolerance. There is no problem with this viewpoint, they are allowed to think to themselves about the salvation of anyone they please, but once they enter the public political arena, their argument for intolerance is simply not in line with our country’s reputation for religious freedom. The vitriol over this mention of Jesus and taxes by Obama demonstrates why we cannot nationally favor any one style of religion.  For those that can’t grasp this, they have not learned their American history or they are not interested in the principles of the foundation of this country.

These religious absolutists behave this way because they are operating under a moral authority bestowed to them – they believe – by God.  This is consistent with the top conservative value of authority. When a person can claim that God is on their side, all logic and reason falls by the way side; it’s like holding the ace of the trump suit. No matter what anyone else argues, the answer can boil down to “God told me so”. Two sides that only have that simplistic argument going for them, are in for a battle – there’s no room for anything else. This also helps explain why conservatives have a reputation for citing God’s favor in an “embattled” situation whether you are talking about actual war or a football game. When you decide to literally or figuratively go to battle, lots and lots of the normal rules of religion no longer apply for some people, you are excused from killing, lying, cheating, stealing – all is fair, right? This is hard to religiously justify this suspension of Christian (or any other) principles, unless of course you can claim an exemption that comes from the deity itself.

The rule in this country is that we get to choose what we believe as well as getting to label ourselves however we like. You can’ targue against someone’s personal belief systems or their values – they are the one and only expert in that field, it’s their beliefs. If you want to debate personal religious beliefs, you can do it in religious forums, spiritual gatherings, all kinds of places, that is what religious freedom means, but it is not anywhere close to objective news.

The fact that someone who is used as a contributor for CNN, Erick Erickson of RedState.com, tries to argue theology against the President’s own personal belief statements, is a statement in itself on how vocal this minority manages to be in a new source that wants to be seen as objective. (Click here and start watching at 3:39 to hear some pretty harsh quotes from Mr. Erickson.) It does not reflect well on CNN, nor the state of our news media today. To suggest that such a narrow view of Christianity should be imposed on a figurehead of this country is to admit that one does not align with the intentions of the founders of this nation. Part of political framing is having the ability to call someone out when their lines of reasoning are inconsistent. The ultimate question is, by what authority do we govern this country? We have enough interpretations of the Constitution to deal with, do we really, as a country, also want to figure in the plethora of biblical interpretations as well? We established this country on the Constitution and the idea of religious freedom, do we really want to move in the direction of specifying religious correctness?

This sort of authoritarian militant behavior is difficult if not impossible to deal with from the point of view of having a political conversation. The best solution is to support a more democratic media to discover lots of varying voices, but if you find yourself engaging with someone you find entrenched in their position it’s best to head straight for core values. Someone as upset as this guy– seething with anger – his political take will be evident (chances are that he is a conservative – see yesterday’s post). I would ask him what exactly makes him so upset – chances are he would spit out a barrage of offenses and accusations. You can try to slow someone down to answer each accusation, but the more effective message is, “and you have a right to your religious opinion just like the rest of us.” Hearing this often enough sometimes helps them realize that the issue (frame) is not other people’s salvation, the frame is about the freedom to believe what you want. If that doesn’t “take”, harkening to each other’s values sometimes connects. You could say, “I know that feeling of being the ultimate authority is really important to you, I simply don’t put the same high value of authority on your interpretation.”, if you want to relate as a fellow Christian – or even a secular fellow human – you could even say, “I connect more with Jesus’ message of compassion and love”.  If you get that far with someone who is that upset about religion, congratulations! It is an accomplishment to keep your cool and have civil talk in this instance.

Zooming out, the other big question is, why do we have a national prayer breakfast? Why do we have public prayer in government? Why do we allow “God” to be part of our governing rhetoric? In my view it is inconsistent with the separation of church and state. It is impossible to please all of the religious people all of the time, and even if you could, you would be excluding the non-religious people. These are obviously big questions with explosive implications.  We have gone down the path of “kinda” incorporating religion into our governing, as can be seen in the latest hubub around birth control; even when religion is not favored, it is seen as a religious statement. Our government entanglement with religion is part of our history, it is simply a fact. When talking about it, remember that we all need our beliefs to be respected – no matter how far out there they may seem – insults only build the case for the “other side”.  Often staying calm and respectful is enough of a demonstration of spiritual health, that the tone will shift and before you know it, you may be able to have a civilized conversation.

The full transcript and video of speech is here from The Washington Post.

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13 thoughts on “Who Says Who is a Christian?

  1. Maria says:

    This is great advice.

  2. Luke Haskins says:

    You did not lie, I am very impressed by this blog! Very rarely do I see such an intellectual blog with well-explained opinion. I am also impressed in how well you can handle my two favorite blog subjects, politics and religion! 😉 However, I am, as you may recall, a Christian conservative, and therefore disagree with you in some areas of this subject. I was about to respond to your points on the comment board, but it turned out way too long, and it would have taken forever to read as just a comment. Would you mind if I posted about this blog post on my own blog, then posted the link to my post on here?

  3. […] thought-provoking, non-insulting blog, a certain article caught my attention. It was called, “Who Says Who is a Christian?” and it discussed a controversy in the news when President Obama said at last week’s […]

  4. j9kovac says:

    It’s all about Moral Order hierarchy–whatever one thinks that moral order should be: Christians above non-Christians, Whites above non-whites, men above women, straights above gays, good ‘ol boys over everybody else, rich over poor, educated over non-educated…blah blah blah.

    And then eventually…”my flavor of Christianity over your flavor of Christianity.”

    • Luke Haskins says:

      I would truly ask that you rethink that theory.

      I, as a Christian, do not think that I am above non-Christians. In fact, I’m called to be less. I debate atheists not for the opportunity to say, “I win the argument.” I do it that they may also be saved. If I had an educated knowledge of a plot to destroy America, and I went and I told a million people about it, I wouldn’t be doing it to say that “I knew that and you didn’t.” I’d do it so to warn the people of the coming danger.

      I don’t think that whites are above non-whites, I want them to be a part of society, and that is why I disagree with liberals enslaving them, giving the jokers something to stereotype.

      I don’t think that men are above women, I believe that being a woman is not a weakness as they have been taught to believe. Men and women have different roles, not superior or inferior.

      I don’t think that straight people are above homosexuals, but I don’t think that they should act on that nature either. It’s like how I don’t believe that all people without the genetic nature to murder are better than people with that genetic nature. But whether they are or aren’t, they still shouldn’t murder.

      I don’t think that good ‘ol boys are better than everybody else. I think that honor should not die with the previous generations.

      I don’t think that rich people are better than poor people. I think it is better for a person to earn their living rather than waiting for the government to provide for them. But it does truly take a poor man to truly see the value of something, don’t you think?

      I don’t think that the educated are better than the non-educated. I do believe that everyone needs a good education to be a well-informed American citizen, which is why conservative care about the problems in the public education system.

      We are not the prejudiced haters people make us out to be. We just want to live out our belief in Christ more than just an hour on Sunday, and we debate exactly how we are called to do so. See the difference?

  5. Amy Meier says:

    Thanks for all of your comments.

    Luke, I appreciate the cross posting and am happy it’s interesting to you and your audience.

    When you make your argument, there are a lot of places where you have a specific definition for a particular word in mind, and then apply it as if your particular meaning is understood. Looking at the piece on your site (that was a response to this post), you attempt to define what being a Christian is for everyone. When you attempt to do that, you assume a place of authority in defining Christianity.

    You then quote the bible and chide the President along the way for not “analyzing the Bible”. The President is not required to analyze the Bible, and certainly not to your – or anyone else’s – taste. Since I don’t accept your frame of his fault by incorrect analysis, your own biblical analysis “facts” don’t register with me. This is what I mean when I talk about the facts *must* fit the frame. Since I don’t accept your authority as someone who interprets scripture in a way that I trust and agree with, it’s almost like I can’t hear your further supporting evidence. When I do look at your explanations, they do not resemble my interpretations. You also presume to know what God does and values. That’s a huge presumption for any religion.

    You are arguing from inside the frame of your religious beliefs. It is unfortunate that Obama’s remarks upset a lot of people, I think that the Republican establishment purposefully whipped people into a hoo-ha over it. With freedom of religion and freedom of expression comes the risk, comes the likelihood, that the views expressed by any given individual might upset some other people in the country.

    The bottom line is that Obama was expressing his beliefs at a religious event. That does not squelch anyone elses freedom of religion.

  6. Wes says:

    Luke,
    Did you really just compare someone’s homosexual desires with another’s desire to murder? Are you honestly equating the two, one is an action that is between two consensual adults that doesn’t harm anyone, the other by definition is non-consensual and harms. I’m flabbergasted if your intent was truly to equate the two.

    • Luke Haskins says:

      Haha, no, no, please don’t misunderstand. What you are equating are the act of murder and the act of homosexual marriage. I completely agree that those are two very different subjects, apart from the fact that I believe that both are wrong according to my worldview, based primarily in Christianity. What I am equating are the NATURES to do either.

      I heard recently about a genetic pattern that causes some people to be more violent than others. Many of the people who give in to this genetic tendancy find themselves committing very serious crimes, such as murder. It was then up for question, “Should people with this genetic pattern be convicted, even though they technically were born with it?”

      Well, I think that it is wrong to murder whether the murderers have a genetic tendancy or not. The way that I see it, people mess up in their lives in various different ways, great or small. That man, if he had been born without the violent genes, may have just as easily had a tendancy to commit a different crime. It’s not like if he hadn’t been born with that gene that he wouldn’t have done anything wrong in his entire lifetime. Rather, he would have refocused his faults in different areas in his life.

      Here’s the point. I think that being born with a nature to focus your faults in a certain area of your life is not your fault on a personal level. However, giving in to those natures, those genetic tendancies, are wrong. I still have yet to form a real, fact-based opinion on legal action against homosexuality, and whether or not it is constitutional. It all depends on whether or not the government is doing its job and fulfilling how it was created to function, so I won’t go there for the time being. But from a strictly moral perspective, I do believe that it is wrong to give in to those everyday temptations, such as homosexual marriage. And I’m not telling you this as someone who has never had their fair share of problems, either. Remember that.

      • Amy Meier says:

        So, from your explanation, you are comparing the nature of wanting to be murderous to the nature of being homosexual. This infers that you believe homosexual behavior is in some way morally similar to violence/murder. If this is the case, your words are not offensive to progressives (or gay people), but your analogy is.

        Just like people don’t like being compared to Hitler, Satan, or pedophiles, people don’t like to be compared to murderers on face value. If that comparison is not intended then know that it does cloudy your argument because it becomes more difficult to ignore the egregious suggestion.

        If you fully did intend that comparison, then what you are saying is that you feel like a homosexual individual should suppress their sexual needs the way a person prone to violence should suppress their violent urges. From a progressive perspective, there are many points to argue against this statement. The first and most glaring is the point that committing an act of violence obviously infringes on someone else’s liberty – it’s an attack; if a homosexual commits a homosexual act, they are not infringing on anyone else’s liberty, everything is consensual. One example is an assault on another, the other is a very private free time act. Being a homosexual is not a crime so I think you will have a really hard time explaining this apples to oranges comparison to anyone that is not already aligned with you.

      • Luke Haskins says:

        Wait, I can fix this! I probably should quit while I’m ahead, shouldn’t I? Fail choice of words, Luke, epic fail. 😦
        I’m sorry to all of you who were offended, please understand I’m not trying to say that homosexuals are murderers. I’m not trying to compare the acts. I’m saying just because something is in our nature doesn’t make it right. I could think of no other example, but I wanted you to see what I was saying with some kind of connection.
        As I said above, “I completely agree that those are two very different subjects, apart from the fact that I believe that both are wrong according to my worldview, based primarily in Christianity.” I already mentioned this, so I’m sorry if I was misunderstood or unclear about that. But my point about my view of homosexuality still remains. Just because I want to do something (like using a stupid example to explain my point) doesn’t make it right.

      • Amy Meier says:

        Thanks for clarifying. I appreciate it. The fact that you took the time means it is not an epic fail, just a learning experience 🙂

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