It’s been a very active week in the interplay between Barack Obama and certain Christian Right leaders, who are clearly afraid he will have some appeal to their flocks.
Most notably, the religio-political warhorse James Dobson devoted a Focus on the Family radio broadcast to an attack on a speech (a very, very good speech, BTW) Obama delivered two years ago, in which Obama had the temerity to suggest that James Dobson’s interpretations of the moral imperatives of scripture weren’t self-evidently true.
Obama, said Dobson, was “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible,” as defined, of course, by Dobson himself.
As Amy Sullivan of Time observed, there was a pretty swift backlash against Dobson’s attack on Obama from evangelical leaders manifestly tired of self-important thunderbolts from Colorado Springs.
A few days earlier, a more sophisticated attack on Obama’s Christianity was launched by conservative evangelical syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who said that “there is a clear requirement for one to qualify as a Christian and Obama doesn’t meet that requirement.” Picking over a 2004 interview, Thomas anathemized Obama for denying that salvation was limited to those who expressly embrace Jesus Christ as God and Savior, and for expressing doubts about his personal fate after death.
As Sullivan pointed out in her commentary on the Obama-Christian Right dustup:
A new Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey of 35,000 Americans reports that 70% agree with the statement “Many religions can lead to eternal life,” including 57% of Evangelicals. No less a figure than George W. Bush responded “no” when asked in 1999 if he believed heaven is open only to Christians.
So if what Thomas calls Obama’s “universalism” (an epithet often hurled at all sorts of Christians with an expansive idea of God’s plan for salvation, including the new Southern Baptist Convention president Johnny Hunt) disqualifies him as a Christian, what does that make George W. Bush?
Thomas is on stronger ground in suggesting that most Christians don’t have Obama’s reluctance to visualize a heavenly afterlife for themselves. But while belief in “eternal life” is fundamental to Christianity, that’s not the same, theologically, as confidence about individual immortality in any specific sort of way.
Here’s what Karl Barth, perhaps the dominant Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, and the “neo-orthodox” scourge of theological liberals, had to say on the subject shortly before his own death:
We have no idea either of the life beyond, or of the passage of this life into the other. We have only what came to pass in Jesus Christ, which is present with us through faith.
Barth also, by the way, was often accused of “universalism,” and did explicitly teach that restrictive ideas about salvation reflected a rejection of the sovereignty of God.
It’s clear that Obama’s in pretty good orthodox Christian company, despite efforts by Dobson and Thomas to cast him out.