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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Effort to Claim Christianity For Conservatism

In all the brouhaha over the president’s remarks at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, the intra-Christian dynamic was sometimes lost. I tried to explain this at TPMCafe:

[B]eyond the context of Christian-Islamic rivalry and comparative assessments of religious violence, Obama was also quietly but forcefully continuing an intra-Christian argument over clarity of God’s Will and whether those who assert they know it in detail are exhibiting faithful obedience or arrogant self-righteousness. There’s no question where the president stands on the question:

I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt–not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

For Obama, as for many liberal Protestants, the “fear of God” connotes not only tolerance of other believers (and nonbelievers), but separation of church and state, which he treats as a practical application of the Golden Rule. And that, more than the specific challenge of how to speak about Islamic terrorists, enrages many conservative Christians, both “traditionalist” Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Consider this reaction from conservative blogger, radio talk host and Fox News “personality” Erick Erickson, who is also taking classes at a conservative Calvinist seminary:

Barack Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian and I am not sure he needs to continue the charade. With no more elections for him, he might as well come out as the atheist/agnostic that he is. He took his first step in doing so yesterday in a speech reeking with contempt for faith in general and Christianity in particular…
Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6) Christ himself is truth. When we possess Christ, we possess truth. The President is a moral relativist. It was clear in his whole speech…. To suggest that everyone can have some version of God and some version of truth is worldly babbling, not Christianity.

In this respect Obama is, consciously or unconsciously, standing in for liberal Americans–or to some extent, though the overlap is not total, “mainline” Protestants or “modern” Catholics–who do not subscribe to biblical inerrancy, spiritual exclusivity, or the sense that Christians are a besieged or even persecuted community marked by conservative cultural commitments that separate them from a wicked world. Such Christians are quite a large group, even though they are often ignored by secular observers who buy the idea that the only “authentic” Christians (or “Christian music,” or “Christian films”) are conservative. More than 26 million belong to the “mainline” Protestant denominations, and more than 60 percent of American Catholics favor some or a great deal of adjustment to tradition in accordance with “modern needs” (57 percent oppose church teachings on same-sex marriage, to cite one example of the “moral relativism” that involves). And after decades of hearing that liberal Christianity is dying, there’s actually fresh evidence that among millennials the much-discussed trend towards unbelief disguises an even sharper trend towards “moderate” positions among the majority that are believers.

It’s important for both believers and non-believers in the progressive camp to fight the effort to claim Christianity for conservatism, so long as the United States continues to be the most religiously inclined advanced industrial nation in the world. In that respect, even those progressives who are annoyed by Barack Obama’s tendency to lend legitimacy to those who deny the legitimacy of his own faith owe him some support on this point.

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