An elite newspaper kisses President Obama’s liberal brand of Christianity, but here’s what they left out
That’s how one person — in an email subject line to the GetReligion team — boiled down today’s mammoth, front-page Washington Post story on “The quiet impact of Obama’s Christian faith”:
Now, the fact that an elite, inside-the-Beltway newspaper seems to really love Obama’s brand of faith won’t trigger any breaking news alerts.
Obama is, after all, the kind of Christian even a non-Bible-thumping journalist could love. GetReligion’s editor, Terry Mattingly, has described the president this way: “a liberal believer who made a profession of faith and joined the United Church of Christ, a denomination that has long represented the left edge of free-church Protestantism.”
What prompted today’s 3,000-word Post homage to Obama’s faith? There appears to be no strong time element. Instead, this is one of those evergreen stories on which the writer noted on Twitter that he worked for a while.
“Hope it is revealing,” the writer said in that same tweet.
Is it revealing? Yes and no.
On the positive side, I enjoyed reading the Post story and appreciated the behind-the-scenes insight into some of Obama’s perspective concerning his Christianity and its role in his policy approaches. I found myself thinking: This story would make a great “West Wing” episode.
Imagine this opening scene, only with real-life Obama instead of the fictional President Josiah Bartlet:
“President Obama was flying over Los Angeles in June as he listened to the first accounts from a courtroom in Charleston, S.C., where family members of nine dead parishioners who were gunned down at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had just addressed the accused killer.
He heard the words of a daughter who had lost her mother: “May God forgive you. I forgive you.”
He listened to the plea of a mother who had lost her son: “Every fiber in my body hurts . . . but may God have mercy on you.”
The president paused, the thump of the helicopter’s blades filling the otherwise silent cabin. He had planned to tweet some statistics later that day comparing gun violence in the United States and other developed countries, but now he told his staff to cancel that.
Instead, in the Oval Office two days later, he seized upon something that seemed more important to him than any argument about gun control — an idea central to his political identity and his conviction that he could unify the divided nation.
“The essence of what is right about Christianity is embedded here,” he said of the families, according to notes taken during the meeting.
As Obama saw it, the parishioners and their families met the most demanding teachings of Christ. “They welcomed the stranger,” he said in the Oval Office meeting. “They forgave the worst violence.”
I liked, too, that the Post writer introduced an unknown character — an anti-abortion doctor — into the storyline:
Eleven years earlier, Obama was thinking about this same subject while drafting a response to Farr Curlin, a Chicago doctor who had written to him about abortion.
It was after 1 a.m. on March 18, 2004. Twenty-four hours earlier, Obama had won the Democratic Senate primary in Illinois — the biggest victory of his political career at that point. Curlin, who began by congratulating him, had written because he was upset by abortion-related language on Obama’s campaign website in which the candidate had promised to fight “right wing ideologues” seeking to “take away women’s rights.”
“You know very well that you will struggle to find a thoughtful person who opposes abortion because he or she wants to take away women’s rights,” Curlin wrote. His opposition to the procedure, he said, was grounded in reason and supported by more than 2,000 years of church teachings.
Curlin didn’t ask Obama to change his stance; he only asked that the president use “fair-minded words” when discussing the issue.
In his late-night reply, Obama defended his belief that a woman should be the final “decision maker” and apologized for the overheated language on such a “profoundly difficult” subject. “It’s very difficult not to fall prey to some of that rhetoric,” he responded, “and it worsens in a long primary battle.”
On the negative side, for a story that purports to delve into Obama’s Christianity, this one leaves too many obvious questions unanswered.
For example, who converted Obama and taught him his theology? What is Obama’s denomination, and what is it known for? What has Obama actually said, in the past, about the contents of his faith? And, if Christianity is so important to him, why does he attend church so infrequently?
For responses to some of those questions, readers might turn to “God Girl” Cathleen Falsani’s 2004 interview with Obama. Falsani visited with Obama after he clinched the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat he eventually won.
Insights from that interview: Obama believes “there are many paths to the same place.” He has “a suspicion of dogma.” He guesses he prays, although he doesn’t get down on his knees. Rather, he has “an ongoing conversation with God.” Moreover, Obama sees Jesus as a “historical figure” who serves as a bridge between man and God.
But Obama is not much into proselytization or evangelizing because he finds it “hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.” He believes in sin, but he’s not so sure of heaven — particularly one with harps, clouds and wings: “I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die.”
Pair what the Post said about Obama’s faith with what it didn’t, and one starts to gain a fuller understanding of the president’s Christianity.