Obama/McCain: Are they ‘Christians?’

Published 7:22 am Monday, September 1, 2008

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church framed the issues very well when he prefaced his interviews with Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain on Aug. 16. He reassured he and his church believe firmly in the separation of church and state, but he also laid it down they do not believe in the separation of faith from politics.

There is one thing Warren had said repeatedly during CNN’s promos that he was, I think, careful not to say that evening: that both candidates are Christians. The former disturbed me, but the latter pleased. Both Obama and McCain have identified themselves as Christians, and this much must be accepted. They are both “Christian” in the common formal, quantitative sense, i.e., affiliated with some expression of the Christian religion. But the term “Christian” has several narrow, specific meanings and affirming this for anyone is logically invalid and ethically presumptuous. On this, some will claim one, but not the other as Christian, and some will deny it to both.

The one religious question in this campaign that can be settled with certainty is the charge that Barack Obama is Moslem. He is not, nor has he ever been. He has never so identified himself, and nothing in his history would allow it. He attended a school in Indonesia in which the majority of students were Moslem, but he also attended a school there that is officially Roman Catholic. The stronger claim might be he is Catholic.

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Those who make the Moslem charge appear to be desperately trying to get something — anything will do — on him. When this ridiculous charge is made by those who identify themselves as Christian, they make it difficult for others to recognize their profession by their behavior.

They hope, of course, to associate him somehow with the radical Islam he has himself condemned. Added to this is his middle name, which simply was given in respect for his Kenyan grandfather.

Among the counter-arguments about his having been Moslem is his constant admission of being thoroughly secular from childhood. When he began to seek the cooperation of Christian churches on the south side of Chicago with his social action programs, most clergy noted his lack of any church affiliation or even interest.

It was only when he began to consider running for public office did he join a church. This was Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, whose pastor was Jeremiah Wright. This, actually, is far more relevant to the question of his being Christian. (Because of the embarrassment Wright caused by radical political statements, Obama has since resigned and not joined another church.)

More than a few wonder about the political opportunism of convenient church membership. Others are not pleased with the liberal theology, social gospel and radical politics of his former church. Obama uses evangelical language, which is part of this culture, to say “Jesus died for my sins.” But what he said to Rick Warren following this assertion was what he said when secular.

Within the Roman Catholic Church are theologians who teach no one outside this church is a Christian. These would say neither Obama nor McCain is a Christian. Many protestant churches hold to a very narrow definition of Christian, even for those within their own churches. Some require faithful reception of the sacraments, and others recognize only an particular conversion experience.

Actually, this later is the teaching of the Southern Baptist Convention of which Saddleback is a member. John McCain attends the North Phoenix Baptist Church, which is also Southern Baptist. However, he was reared Episcopal and attends the church without having become a member. In the theology of Southern Baptists, these factors are insufficient to make an assessment. This is one reason Warren was wise to avoid such judgment. McCain did tell Warren quickly, “I’m saved and forgiven.” In this context, that was a safe and acceptable thing to say, of course, and some have wondered if it weren’t suspiciously glib.

So, is Senator Barack Obama a Christian? Is Senator John McCain a Christian? In that broad sense, both certainly are. In the specific sense of my theological understanding, I don’t know about either. It’s not my business to say.

Should this be a factor in voting? Yes, a factor for consideration, but not the deciding factor. I disagree with Pastor Warren who made this decision analogous to choosing a surgeon because it just is not the same thing. I am interested not only in the fact of salvation from sin, but the continuing experience of being saved from sin, living a personally righteous life and performing in office as a righteous person.