Annals of Religion

What Kind of Christian Is Barack Obama?

Obama, gay marriage, and America's missing religious tradition

I've never in my life written a headline more tailor-made for right-wing comment-thread trollery, but it's early days on this blog and I want to boost the numbers. And the question is serious.

There's a debate raging in the liberal interwebs these past couple of days about Obama and gay marriage. You are surely familiar with the basic positions. Default position (and mine): Obama is "really" for gay marriage but just isn't ready to say it yet. Slate-ish counter-intuitive position: No, he's actually and genuinely a Christian and is against gay marriage on pretty straighforward religious grounds. This second view was given representative voice by Choire Sicha at The Awl.

I find it hard to buy, but it does raise the interesting and larger question posed in my headline. Today in politics, the mere word "Christian" ignites a series of associations: conservative, literalist, Republican, and so on. But there are lots of kinds of Christians out there.

I was raised, for example, in the 60s and 70s in an Episcopal Church in which "Christian" meant none of those things. Our church wasn't political, but we had lots of English professors and teachers and the like, so presumably our share of liberals. To my knowledge, people didn't believe most of the Bible literally, and I don't recall being told that I needed to believe that there really was talking snake. It was a story that made a point. There are millions of Christians like this, and they're certainly no less Christian than the literalists. I'd say they're more Christian. The point is not to believe that a snake could speak, but to understand what was being said about temptation. And this is where I think Obama comes in.

From everything we know about Obama, he strikes me as being very like a lot of the Episcopalians I grew up around. Intellectual. Reader of Thomas Merton and that bunch (and indeed Niebuhr--look at how Obama apparently immersed himself in Niebuhr). A believer. But not in the way you're supposed to believe for the newspapers to call you a "believer" in politics.

So, enough of a believer to oppose gay marriage on religious grounds? Not a chance, in my view. For him to oppose gay marriage would be as out of character for someone of his background and education and so forth as if he loved Danielle Steele or collected Hummels or vacationed in Branson.

One thing I've always wished Obama might do is revive the skeptical-religious tradition in this country, to show the media that there are, still, millions and millions of Americans who fit in that tradition. That tradition was dominant in our public discourse when I was little. Then the literalist right muscled its way onto the scene, and the left (part of the blame lies with it, too) tried to push religion out of the picture entirely. Maybe in the second term (how many times am I going to write that sentence in the next six months?!), after he endorses gay marriage, he can start talking up Teilhard de Chardin. That'd be fun!