Paul Dafydd Jones and Charles Mathewes: A New Religious Narrative for Obama

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 gave many people—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike—the hope that America was entering a new phase in its history. Just maybe the nation was about to do something remarkable: embrace a style of politics defined less by old arguments about race, religion, gender, sexuality, and culture and more by new visions of the common good.

Few would have predicted what’s happening now. A growing number of Americans believe, mistakenly, that the president is a Muslim, and most of them cite the media as the source of their information.

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Of course, suspicion about Obama has been a problem since he first appeared on the national stage. Another complicating factor is the rise of a politicized brand of journalism which has blurred the boundary between fact and fiction in ways that would make even the most ardent postmodernist blush.

What’s new, too, is the failure of Obama and his team to handle matters effectively. Given that millions more people think Obama is a Muslim now than 18 months ago, we’re seeing a serious failure to communicate.

Let us be clear: we don’t think that, in principle, a Muslim president is at all problematic. Indeed, it’s profoundly worrying that the mere idea of a Muslim president is met with moral outrage. Beyond the not-so-subtle racism at work, the “secret Muslim” claim is empirically false and politically toxic, and it marks a refusal to heed the high ideals upon which this nation was founded.

Still, the question of the hour is this: how should Obama respond? Here’s our suggestion: the White House should discontinue its purely reactive approach to claims about Obama’s beliefs and undertake a sustained effort to have him tell his own story as a Christian believer.

In other words, Obama should talk publicly about what he believes and how he believes it. He needn’t do it all the time. He needn’t do it all that often. But when he does do it, he should do it simply, plainly, frankly, and deliberately.

So far, the president has made occasional remarks about his beliefs, but they’ve been just that—occasional and largely an afterthought to his public persona. His administration has proved astonishingly “unmusical” when it comes to religion. No one in Obama’s inner circle seems to understand how religious issues and themes are implicated in his presidency and how religion factors into domestic and international politics.

But isn’t Obama’s Christianity a private matter? Isn’t it peripheral to the real issues at hand? Not right now. The culture is desperate for adult guidance when it comes to religion. While citizens stand under no obligation to talk about their religious convictions, people expect more of the president, and this political moment requires more from this president, lest discussions about religion become still more coarse and vicious, and our political culture even more degraded.

We’re not suggesting Obama should talk about his faith for purely pragmatic reasons, although God knows—and Rahm Emanuel does, too—there are likely to be political advantages. He should recognize by now that if he won’t talk about his beliefs, his opponents happily will; politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There are sound civic reasons for doing this as well. The office of the presidency has a representative function. It is not just about the day-to-day running of the government. It’s about shaping public conversation on a variety of matters of common concern, religion included.

Nor are we asking Obama to be the believer-in-chief of American civil religion. We’re simply saying he should offer himself as one example in America today of what it means to believe. He should render his religious persona public, for the good of the republic as a whole.

A president willing to talk about his own faith could do some powerful civic good. Obama’s biography suggests he has much to offer. He has spoken movingly of his mother as someone who did not believe in God, but who epitomized a life well lived. He has intimate knowledge of Islam and other religious traditions and appreciates their richness in a way that has not hindered his Christianity—a serious believer who is seriously alert to the power of other beliefs.

He’s clearly given serious thought to religion as a reality in the world. In a speech he gave in 2006, he described politics as the art of what’s possible and religion as the art of the impossible—a thought-provoking idea, to say the least. Religiously, he embodies where the nation itself is headed, as American Christianity undergoes a period of dramatic transformation and the categories we typically use to talk about belief become less and less sufficient for describing the real dividing lines, generational changes, and demographic shifts we are experiencing.

What we are proposing, then, is for President Obama to tell us about his religious identity, and to do so in ways that befit his office. Despite the degraded condition of our public debate about religion, he has the opportunity to give voice to our collective desire to speak more openly, and more honestly, about the faiths that make us who we are—and thus to make out of those many faiths one nation.

Paul Dafydd Jones and Charles Mathewes teach religious studies at the University of Virginia.

  • Julett M. Broadnax

    This makes a lot of sense. It is difficult for me to believe that people continue to spread rumors and cause others to believe he is a Muslim. And like you said, even if he is – that does not make him a Jihadist. The man truly seems to be a very charismatic, caring individual, with strong family values. Why not air his beliefs – not to try to win votes as some presidents in the past have done, but to set a tone that says – my faith and values are my guiding light in forming my conscience and how it relates to the practice of governing this country. Give the man a chance – don’t run him out on rumors and innuendoes.

  • Winn Collier

    “The culture is desperate for adult guidance when it comes to religion.”

    Stellar.

  • J

    “Beyond the not-so-subtle racism at work..”
    Muslim is not a race. The new operations head of Al Qeda is an American. There is a very serious and deadly enemy of America and freedom that is fed by Muslim states, their leaders use Islamic justification, they operate out of Mosques. They target the US in the name of Islam, their leaders are religious officials, they recruit on the basis of Islamic religious fervor. Their state goals are theocracy (Islam) and sharia law (Islam). Their fight against us they call jihad (Islam), and their stated goal is reinstitution of a unified Caliphate (Islam).

    It is not racist or irrational to fear the spread of Islam or infiltration by muslims into American political systems. It is PC foolishness to give excuse and cover to dangerous enemies of our freedom by labeling any concern about Muslim supporters in government office.

  • Lovelle

    Great point(s) of view. I do think that, while we think that clarification does what it supposed to do, this may not happen in this case, because, as we have seen before, time and time again– it’s not what President Obama says that matters (e.g., birther controversy), it’s what people want to think. So–the only way to get people to think differently, is for all of us to start dialoguing about Islam, the Qur’an, etc., in public space, on national media. In short, he can’t change our pre-conceived notions, only we can do that, and it starts with educating ourselves, reading, and dialoguing in academic halls, faith centers, barber shops and beauty salons. I believe it was your colleague, Dr. Valerie Cooper who talked about the need for dialogue on a radio show not too long (within the last year) ago.

    –Lovelle

  • rick benson

    The real reason why people say- Obama is a muslim, Obama is a socialist or communist, Obama is the worst president ever- is because Mr. Obama is black. A black man is the President of the United States, and he is succeeding both at home and on the world stage, and it is driving people crazy. It is really all about his blackness. If he were a Bible-toting pentecostal, it would be about something other than Islam.
    The enemies of the President, including Fox News, cannot jusy say, “we are against a black man because he is black.” So there are all of these ginned-up excuses. like he is a muslim.
    I agree that Rahm E. has ill-served his boss, and that he has a “tin ear” on many issues. But there is no way
    for him to win this battle. Mr. Obama cannot stop his unforgivable blackness.

  • Sarah

    You seem to be asking of one man what most of us can’t, or won’t, do ourselves- talk openly and honestly about our faith, in public. You also seem to assume that Americans will be pleased with the faith system that Obama espouses, but how likely is that, given our disparate beliefs? Obama was not elected to be our Christian leader, or a religious leader of any kind. He was elected, in part, to serve as a moral leader for our country. He demonstrates his moral values every day. Asking Obama to talk about his Christian faith is asking him to “prove” it, but he is not our pastor, our preacher, or our Pope. Let’s keep the boundaries clear- I want a moral leader, not necessarily a Christian leader. And while I consider myself a Christian, I know that many who also call themselves Christian, would not. Would we ask JFK to talk about being Catholic? Would we want Bush to tell us what it means to be a good Evangelical Protestant? Please.

  • Saranell Hartman

    Reading this reminded me of an article in Newsweek I read during the election. I found it to be a helpful explanation of the complexity of Obama’s spiritual journey- one I resonated with, one I would guess in our age many would resonate with.

    http://www.newsweek.com/2008/07/11/finding-his-faith.html

    I do hope that Obama and his team heed the challenge put before them by Dr. Jones and Dr. Matthews

  • EnEm

    Who cares what religion he belongs to? Why this hangup about his faith? It doesn’t matter if he belongs to any specific faith or to no faith at all. He needs to understand the Constitution to run this country, not the Bible or the Koran or the Avesta for that matter.

    As for “new visions of the common good”, let me say there are no new versions. It’s the same tired, non-workable bromides of socialism that tout the common good” to be the “good of the majority”. That concept can only be practiced in a Democracy where the rule of the majority holds sway. The United States of America is **not** a Democracy. It’s a Republic, a system of politics in which the rule and rights of the minority are of paramount concern. The individual is the “smallest” minority. Thus Republicanism is expected to support the rights of the Individual. Suffice to say that even the Republican party or the sad Tea Baggers are not aware of this distinction.

  • TRM

    If this essay reflects the scholarship provided by the religion department, I am sad as I am currently paying my daughter’s tuition at UVA.

    A few points of disagreement:

    1. “Indeed, it’s profoundly worrying that the mere idea of a Muslim president is met with moral outrage.”

    If it were true that Obama was a Muslim, It might not be the mere idea of a Muslim president but for some simply the concern that he lied about an important element of his background.

    2. “Beyond the not-so-subtle racism at work”

    I am tired of Obama’s supporters playing the race card in regards every area of criticism. And it is literally every area by one faction or another. Surely they understand it is quickly losing its intended intensity.

    3. “Obama should talk publicly about what he believes and how he believes it.”

    This will never happen for obvious reasons. A. Obama will do nothing to discuss his religious journey and revive any discussions of his 20 years with Rev. Wright. The media buried this story and the administration will let it lie. B. In January 2009 there was much talk of the selection process for his Washington church. I am not sure if he ever attended the winning church. If he did regularly attend any church, you can be sure we would have seen it in the news footage. C. Obama’s replacement for Rev. Wright is Jim Wallis. Given Obama’s sinking popularity, he cannot afford to bring Wallis’ views into the public discussion nor his associations.

    Separately, use of the “tea bagger” euphemism is weak EnEm. Say what you mean since many readers here will not know what you intended. Use of an obscene phrase such as this is intended to show your arguments are more valid?

  • LH

    Funny … when the born-again Bush talked about Judeo-Christian principles and prayer affecting his legislative compass it was quite a different story. Suddenly we are encouraging presidents to talk about their faith … or just this president who might possibly hold religious beliefs that are recently deemed “racially attacked”? Awww c’mon … I couldn’t care less what Bush or this guy believes and I don’t need a dialogue from a president about it to “teach” me. Always pandering pandering pandering to the imaginary offended party when the so-called offended party is part of our overall political agenda … yawn!

  • Craig Duckett

    Paul Dafydd Jones and Charles Mathewes are obviously instructors of religion, because their comments regarding Obama and faith clearly reveal they are more schooled in supernaturalist mumbo-jumbo than in political science, critical thinking, and rational inquiry.

    The culture may be “desperate for adult guidance when it comes to religion” but the culture doesn’t want to hear what the adults might tell them: that it’s time to grow up, to claim personal responsibility for one’s life, and to put to bed Bronze Age superstitions once and for all. Instead, culture is like a wide-eyed child with sticky hands pretending with all it’s might not to know that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren’t real.

    I suspect one of the reasons Obama doesn’t openly discuss his religious views is because, like most thinking people willing to be brutally honest with themselves, deep down inside he knows he’s agnostic.

  • NR

    I think this President is inclined to keep his Christianity to himself because it is particularly complex and not amenable to simplicities but is for discussion only between himself and his select pastoral go-to’s.

  • Arsailman

    Religion doesn’t belong in politics. I think President Obama should keep silent on this issue, as it is really no one’s business but his. It’s true no one sees him going to church, but Ronad Reagan didn’t either, and he wasn’t branded a Muslim. Having to go before the public and reiterate that he is a Christian appears to be a seemy way to handle the issue. Usually, issues should be discussed and made clear, but this isn’t one of them. After complaining about his Christian minister during the campaigns, the same people are intimating that he is a Muslim.
    How cinical and dishonest…

  • Holly Seiferth

    “Nor are we asking Obama to be the believer-in-chief of American civil religion. We’re simply saying he should offer himself as one example in America today of what it means to believe. He should render his religious persona public, for the good of the republic as a whole.”

    The implication in this line of reasoning is that there should be an effort on the part of those in power to promote a religious republic – it is echoed in sentences like that which closed the article – “the faiths that make us who we are—and thus to make out of those many faiths one nation.” Specifically in the way President Obama’s mother is described – “He has spoken movingly of his mother as someone who did not believe in God, but who epitomized a life well lived” – my eye is drawn to the “but.” “But” as a conjunction signals a contrast, exception, contradiction as it were of seemingly contrary ideas.

    Should I expect “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” to suggest anything less? Certainly not.

    I can only offer that there is an equal opportunity to reinforce the feasibility of a strong secular government for the express purpose of avoiding the possibility, nevermind the temptation, of using government as a vehicle for promoting the ascendancy of any particular religious paradigm into a national construct. “Under God” was inserted into the pledge of Allegiance in 1948, and the primacy of allegiance to a republic, indeed the republic itself, was subordinated to a somewhat indeterminate deity, with the inclusion of those words, in an effort to strive towards an explicit religious national identity – a mistake, in my estimation.

    I think that President Obama’s religious reserve is appropriate – it might even suggest humility. Organized religion, in my estimation, has an affinity for authority. There seems to be an irresistable desire to seek from those who command the attention and respect of others their embrace or at least their acknowledgement and encouragment of religion. It to some extent tethers religion to cultural ascendancy – with testimonials making authority figures something akin to glitterati spokesmodels. Having a leader frequently discuss the spiritual runs the risk, unnecessarily, of transforming them into a spiritual leader. Is it critical that the President, for instance, describe the foundation of his belief in tolerance as a civic moral prerequisite as the teaching of Jesus Christ? Is religious tolerance the First Amendment provides for a national value because of the coincidental intersection of a sufficient number of religious faiths on this matter, or is it civic axiom of a secular republic? Belief, is, afterall, binding only to believers. Law offers no exemptions – especially when it comes to dealing fairly with a pluralistic society.

  • N.B.

    Again, this just proves that politics and religion and so entwined, it’s impossible for the simple minded to separate one from the other.

    It’s not a new or strange concept that existing organizations operate in the name of religion, to obtain political victories. Nor is it unheard of politics dictating to the masses what to believe of other religions.
    In short, Al-Qada is not operating to defend a Religion. They are operating to defend land. Their motherland. If Israel had never infiltrated the Middle East, Al-Qada, Hisbullah, and various organizations, wouldn’t have come into existence.
    This is politics. Their religion is irrelevant. Their methods, are atrocious, and have NO basis in Islam., no matter what they claim.

    I understand it requires time and dedication to read AND understand the Holy Qoran. But I will try, in very summarized terms, to highlight the pillars of Islam;
    -The belief in One God, and One God only, and that Mohamed, PBUH, is the last of His messengers
    -5 daily prayers
    -Fasting in the Holy month of Ramadan
    -Zakat (giving alms, a certain percent of what you own, to the needy)
    -Pilgrimage to Mecca, requested only of the able.

    I will focus here of the first of these pillars. I need to emphasize, Mohamed, being the LAST of His messengers. In other words, there were previous messengers, BEFORE Mohamed, that all Muslims believe in.
    All Muslims believe in Abraham, in Moses, in Jesus, and in Mohamed, as the major Messengers of God.
    All Muslims believe the Books these Messengers brought were divine, the Torah. the Bible, and the Qoran.
    All Muslims also believe in the numerous religious figures in the Torah and Bible..Soleman, David, Josef, the Virgin Mary, Jonas, John…
    In short, the Qoran is nothing more than a “collection” of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
    The differences between these three religions is NEGLIGIBLE compared to the similarities.

    We are all people, brothers and sisters. Sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. How different are we really? We all want good, for one and for all.

    If within the SAME FAMILY you find angles and demons, why is it so hard to understand the same exists withing religions? If a member of the X-family becomes a serial killer, does that mean that all the Xes be condemned to this title?

    It’s easy to point fingers when they are not being pointed at you. Islam, in short, is being bullied.

  • Linzy

    ideology kills!

  • Margaret Placentra Johnston

    Something that would be very difficult to explain to the public is that Obama seems to embody most of the traits of true mature spirituality. This is a spiritual stance beyond the petty (ethnocentric) differences among religions and one that seeks to include everyone in its universal worldview.

    Not only does he show the traits but as far as I can see his life story points to that likelihood as well. The participation in a Christian church – not because that church had the final and only correct answer – but out of a desire for a religious community. When that affiliation became problematic, he had no trouble disaffiliating.

    The atheist mother who taught him to live a good life and his being “seriously alert to the power of other beliefs” point him further in the direction of spiritual maturity – an absolute rarity on the American political scene!

    I have no idea how Barack or anyone else could convey this message, or if he is even aware that his stance seems to be more mature than most. I feel very sorry that folks who are seriously immature in the sense of their religion may be able to denigrate the efforts of the one person who could, with a little cooperation, lead us as a nation, away from the influence of special interests and selfish motives and toward a true appreciation of the greater public good.

    Margaret Placentra Johnston

  • Florien Wineiter

    I believe the current effort to demonize Islam and Obama are simply the latest chapter in the on-going program to portray the U.S. as a Christian Nation. Historically Jews, Mormons, Buddhist, Masons, and others, have been portrayed as unAmerican because they were NOT Christians. This campaign has been continuous since the Articles of Confederation attempted to make us an independent member of the civilized nqations of the world.
    Humans seem to have a dark need to fear others, Many Christians fear everyone who is not a Christian as they define their sect.

  • Channah

    I truely respect that President Obama does not wear his religion ” on his sleeve”. I prefer it this way. After eight years of Bush and his pushing his evangelcal Christianity, it is refreshing to have a president who does not believe everyone who does not agree with him is wrong. I felt Bush’s beliefs got too much in the way of his governing our country.

    I do not care if our president is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Morman, etc., as long as he is not pushing it at the forefront of his politics.

  • tom van dyke

    Why would Messrs. Jones and Mathewes believe the president’s political theology is unknown or that its effect on his governance isn’t already manifest? It leads him to the “social Gospel,” which these days is synonymous with progressive politics and the Social Democrat statism of Europe. This is precisely what many Americans are rejecting of late. [And Europe's "social democrat" model is teetering more than a little, not just Greece.]

    I must add that Obama’s pluralism isn’t just a matter of political theology, the American way: that we each have our beliefs about salvation and how to get there, and that not need be a matter of public discussion.

    The president has come off more like a theological pluralist, that all religions are equally valid ways to God and heaven. Even if he doesn’t believe that, it’s a little late to try to correct that impression: it would gain him no new respect from his opponents, and would lose him support among the non-religious who comprise a significant part of his coalition.

    Further, if one has no doctrinal core to set aside in the name of unity and agreement—as in the American Founding’s unification under “Providence”—then what could be admired about any call for unity?

    Whatever the president’s beliefs—which appear to be a mushy soteriology and the “social Gospel”—are not much to bring to the bargaining table as negotiating chips. Jerry Falwell [per Francis Schaeffer] made bigger concessions in forming the Moral Majority!