Obama's America is a weekly column about Barack Obama, politics and culture.
In many ways, the last few days in political coverage have been like watching a reality show, and religious zealotry is the emerging theme. First there was Rick Santorum, a Catholic former U.S. senator, who interrupted a discussion on energy with a conservative Christian group in Ohio to declare that President Obama's "got some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible … "
Then there was the Rev. Franklin Graham, who, when asked on MSNBC's Morning Joe whether the president is a Christian — never mind why the question is even being raised — said, quite seriously, "I have to assume that he is." He insisted that there's "no question" about Santorum's Christianity, and of Mitt Romney, he said, "He's a Mormon. Most Christians would not recognize Mormonism as part of the Christian faith." On CBS, Patrick Buchanan observed that America is becoming a "Tower of Babel."
In case there was any question about civility in American politics and society, the rhetoric should offer some sobering guidance. It's a kind of religious chauvinism that effectively says, "Christianity is superior to Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism." It's exactly the kind of rhetoric that drives religious extremism — and violence — in other parts of the world.
Our willingness to adhere to a religious litmus test for political candidates may be out of sync with a long-term trend: About one-quarter of Millennials — people born after 1980 — view themselves as unaffiliated with a particular faith, far more so than Generation Xers and baby boomers were at similar points in their lives. This tells us that America is becoming more open about faith, ethnicity and sexual identity and will be allergic to exclusive zealotry.
Much has been made — rightly — about the need to protect religious minorities, particularly Christians, in parts of the Muslim world. But the rhetoric of the last few weeks shows that the U.S. is not immune to zealotry. To understand what is at stake, recall the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the young Norwegian whose fear of European multiculturalism drove him to fatally shoot nearly 100 people last summer. He called himself "a cultural Christian," and in a manifesto published online, he warned about the growing presence of Muslims in Europe.
Surely, much of the religiously chauvinistic rhetoric you hear stateside is a reaction to Obama. "They're saying, 'You ain't one of us. You ain't never going to be one of us because you're black, first off; and secondly, we can judge your Christianity every day,' " observes Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. " 'If you were really like us, you'd know your place.' "
For much of the 2008 presidential race, candidate Obama avoided addressing his affiliation with Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, helmed for many years by his mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That relationship prompted Obama's March 2008 speech on race in America, a distancing from Wright and a crush of reports demystifying black liberation theology, as well as the black-American church experience.
By June the Obamas had severed ties with their spiritual home of nearly two decades. Still, the debate about Obama's faith persisted. Almost immediately after the Obamas' arrival in Washington, there was speculation about why the first family hadn't joined a church.
Part of the reason is logistical: When the Obamas show up at a church, the event becomes an intrusive spectacle, especially in this security-conscious age of Facebook and Twitter. So the president often spends part of each morning praying and reading Scriptures. He has said he regularly receives phone calls and emailed prayers from various ministers, including T.D. Jakes and Joel Hunter, with whom he has prayed in the Oval Office. He has met with ministers like the Rev. Billy Graham, whom he visited in North Carolina in April 2010.
Earlier this month, during the National Prayer Breakfast, the president offered more insight into his faith: "I thought my own spiritual journey — growing up in a household that wasn't particularly religious; going through my own period of doubt and confusion; finding Christ when I wasn't even looking for him so many years ago … The fact that I would ever be on top of a mountain, saying a prayer for Billy Graham — a man whose faith had changed the world and that had sustained him through triumphs and tragedies, and movements and milestones — that simple fact humbled me to my core."
There's an argument to be made that a president — or any public figure — should be allowed to keep his or her faith private. There must be a space where no voter, donor, colleague or friend can intrude. In public, Obama has largely handled the rising religious zealotry in much the way he treated tricky matters during the 2008 campaign: passively. At some point he may need to tackle the matter head-on. And in the coming days and months, if the rhetoric persists, Americans will hopefully say, "This is not who we are."