The Reason Obama's Faith Is Questioned
Obama's America: Talk of "phony theology" and Muslim sympathies is code for "He's not one of us."
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.' "