on being a Christian

Is Barack Obama a Christian? Rod has all the links to the various participants in the controversy. My view is this: the President-elect claims to be a Christian, and I take him — I think I have to take him — at his word. Could he be lying? Could he be self-deceived? Could he have a limited or erroneous understanding of what Christianity is? Yes to all three. But then, the same doubts could be directed at anyone who claims to be a Christian, including me.

We’re not mind-readers, and the attempt to discover just how much fit there is between someone’s profession of faith and the state of his heart and mind is a mug’s game. In the eighteenth century Jonathan Edwards nearly drove himself and his congregation nuts by his determination to withhold Communion from people unless he could be absolutely sure that they were truly and deeply believers. The problem with this approach was neatly summed by a century earlier by the great Richard Baxter — coiner of the phrase “mere Christianity” — who took the opposite view from Edwards. If congregants do “by word of mouth say, that they believe with a saving Faith, these words are but signs of their minds; and whether counterfeit or not, the Church cannot tell.” Even if they manifest good works and pious utterances, they could be doing so for reasons unconnected to faith — the desire for social approval in a Christian community, for instance.

So when people say “I am a Christian” I accept them at their word, just as I hope that they accept me at my word when I make the same claim.

But the conversation doesn't have to end there, does it? It seems to me that, having taken President-elect Obama at his word when he claims the Christian faith, we can then go on to discuss what he thinks Christianity is, who he thinks who Jesus is, what obligations he believes a Christian takes on by virtue of being a Christian, and so on. And as that conversation proceeds we might say to him that we think his understanding of Christianity sadly limited, or the place of Christ in his theology to be insufficient and wrong-headed, or whatever. (Those are the kinds of things I would probably say to the President-elect if we were having such a conversation.) And he might point out to us flaws in our own theologies — we’d have to be prepared for that, wouldn't we? The debate might go on a while. But I think the conversation will be healthier and more productive if no one starts it by denying the other the status of Christian.

UPDATE: Several commentators on this post seem not to have noticed that it has nothing whatsoever to do with politics. The person whose claim to Christian faith prompted the post happens to be a political figure, but that is utterly irrelevant to the post. Just thought I should point that out.