A while back I chided Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry (“PEG,” from here on in) for suggesting that the United States should invade North Korea. PEG has now moved on from dispensing horrible foreign policy advice to offering risible thoughts about just what’s missing in American politics: i.e. thoroughgoing discussions of religious doctrine. PEG says we need to probe much more deeply than we do into politicians’ (and especially presidents’) religious beliefs:
Barack Obama is a garden-variety liberal Protestant. But that doesn’t actually tell us much. Because while some strains of liberal Protestantism are simply orthodox Mere Christianity with more emphasis on social justice and more flexibility (ahem) on below-the-belt and other issues, other strains of liberal Protestantism deny central articles of creedal Christianity like the bodily resurrection and the divinity of Christ. Does Barack Obama believe in the bodily Resurrection? If yes, why, if no, why not. That’s a legitimate, important, and straightforward question and it’s kind of astonishing that it’s not asked.
What’s truly “astonishing” here is PEG’s unawareness that our federal constitution prohibits any “religious test” for office; or perhaps he just blithely assumes that the sort of questioning he suggests wouldn’t violate that prohibition. If PEG had his way, questions about the “bodily resurrection and divinity of Christ” would no doubt be just the beginning; American voters would be equally interested, one assumes, in hearing presidential candidates weigh in on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, on the Trinity, on the perpetual virginity of Mary, and so on. After all, how else can we separate the real Christians from the phonies—and isn’t that what our elections are for? As PEG says:
Maybe [President Obama is] a Kierkegaardo-Bultmannian existentialist who sidesteps the question [of Jesus' bodily Resurrection]. I would regard that sort of answer as wrong but at least it would show that he wrestled with the central question of Christianity. That he took it seriously and used the resources of his not-insignificant intellect to come to some sort of an answer that can then lead him on the path of life. Same thing with the influence of black liberation theology. The Reverend Wright fracas all-but guarantees that this question is only taken as a political/racial or pseudo-racial football, but that is actually a genuinely interesting question. I would much prefer to have in the White House a serious black liberation theologian, someone who takes seriously the Magnificat’s claim that Jesus came to cast the mighty from their thrones and rise the lowly, to fill the starving with good things and send the rich away empty, than a milquetoast conservative whose Christianity is like a tie that makes him look good on TV.
PEG knows just how this theological inquiry could proceed:
In a good world, the best way for Obama to “defuse” those questions would be to tackle them head-on. To sit down for two hours in front of a camera for YouTube with, say, Rick Warren, or (even better) Tim Keller or someone like that and just talk about Christianity.2
I want to be clear that PEG is not singling out President Obama for this treatment; he believes that any American president (or presidential candidate) should have to explain his or her religious beliefs in this way. Because, says PEG, all else being equal, I’d much prefer to have a candidate who’s an Evangelical Protestant but sincerely believes that Jesus rose from the dead and is the living Lord of the Universe than a Catholic who’s a Catholic the way he might be a Rotarian or an Elk.
Sadly, PEG acknowledges, the world of politics makes such a confessional inquiry impossible: Anything a politician might say about theology is going to be seen, and judged, and evaluated, in a political lens–and therefore distorted and misunderstood. And any smart politician will therefore tailor their answers to that expectation, and make them worthless.
And that, friends, is PEG’s explanation for why we can’t have nice things: because we can’t properly vet our politicians’ religious convictions.
Nearly two hundred years ago, PEG’s countryman Alexis de Tocqueville earned lasting praise for his astute understanding of America and American politics. These days, PEG seems determined to prove himself an anti-de Tocqueville, mistaking America for a church and the President of the United States for its Theologian-in-Chief.
As entertaining as it might be to hear the 2016 presidential candidates discuss “justification by faith through grace” and “sola scriptura,” I think we’ll all be better off if they’re asked instead whether they believe in global warming and what if anything they plan to do about it. In the meantime, for his astonishing misunderstanding of our politics, PEG gets today’s “Worst Pundit in the World” award.
2 PEG, like Governor Scott Walker, is apparently unaware that then-candidate Barack Obama sat down for a two-hour interview with Rick Warren back in 2008, While the interview wasn’t exclusively about Christianity, as PEG would have preferred, some of it was. Here, for example, is Obama’s response to Pastor Warren’s question Now, you’ve made no doubt about your faith in Jesus Christ. What does that mean to you? What does that mean to you to trust in Christ? What does that mean on a daily basis? I mean, what does that really look like?
Obama: Well, as a starting point, it means I believe in — that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through Him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. I know that I don’t walk alone. And I know that if I can get myself out of the way that, you know, I can maybe carry out in some small way what — what He intends. And it means that those sins that I have, on a fairly regular basis, hopefully will be washed away.
But what it also means, I think, is a sense of obligation to embrace not just words but, through deeds, the expectations, I think, that God has for us. And that means thinking about the least of these. It means acting, well, acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. And that, I think, trying to apply those lessons on a daily basis, knowing that you’re going to fall a little bit short each day, and being able to kind of take note and saying: 'well, that didn’t quite work out the way I think it should have, but maybe I can get a little bit better'.
It gives me the confidence to try things, including things like running for President that — where you are going to screw up once in a while.
That’s not getting all that deep into the theological weeds, or into doctrinal specifics, but it’s probably about as deep as most of us would want a candidate to go.
By the way, in the same interview, then-candidate Obama made the following statement about how he had learned, from his mother, the importance of empathy and concern for the less well-off:
And that I think is what has made America special, is that notion, that everybody’s got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who’s — who can’t afford college, that we care for them too.
Please note that candidate Obama only said that America was “special,” he did not say it was “exceptional”; so who among us can say, even now, if he really loves this country or not?