Somewhere on the floor of the Arctic Ocean there is a titanium flag on a tiny flagpole, dropped in 2007 from a passing Russian submarine. Recalling the Spanish conquistadores’ arrival on a Caribbean beach, that romantic gesture symbolizes Russia’s territorial claim to vast swaths of Arctic seabed.
Caught in the spotlight of a deep-sea robotic submersible, the tiny Russian flag looks ridiculous: a childish, king-of-the-hill gesture on the part of Vladimir Putin. But it embodies something far more ominous.
So, too, with a remark Presidential candidate Michael Huckabee made in a recent radio interview. In charging President Obama with “pretending to be a Christian,” Huckabee is dropping his own tiny flag, staking his personal claim on Christian orthodoxy.
Mr. Huckabee is a Southern Baptist minister, but rarely does he define himself as such. He belongs to a breed of radical Anabaptists who would sooner say they’re “just Christian,” in an aw-shucks sort of way, than admit any denominational allegiance. The allegiance is there if you press them. It’s rather sharply defined. They just don’t lead with it.
On the face of it, the “just Christian” label sounds benign, even ecumenically tolerant. Yet, hidden behind the genial exterior is a conquistadore’s iron will.
The origin of this variety of faux ecumenism can be traced to the evangelical resurgence of the 1950s and 60s, particularly the work of another Southern Baptist pastor, Billy Graham. In his early, Red-baiting years, Dr. Graham hewed to a line similar to that of today’s religious right. Yet, as his ministry style matured over the years, he worked with a broadly ecumenical coalition, including many mainline Protestants. In his own way, he strove to be genuinely ecumenical.
Graham’s modus operandi—leading the circus parade of his “crusade” into town, supported by volunteers from a broad range of denominations—allowed a great many Americans to assume there is such a thing as generic Christianity, that can exist on its own like a bean planted in a schoolchild’s paper cup of topsoil.
One becomes a Christian as a matter of individual choice, the act of a repentant heart. The next step is to shop one’s spiritual seedling around to various local churches, in search of the one with the best garden soil in which to plant it. Should the seedling fail to flourish, it can always be transplanted elsewhere. (Or not. Some try to go it alone, expecting their plant to thrive in the light afforded by the flickering image of an evangelist on a television screen.)
In time, believers took on the theology of their host denomination, seldom aware that some of the doctrines they were learning from the pulpit were not common to every Christian tradition. It takes a certain spiritual humility to admit that such diversity within Christianity is real. Absent such humility, it’s but a short jump to the sort of intolerance Mr. Huckabee reveals in his accusation regarding the president’s faith.
Barack Obama was a member of the United Church of Christ for 15 years.* Based on biblical interpretations that differ from those of the Southern Baptist Convention, the UCC doesn’t see an inherent ethical conflict for GLBTQ people in committed relationships to marry. When President Obama invited a few marriage-equality activists, including gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, to be part of the large crowd that greeted Pope Francis, the proverbial smoke started emerging from Mr. Huckabee’s ears (I swear I heard it, over the radio).
Pope Francis—he of the beneficent “Who am I to judge?” remark—did not appear to have a problem with the President’s guest list (although Vatican functionaries did issue an official “harrumph”). Conservative evangelicals joined Mr. Huckabee in rushing to the Pope’s defense—a curious turn of events, because a great many of them would not otherwise be quick to include Roman Catholics within the circle of true Christianity. This is not only on account of classically un-Protestant doctrines like the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary, but also because of certain Vatican social pronouncements that are goads to the religious right: particularly those urging governments to proactively address problems of immigration, climate change and the plight of the poor.
What if Mr. Huckabee had accused the President of “pretending to be a Southern Baptist?” His barb would not have been nearly so sharp.
But he knows that. There is calculation in his choice of words. This Southern Baptist pastor-turned-politician knows perfectly well that there are theological differences between his denomination and the President’s.
He just doesn’t choose to admit it: because there may be territory yet to be conquered by planting his banner on the sea-floor.
*Editor’s note: this article originally implied that Barack Obama currently belongs to the UCC when in fact he parted ways with the Trinity UCC back in 2008. RD regrets the error.