Know-Nothing Christians Irate Over Obama Comments

As a child, I recall being especially perplexed by one phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I was never quite sure if God or the nation was supposed to be “indivisible.” The slow growth to adulthood has taught me that neither God nor nation is necessarily indivisible, and that increasingly in this country, God has actually been used to divide the nation. So it is again this week.

President Obama delivered an enormously important and profoundly symbolic address in Ankara, the capitol of the modern Republic of Turkey. In a press conference before the address, the president reached out to his largely Muslim audience, reminding them that the United States of America is not “a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation.” Rather, he insisted, “we are a nation bound by a set of ideals and values.”

It seemed a reasonable enough position to take, emphasizing our secular Constitutional history, in the context of Turkey’s own long experiment with secular democracy and religious pluralism beginning with Atatürk’s reforms after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. It also seemed a prudent announcement of the president’s departure from policies that seemed to operate with a fundamentally anti-Muslim bias in the Bush years, when an “axis of evil” was comprised of two Muslim countries and one Communist one. The United States is not at war with Islam, President Obama reassured his audience. But the president also explained why this was so: because we do not derive our foreign policy from exclusively religious or Scriptural sources. Rather we have “a set of ideals and values” enshrined in other founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

In short, President Obama assured his audience that we have nothing to fear from each other, and that we have a great deal in common. Such was the peace-making message of this US president.

But back home, there are men and women on the right side of the Christian spectrum who have responded with dismay and disbelief, accusing the president of “throwing Christianity under the bus.”

Which speech were they listening to? Or does a reaction like that suggest that they were not listening at all?

These are the important questions, and they are not as easy to answer as it may seem. It has been my sense that the left side of the Christian spectrum has reacted to these protests in ways that feed the beast rather than ameliorate a conflict. They cry “foul,” and express outrage at the suggestion that the president, a self-identifying Christian of some quasi-high-church Protestant persuasion, cannot possibly be written off as anti-Christian in the way he has been. Those on the left need to pay closer attention to Christian history.

Christians have never done much more than argue about the matters of primary importance to them. Every tradition is, in part, an extended argument through time concerning matters deemed especially important to that tradition. Christianity is no exception to this rule. So yes, the current US president is a self-identifying Christian. That does not mean that other Christians cannot say he is no real Christian at all. That has been the hallmark of Christian history—defining people as “heretics” who understand themselves to be faithful and true Christians. Christians quarrel with one another over the meaning of, and the contemporary implications of, their faith. These are debates with a very long history. But they have a peculiarly American inflection as well.

So, what are some of the points that have been arguments of long-standing within the Christian tradition? Three come to mind immediately:

1) How is this religion related to the political powers of the day?;

2) Is the Deuteronomic idea that the nation prospers only so long as it maintains it covenantal relationship with God still in force?; and

3) Are Christianity and Judaism two separate religions?

These questions actually lie behind the current fracas over the president’s Turkey speech.

Let’s start with “secularism.” It is a word that is thrown around all too often across the political and religious spectrum. Once upon a time in medieval Europe it was the name for a certain type of church, one not attached to a monastery and thus not “regular” (because it did not operate according to a monastic “rule”). After the Protestant Reformation and over one hundred years of bloody inter-Christian conflict, most everyone understood that these in-house debates would not be resolved with further debate; the ideas by then were simply too entrenched. So a new political idea was born, that of secular politics.

If we cannot achieve clarity on the truth of competing religious claims, then perhaps we can agree on the proper place of religion in modern political systems. And if we wish to create more peaceful social institutions, then perhaps we need to articulate principles of deliberative justice that do not come from the Bible, since the Bible is understood so differently by its various readers. These are the “ideals and values” to which the president alluded in his speech.

In this view, secular politics was simply a pragmatic response to religious pluralism, both within Christianity and outside of it. That was the idea. The problem with “secular” politics is that some people view it as a plea for neutrality on religious matters, whereas others view it as secretly hostile to free religious expression.

To be fair, it should be confessed that secularism has often been a profoundly anti-religious idea. It certainly was in the rabidly anti-clerical French Revolution. And we see to this day very different models of secularism in the United States and France. In France, secularism means that you cannot wear religious garb to public school; in the United States it means just the opposite. Atatürks’s original conception of secularism in Turkey owed far more to the French model, and what we have seen in the past decade in Turkey is a major debate about what model of secularism the Republic should adopt. Religious parties had been banned in Turkey, but no longer.

The doomsayers saw this as the first whiff of a “fundamentalist” resurgence in Turkey, though it was nothing of the sort. It was merely a re-thinking of the principles and the future of secularism. And the president, in his speech, assured his Turkish audience that he understands the difference between religious claims and Constitutional claims. And in so saying, he was implicitly reminding them of the value of American-style secularism to the current situation in Turkey.

One Religion, Indivisible

What many of the religious voices raised in protest over President Obama’s speech assume is that America is a Christian nation, not a secular nation at all. And in so saying they adopt the old idea of America as “a city upon a hill”—always exceptional, and made all the more exceptional but its fidelity to biblical ideals. In fact, President Obama is far more comfortable with this rhetoric than many other Christians on the left side of the theological spectrum.

The idea here comes straight out of the covenant Israel made at Sinai. If this “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) were to maintain fidelity to its God, then God would bless this “holy nation.” America for some Christian groups, especially separatists like the Pilgrims, was not just a new world; it was the new Israel. And its providential success derived from the nation’s fidelity to God’s unforgiving code.

It is easy to be seduced by these beliefs into some very strange conclusions. Christianity, after all, is not Judaism, and the Christian religion begins with the assumption that it is not about nation-building or Kingdom-creation anymore. The “Kingdom of God” that Jesus preached is precisely not the Kingdom of Judah; it took the disciples quite some time to get this point.

It is also very peculiar to turn the 120 Mayflower Pilgrims into representatives of the entire religious culture of the New World in the colonial period. They were never that; there was a always a very broad spectrum of religious beliefs in the New World.

Some Christians have used their understanding of the Deuteronomic covenant to read God’s judgment in current affairs. So the 9/11 attacks were read as divine judgment against a sinning nation (including Jerry Falwell’s “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians”), and Hurricane Katrina was read as a judgment against Sin City. Those Christian leaders who render such judgments too publicly quickly backtrack, since such claims offend most mainstream Christian sensibilities. Any reader of the book of Job should know better than to talk like Job’s false comforters. There are tragedies in human life that are not to be explained by Deuteronomy; that much is clear.

The most striking feature of the current controversy over the president’s speech concerns the invocation of the phrase “Judeo-Christian.” Our political values are not secular, it is said; they are grounded in a Judeo-Christian (not a Judeo-Christian-Muslim) morality and always have been. This is the perspective that regularly expresses itself as a desire to post the Ten Commandments in public courthouses and public schools. The worry here is that our commitment to secular politics has resulted in the symbolic removal of the Ten Commandments from our culture and its values.

Protestant Christians who want to see the Ten Commandments posted in secular law courts and public schools (it is important to recall that they are listed twice, and not identically, in the Torah, in Exodus 20, and then again in Deuteronomy 5), are actually motivated by two beliefs. The first is that the United States is a Christian nation—not a “secular” nation—and that if the nation turns away from God, then God will turn away from the nation. I have already spoken of this.

But the second belief is that Jews and Christians share a common core of moral judgments. The simple fact is that they do and they don’t. Judaism is one religious tradition; Christianity is another. There is no singular “Judeo-Christian” morality any more than there is a “Judeo-Buddhist” morality.

Take just one example. The Law of Moses is very clear in its view that the fetus does not have the moral or legal status of a person, whereas many Christians believe that the New Testament and/or the early Christian tradition present a very different point of view. Jews and Christians do not simply disagree about such matters; they argue in different ways, from very different sources, and frequently to very different conclusions.

Most Christians know this, and most would readily agree that Christians are not required to keep the Law of Moses. They know that the Gospel has trumped the Law. But these same Christians often think that the Ten Commandments are essentially the Christian short-list of rules that are still in force (actually, the Christian short-list may be found in Acts of the Apostles 15; it has three commandments, not ten).

The trouble is that the Ten Commandments are a Jewish symbol, not a Christian one. As most early Christian writing in the New Testament and outside of it makes very clear, Christianity first emerged by detaching itself from Judaism, and by renegotiating the entire Law, including some of the Ten Commandments.

From a Jewish perspective, Christians violate the Fourth Commandment because they do not keep the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday); Christians deliberately replaced the Sabbath with what they called “the Lord’s day” (Sunday). At the beginning of the book of Revelation, for instance, John tells his audience that he was “in the spirit on the Lord’s Day,” and that’s when he had his visions.

From a Jewish perspective, Christians violate the First Commandment, because their Trinitarian theology violates the “one and only” sort of monotheism articulated there. Put crassly, they have put another God, Jesus Christ, “before” the God of Abraham and the Hebrew Bible. We meet a similar worry in the defense of radical monotheism in the Qur’an.

Finally, from a Jewish perspective, Christians violate the Second Commandment by depicting the divine with visual images. Christian icons, especially visual representations of Christ (who is God Incarnate according to Orthodox Christian theology), violate the Second Commandment against “graven images.” This was a more puzzling problem for Christians, and debates over visual representation within Christianity came to a head in the 700s, in what is called the Iconoclast Controversy.

Eventually the legitimacy of Christian visual representation of the divine was established at the Seventh and last Ecumenical Council in 787. The defenders of Christian icons argued that the Law had been replaced by an “age of grace,” and thus that the Commandments were no longer binding on Christians. They also said that since Christ was God Incarnate, he was essentially an icon of the Father, suggesting that images were now not only acceptable, but of special value.

So, not only is there no “Judeo-Christian” basis to North American morality, the term itself is a misnomer. Christians do not keep the Ten Commandments. Nor should they, if they care about orthodoxy.

We have traveled a great distance, I hope, in order to make a quick conclusion well.

President Obama has not “thrown Christianity under a bus” by making common cause with the republican values of the Turkish state. He has articulated a view that can be easily defended according to Christian principles.

It can also be objected to—also on Christian grounds. Virtually everything I have argued here can be challenged. But in every case, Christian principles must be known if they are to debated with care and the respect they deserve. The problem is not only that sound bites make for bad theology; but they do not get us to the complexity of the issues before us. The real problem, as I see it, is the absence of religious literacy among the critics currently speaking in alleged defense of the Christian faith.

These issues are important enough to warrant more time and more careful reflection than they have received, across the entire spectrum of Christian and secular belief.