Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Obama on America

Barack Obama, representing the United States of America in Turkey, declared that "we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation." Of course, he gave no qualifications or explanations for this--except to say that we are neither Jewish nor Islamic either, and that the US and Turkey are "secular nations." Such a ham-misguided, misguided statement has the effect of telling a Muslim country (which never really became secular and is now in the hands of dedicated Muslims) that Christianity does not count for much in America. He is saying, in effect, "Don't worry about us. Our religion will never intrude on your religion." This is the rhetoric of retreat and appeasement. He was clearly off teleprompter, speaking awkwardly.

First of all, who is he to render judgment on such significant things and why does he feel the need to do so? It is a posture of ignorance and weakness, not of knowledge and courage. Obama certainly does not speak for me. Second, the question, "Is America a Christian nation?" does not cater to a simple Yes or No answer. Our heritage is deeply Christian. Christianity has shaped the law and culture of America more than any other religion. There has been very large numbers of self-identified Christians in the United States since the beginning. But America has never been and will never be--despite some overheated book titles from Bush's presidency--a theocracy. The First Amendment does not allow for it, and rightly so. Unlike the French Revolution, The American Revolution was not secular overthrow of a religious establishment. As historian Perry Miller noted, revolutionary fervor was generated largely by religious concerns. Moreover, several Supreme Court rulings have stated that America is "a Christian nation." They did not mean it is a theocracy or that nonChristians are not protected by the Constitution. Rather, they affirmed that the defining ethos of America has been Christian more than it has been anything else.

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps, put it best: We are "the almost chosen nation." By this, he meant that we are uniquely placed to bless our citizens and the world, but we cannot claim immunity from divine sanctions. To put it biblically, "to whom much is given, much is required."

But Obama denies American exceptionalism, denies our substantial Christian heritage, and apologizes to the world for on behalf of America. Yet America saved the Twentieth Century from totalitarianism, not once, but twice. The United States led the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II and without decades of American pressure, the West would not have won the Cold War either. Moreover, we saved Kuwait (a Muslim county) from Saddam. One could go on...

Obama is doing no less than attempting to uproot America from history, logic, and God himself. His own Christianity is privatized (at best) and largely meaningless with respect to his worldview and guiding principles, which are thoroughly secular and socialist.


tcblack said...

Did you catch the deep subservient bow to the Saudi King?

If it isn't ignorance it must be treason.

Any chance you can activate openid authorized comments?

Seek4Truth said...

At the expense of wanting to establish peace with muslim nations, Obama is falsely reporting America as a strictly secular nation. I think Obama knows America is predominantly Christian, but is politically maneuvering to create a positive relationship with nations at odds with America.

Even Newsweek recently reported that 76% of Americans consider themselves Christian (interesting discussion on this at: However, it would be very interesting to see what types of Christians makeup the 76%. A question I have is, how would you respond to the charge that most of America's founders were Deist?

Brian said...

Here are three consecutive sentences from Obama's answer to a question about resolving difficulties in Turkish-American relations:

"I think that where -- where there's the most promise of building stronger U.S.-Turkish relations is in the recognition that Turkey and the United States can build a model partnership in which a predominantly Christian nation and a predominantly Muslim nation, a Western nation and a nation that straddles two continents -- that we can create a modern international community that is respectful, that is secure, that is prosperous; that there are not tensions, inevitable tensions, between cultures, which I think is extraordinarily important.

That's something that's very important to me. And I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is -- although as I mentioned, we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." [my emphasis]

So, taken in context, Obama affirms that we are "a predominantly Christian nation," and yet also denies that we are a "Christian nation." Here's one way to understand this: Obama flatly contradicted himself within the space of 3 sentences. Here's another way to understand this: the sense of "Christian nation" operative in the first claim is distinct from the sense of that phrase in the second claim. That is, Obama is equivocating, and attempting to affirm that there is some sense in which the US is, and some sense in which the US is not, a "Christian nation."

If you were to attempt to apply the principle of charity to his comments, how would you interpret his prima facie contradictory statements? Can you see any way to distinguish different, contextually appropriate, senses of the phrase "Christian nation"?

The first article you link to already supplies a (fairly obvious) distinction between different senses of that phrase; why do you insist that we must understand his claim about the US not being a Christian nation in the least charitable way possible, when other (obvious) possibilities so readily suggest themselves? Your own post mentions two ways of understanding the phrase - one in terms of a "Christian heritage" or culture, and another in terms of a "theocracy." What is your reason for thinking that Obama did not have in mind something like that distinction (or any of the many other possible distinctions one could draw between ways in which the US is and is not a "Christian nation") when he uttered the sentences I've quoted above?

For instance, why didn't his use of the word "predominantly," references to "culture," and his contrast with Turkey's being a "Muslim nation" in the first sentence signal to you Obama's attempt to use the phrase "Christian nation" in a manner roughly consonant with your description of the US's "Christian heritage," ethos, and culture? And wouldn't that make his subsequent denial of the US's status as a "Christian nation" (and the implied denial of Turkey's being a Muslim nation) look more like a denial of the "theocracy"-leaning interpretations of that phrase? What are your reasons for thinking otherwise? (Incidentally, why didn't his affirmation of the US as a "predominantly Christian nation" strike you as worth mentioning in your post?)

Furthermore, I don't at all understand why you think that any plausible interpretation of the sentence "The US is not a Christian nation" - taken in context - suggests that "Christianity does not count for much in America" or that it signals "retreat and appeasement" (what's the connection?), or that it "denies our Christian heritage."

Without further evidence, your interpretation of his comments strike me as more than mildly uncharitable. Of course, your interpretation may be right; I just don't see your reasons for thinking so. The text doesn't seem to support it.

I think you're right to wonder why Obama thought it was worth saying all this about the US being a Christian nation in one sense, but not in some other sense. Given the (false) perception that many "Muslim nations" have about the US and its motivations in foreign policy, is it really that difficult to think of (good!) reasons to say something along these lines? Perhaps Obama's statements weren't motivated by such reasons; perhaps he should have made sure his meaning was communicated more clearly; but do you have good evidence one way or another to support your (again, very uncharitable) assertions about his motivations (e.g. to "uproot America from history, logic, and God himself") in this particular context?

Doug Groothuis said...

I see your point, but saying that "we don't consider ourselves a Christian nation" seems to mean that most American would agree. I doubt that. Further, saying this downplays the Christian ethos of America and the influence of Christianity on our founding. Just saying we have a lot of Christians is not the same thing. Moreover, Obama is wrong in saying that both nations have secular governments. The US does not inforce secularism, nor does Turkey. The US is a constitutional republic that honors the freedom of religion. That is hardly "secular." We give freedoms to those who hold any or no religion.

Obama seems to be saying, "Sure, we have a lot of Christians, but don't worry, Christianity really has very litle to do with our form of government." That is false and appeases those, such as Muslims, who don't want Christianity to have any influence on any culture.

Doug Groothuis said...

PS: Given Obama's track record, I do not bend over backwards to give his comments the best possible interpretation. He has not earned that. He is a globalist who denies American exceptionalism. His comments in Turkey fit that pattern perfectly.

Brian said...

I agree that there's some plausibility to the worry that Obama's comments could be construed as - and might be motivated by - the denial of the "Christian ethos of America," or that his comments seem to downplay the role that specifically Christian thought has played, and continues to play, in our national life. (Here, "America" and "national life" are the phrases that can be understood in different ways that might reveal no significant difference between what Obama meant, and what you take to be true.)

But again, his comments give me at least some good reason to think he means to deny that which many Muslims falsely believe, namely: that America's government is motivated by specifically and uniquely Christian ideals and values; that it aims to destroy Islam in a grand "clash of cultures" precisely because the American government views itself as under some kind of Christian authority to oppose Islam; and that despite much talk about broadly liberal-democratic secular ideals that are not uniquely Christian, this talk is all just so much public hand-waving designed to conceal the genuinely religious motivation to confront an "enemy religion."

If something like those beliefs loom large in the minds of many ordinary (and extremist) Muslims, it seems appropriate - and indeed, very important - to attempt to correct these misperceptions and exaggerations. One way to do that is to deny that the American government is "Christian" in the way that many Muslims wish to have an "Islamic" government. This does not entail a denial of the deep Christian heritage, ethos, and culture that America has had and to some extent still retains. But it does make a distinction that's crucial for these kinds of Muslims to understand: the American people and culture are Christian, but that does not mean that the American government is "Christian" in the way that many Muslims wish their governments to be "Muslim," or in the way that many Muslims falsely perceive our government to be "Christian."

I worry that your comments elide precisely this crucial distinction that Obama appears to be making. He wasn't speaking for the benefit of Americans back home; he was speaking for the benefit of those who are deeply suspicious of (even if in error about) the intentions and aims of the US government. In that context, it seems perfectly right for him to claim that "we [Americans] don't consider ourselves to be a [governmentally] Christian nation." And we certainly don't. (If there's any doubt about this, just consider the basis of the complaints of many Evangelical conservatives about the very many things they take to be so drastically wrong, broken, and immoral about our system of government and what it permits or forbids. Or compare what the US Constitution permits and requires with what Scripture permits and requires: there are deep and fundamental differences.)

Again, you may be right that Obama intended to convey the impression that "that whole Christianity stuff isn't real important to us any more." It just seems so unlikely that he meant to do that, given his comments; the text strongly suggests he intended to convey a point firmly challenging a widespread and perniciously false set of beliefs amongst Muslims. And if so, more power to him: I hope he continues to strongly emphasize the ways in which the US is and is not a Christian nation. And I hope he in turn explains to Americans this same distinction, so that he doesn't give occasion for being misunderstood by people like you and me.

Eternal Truths said...


Great thoughts. I agree clarification within the "ways America is and is not a Christian nation needs" to occur. Many Americans let alone Muslim nations have a very skewed view of Christianity and think of it in terms of fundamentalism (i.e. Robertson, Dobson, Falwell). I believe this is the brand of Christianity that Obama is trying to downplay even though he is also conveying the message "that the whole of Christianity stuff isn't real important to us any more." It is good that he is downplaying fundamentalism, but it's not accurate to say that America is not a Christian nation. Even though I suspect America is highly nominal, over half the nation identifies with some form of 'Christianity.' So, in a sense, Obama is representing America well in saying that it is a secular nation.

The challenge for serious Christians is to work towards correcting false views of their religion and communicate their worldview in a way that will help non-believers see God from their perspective. Using politics as an avenue for this may or may not be effective, but it is at least worth opening the dialogue between Christian and non-Christian nations to facilitate improved understanding and relationship between one another.


D.C. Cramer said...

"Given Obama's track record, I do not bend over backwards to give his comments the best possible interpretation. He has not earned that."

It seems that as Christians in dialogue with others, we should always try to give the best *possible* interpretation of what others are saying. We should always work with a hermeneutic of charity, not suspicion. That is not something others should have to earn from us. It should be our starting point. Imagine if God used that same line of reasoning with us: They haven't earned my favor, so I'm not going to bend over backward to show it to them.