There are those of us who wouldn’t mind having an enlightened Buddhist president – there’d be no God Talk. Those folks don’t talk about any god – they just talk about the elimination of ignorance and of our incessant craving for this and that, the stuff that really doesn’t matter. Mindfulness is what matters. Who created what, and why, just doesn’t matter. Pay attention to the world around you, and respect what you see there, and see if you can get in sync with the flow of the wonderful world we have in the here and now – which of course makes Buddhism more of an ethic than a religion. But there’s nothing wrong with living life well and doing as little damage as possible. Of course that’s too passive for Americans. We all love the Dalai Lama – but we wouldn’t want a guy like that in the White House. He couldn’t be nasty with the bad guys. He’d want to understand them, and work things out. Hell, we’d never have another war. Or maybe we would. There is a history of Buddhist war here and there – as a last resort. They have had their problems with Muslims in Myanmar – not that anyone over here noticed. Still, a Buddhist president would be cool.
An atheist president would be even cooler. Not a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins – slapping the believers upside the head with a lot of verified science – or a brilliant polemicist like the late Christopher Hitchens – hammering them with the sorry history of the death and misery religion has caused in this world for thousands of years. No, just an atheist who lets people believe what they want, as long as they don’t make trouble, and goes about running the country using careful thought and the best advice he can get, without wondering if God approves. No one knows if God exists, they just believe He does, and no one seems to agree on just what God approves of, or doesn’t. Who’s to say? Muslims don’t agree with Christians on that – they never have – and half of all Christians disagree with the other half, and no one knows what to make of the Mormons. What does God want the United States to do? Opinions vary. Why not table the issue and just apply, say… rationality? An atheist president could do that. Leave the God stuff for when He descends from the heavens and says only the Lutherans in rural Minnesota ever got things right, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the Unitarians. An atheist president would offer to hold things together and keep the country running until that day, if it ever comes. It would be a public service, rendered by an impartial party, one who simply won’t take sides in wholly speculative disputes. Those disputes, while lively, have nothing to do with tax rates and foreign policy and repairing roads and bridges and all the rest.
That’s not so far from what the Founding Fathers had in mind, as they were, for the most part, Enlightenment Deists – the folks who held that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe – but who figured that single creator of the universe had moved on to other things, leaving us here to figure out how to live all on our own. We do have God-given inalienable rights, but God has moved on, so we’d better figure out how to get along, working that out among ourselves, without anyone screaming that God said to do this or to do that. A government of the people would be just that. Our new government would not establish a state religion, or even favor one religion over another. They put that in the Constitution. They weren’t atheists at all – they just saw government as our business, not God’s. He had left that to us.
That’s why Thomas Jefferson was always saying stuff like this:
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” ~ Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82
And there was this to the Virginia Baptists in 1808:
Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
And it goes on and on:
“Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, to Richard Rush, 1813
“If a sect arises whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the State to be troubled with it.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82
“Nothing but free argument, raillery and even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush. 21 April 1803
“On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to Archibald Carey, 1816
The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823
That last one might be a bit harsh, but like his cohorts, he was an Enlightenment rationalist, with no tolerance for silliness. He did produce that famous Jefferson Bible – the New Testament with all the miracles removed. It was “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” – only that. No one walks on water. No one needs to. Jesus was saying good stuff, and living it. Wasn’t that enough?
That was never enough. We elect Christian presidents now, not Deist presidents, so we get stuff like this:
“Everything” President Obama does is “against what Christians stand for,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said in an interview Monday.
“Everything he does is against what Christians stand for, and he’s against the Jews in Israel,” Huckabee, who is considering a 2016 presidential run, said on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” “The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community.”
The conservative former governor was commenting on Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, where Obama noted while discussing Islamic extremism that Christianity has been used to justify violence in the past.
“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” he said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
That was, however, pretty much what Jefferson wrote to Archibald Carey in that 1816 letter, not that it mattered:
Conservatives have long said that Obama isn’t engaging aggressively enough with the issue of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which burned a Jordanian fighter pilot alive last week.
“He said our greatest threat was climate change,” Huckabee said of Obama. “I assure you that a beheading is much worse than a sunburn” – repeating a line he used a few weeks ago at the Iowa Freedom Summit.
Erick Erickson, one of the most influential voices on the right, then followed suit:
Barack Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian and I am not sure he needs to continue the charade. With no more elections for him, he might as well come out as the atheist/agnostic that he is. He took his first step in doing so yesterday in a speech reeking with contempt for faith in general and Christianity in particular.
Obama needs to read his Bible:
Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6) Christ himself is truth. When we possess Christ, we possess truth. The President is a moral relativist. It was clear in his whole speech. He cannot condemn and attack ISIS as he should because in his mind, what is truth? Truth is a nebulous concept with our post-modern President. With truth a nebulous concept, right and wrong are too.
We know God cares about everyone. We know Christ came to die for sinners. But Christians know Christ is truth itself. To have truth, we must have Christ. To suggest that everyone can have some version of God and some version of truth, is worldly babbling, not Christianity.
Then there’s the warning:
And as for doubts on whether I’m right, “the starting point of faith is some doubt” in my ability to save myself, NOT in whether I’m right. I know I’m a sinner. I know I cannot save myself. I have no doubt that Christ is the ONLY way. It’s not that I’m right, but that CHRIST IS RIGHT. So, Mr. President, get off your own high horse.
These guys have their knives out, so this was inevitable:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) said on Saturday he isn’t sure if President Barack Obama is a Christian.
“I don’t know,” Walker said when asked about it by The Washington Post at a DC hotel where the National Governors Association was holding a meeting.
Walker’s comment came a day after he gave a similar answer to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about whether he believes Obama loves America. Both questions stem from a reception for the governor that was held on Wednesday night in Manhattan, an event in which former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) told the crowd he doubts Obama loves America.
The Post reminded Walker that Obama has frequently discussed his Christian faith in light of fringe claims that he’s a secret Muslim.
“I’ve never actually talked about it or I haven’t read about that,” Walker said, according to the paper. “I’ve never asked him that.”
Then Walker walked that back:
Walker said questions like this were why Americans despise the news media. …
After the interview with the Post, Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster called the newspaper to say the governor was not trying to cast doubt about Obama’s religion. Rather, he was trying to make a point about the press.
This was a bit embarrassing, but Byron York, in the Washington Examiner, tries to cut Walker some slack:
When it comes to confusion, or wrong information, about Obama’s religion, Scott Walker is far from alone. Polls have long shown many Americans know little about the president’s faith.
In June, 2012, Gallup asked, “Do you happen to know the religious faith of Barack Obama?” Forty-four percent said they did not know, while 36 percent said he is a Christian, 11 percent said he is a Muslim, and eight percent said he has no religion. …
In August, 2010, a Pew poll made news when it found that 18 percent of those surveyed believed Obama is a Muslim. But just as notably, 43 percent of respondents in that survey told Pew they didn’t know Obama’s religion. …
One notable suggestion in the Pew survey was that in Obama’s first couple of years in office – as Americans became more familiar with him as president – they became less sure of his religious faith. In March 2009, shortly after Obama entered the White House, 34 percent said they did not know his religion, while 48 percent identified him as a Christian. By August 2010, the number of Americans who said they did not know Obama’s religion had grown to 43 percent, while the number who identified him as Christian fell to 34 percent. …
In June 2012, Pew asked the question again and found that 36 percent – still more than one-third of Americans – did not know Obama’s faith, while 45 percent identified him as a Christian. (The poll, taken during the 2012 presidential campaign, found that more people – 51 percent – correctly identified Mitt Romney as a Mormon than the 45 percent who said Obama is a Christian.)
This is to be expected:
For one thing, few people see Obama openly practicing any religious faith. After the president did not attend church on Christmas 2013, the New York Times, citing unofficial White House historian Mark Knoller, noted that Obama had attended church 18 times in nearly five years in the White House, while George W. Bush attended 120 times in eight years. Yes, there are a variety of reasons some presidents don’t go to church very often, but in Obama’s case, absence does nothing to change existing public perceptions of him.
And one thing leads to another:
For example, it would not be a stretch to guess that those Americans who told Gallup and Pew that they did not know the president’s faith would remain unsure after hearing reports that at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, Obama explained Islamic State violence by urging listeners to “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Again, many people don’t pay close attention to the news, and snippets of reports on Obama’s faith, like his remarks at the Prayer Breakfast, could yield a confused picture.
York is saying that Scott Walker is just like the rest of us – confused – but Jefferson would confuse him too, as would the Constitution. Maybe that confuses us all, but UCLA’s Mark Kleiman tries to straighten things out:
Does Obama love America? Is Obama a Christian? Both are reflections of the same analytically absurd but politically potent winger theme song: “Obama doesn’t hate Muslims enough; he won’t say ‘Islamic terrorism.'”
That’s it, all of it:
Really, this gets much easier to understand if you recall that a President’s words are strategic choices rather than contributions to a seminar series. Strategically, it’s obvious that if you want some Muslims to help you fight other Muslims, then of course the last thing you want to do is define the common enemy as “Islamic.”
The man was being practical, and this was never a religious question, because it couldn’t be:
Even as a matter of pure analysis, there’s simply no true or false answer to the question: “Is ISIS an Islamic movement?” That question could mean either “Is ISIS an aspect of Islam?” to which the answer is obviously “Yes” – or “Is the version of Islam adopted by ISIS the best or authentic version?” in which case the answer is equally obviously a matter of opinion or controversy rather than of ascertainable fact.
Consider the same analysis as applied to Christianity. Was burning heretics at the stake “Christian”? Well, of course it was, if by “Christian” you mean “Done by many Christians out of what they thought was loyalty to Christianity, and approved by many other Christians.” And of course it wasn’t, if you mean “Consistent with the views attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.” (See the Grand Inquisitor scene from the Brothers Karamazov.)
So the answer I ought to give to that question would depend on the context, the audience, and my purpose.
If I wanted to convince a Christian audience that persecution was wrong, then of course I would try to argue that burning at the stake was “un-Christian.” Since it’s certainly un-Christ like, I’d have a very solid basis for that argument. On the other hand, if I wanted to convince an audience of Buddhists or atheists that Christianity was evil, I’d want to argue that burning heretics at the stake, having been an uncontroversial part of actual Christian practice for something like a millennium, was mainstream Christianity, and that therefore the whole religion was manifestly the work of the Devil. Again, I’d have lots of evidence on my side.
The point is that “Christianity” names both an ideal of conduct (whose content is controversial) and an historical phenomenon with many strands, some of them mutually contradictory, and of course something that was an important part of the history could nonetheless violate some versions of the ideal.
One could put that this way – “On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.”
Jefferson put that this way and Kleiman offers this variant:
Neither “Christianity” nor “Americanism” has an empirically ascertainable “essence” – and because, in each case, the practice might differ substantially with from the ideal, and the ideal itself will certainly be a matter of controversy within the tradition. I can prove from the Gospels that pious cruelty is evil, and from the Declaration of Independence that slavery is evil; but I can’t deny that St. Dominic and John Calvin loved pious cruelty, or that the God of the Hebrew Bible explicitly commands it [Deut. 13:6-18], nor can I deny that the Constitution protected slavery.
As an interpretive historian or cultural critic, I might try to say something serious about the central tendencies of Christianity or of the American tradition, but those arguments aren’t likely to be conclusive; if someone makes them as part of a political debate, he is practicing rhetoric rather than dialectic: trying to persuade, not merely to elucidate.
What’s absolutely certain is that if I want Christians or Americans to behave well, I shouldn’t criticize the bad behavior of some Christians or some Americans as typically – or even “extremely” – Christian or American; instead I should point out how inconsistent that behavior is with the best parts of those traditions.
This seems obvious. So why should “Islam” be different?
That’s a good question, but we’re easily confused:
ISIS is recognizably “Islamic” in the sense that its leaders claim the mantle of Islam and its followers think they are good Muslims. Moreover, there is support in some Islamic texts – including the Koran – and traditions for some of ISIS’s bad actions. If I were an ISIS recruiter, of course I’d want to stress those links. And of course I’d do the same if I wanted to incite hatred against Islam or stir up a “holy war” between Christians and Muslims, or merely incite hatred against an American President with a Muslim name.
If, on the other hand, I wanted to convince an Islamic audience to join with me in fighting against ISIS, the last thing I’d do is describe that group as “Islamic extremists.”
Kleiman seems a bit frustrated:
Last time I checked Barack Obama wasn’t elected to a chair of cultural criticism or comparative religion; his profession is statesmanship, of which rhetoric is a fundamental tool. When he denounces ISIS as “a perversion of Islam,” he’s not making a claim for scholars to debate; he’s making a rhetorical move and offering a call to arms.
Everything else is beside the point. Obama’s profession is no more than statesmanship. That’s the job, and that’s why we need an atheist president, who won’t get sidetracked by this religious stuff. Obama did compartmentalize it, or at least pointed out that those who feel this and that about the will of God, and feel it so very deeply, seem to mess up statesmanship. The point is to keep the country safe. Jefferson would understand. The whole idea was to leave the God stuff to others and just make sure we’re safe. Obama actually is a Christian – but that is beside the point, as it should be.