Let’s define ‘faith’

LET’S DEFINE ‘FAITH’…. Andrew Malcolm — who, like so many of his Bush White House colleagues, now works in the media — shared some thoughts today on President Obama and public confusion about his religious beliefs.

Aides have since described Obama’s religious faith as “Christian,” although only 34% of poll respondents knew that, down from 48% just 60 days into his presidency.

Since the Wright break, Obama has been unaffiliated with any specific faith, like only three previous presidents in U.S. history — Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson and his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.

Now, Malcolm was a Bush flack*, and his partisan spin on current events is often as frustrating as it is bizarre. But since the public cites the media as the source of the confusion over the president’s faith, it’s worth taking a moment to emphasize just how remarkably misleading Malcolm’s piece really is.

The first problem is just the writer playing a little game. “Aides” describe Obama as a Christian? Perhaps, but this makes it seem as if there’s a suspect claim here. Obama describes himself as a Christian. What “aides” say is irrelevant.

The more serious issue is Malcolm claiming that “Obama has been unaffiliated with any specific faith.” That’s utter nonsense. Obama has been “affiliated” with Christianity throughout his adult life — because he’s a Christian, and Christianity is a specific faith.

Maybe there’s some astounding theological ignorance here, but Obama has been “unaffiliated with any specific” congregation since leaving Chicago’s Trinity United Church. But a congregation and a faith aren’t the same thing. Not even close.

Indeed, if failing to join a specific congregation necessarily puts a president in the “unaffiliated with any specific faith” camp, the list of president grows well beyond Jefferson, Johnson, and Lincoln. It would also include Reagan, who rarely bothered with church services, and George W. Bush, who never became a formal member of a congregation during his eight years in Washington.

I’m generally not inclined to blame the media for the public’s confusion about Obama’s beliefs, but reporting as bad as Malcolm’s certainly contributes to the larger problem.

* Clarification: Malcolm emails to argue that he never worked as a press flack for President Bush. He’s correct — Malcolm worked as a press flack of President Bush’s wife during her tenure as First Lady. When I referred to him as part of the “Bush White House,” I did not literally mean he worked in the West Wing, but rather, was part of the larger Bush team.

As for the errors of fact and judgment as described in my post, Malcolm altered one of the errors – his piece now reads, “Obama has been unaffiliated with any specific congregation, like only three previous presidents in U.S. history — Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson and his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.’ The observation is still factually wrong, since multiple other presidents have been unaffiliated with specific congregations during their presidencies.

Update: Malcolm alerted readers to change with a 6 p.m. update. The still-mistaken sentence remains unchanged.