Cross To Bear

Josh Marshall saw a front-page headline on the CNN site this morning that freaked him out: “Obama the ‘wrong’ kind of Christian?”

I’ll note that the piece itself is not nearly as bad as the headline. Not even necessarily objectionable. But front page headlines on one of biggest news sites in the world usually matter much more than underlying story itself.

As you might guess, I read the whole piece (its headline has now been changed to “The Gospel according to Obama”) by CNN religion writer John Blake, and found it to be, as Jimi Hendrix might have called it, a “frustrating mess.” Reflecting the time-honored MSM tradition of ideological equivalency, Blake goes back and forth between Christian Right and “progressive” observers and so we get conflicting claims that Obama is either an authentic representative of the African-American Church or “an Anti-Christ,” and in any event is associated with a liberal Protestant tradition that’s either dead or dying or is the wave of the future. The article might actually be illuminating for those secular readers who may well think liberal Protestantism is some new-fangled watered-down Christianity for elderly sophisticates, instead of the dominant strain of Protestantism for most of the last two centuries, and the formal theology of denominations representing some 45 million Americans today.

You could argue all day long as to why Barack Obama has become the flash-point in the ongoing struggle for the soul of American Protestantism. To a large extent it’s because of his identity to cultural conservatives as The Other, the African Elitist Socialist who is a threat to all things American, particularly the peculiar strain of American Christian Nationalism that glorifies the accumulation of wealth and the conquest of other cultures as well as religions. And it may partly be a coincidence, in that his ascent to the presidency coincided with a crisis in confidence within the Christian Right, struggling with a variety of leadership problems and a problematic relationship with its chosen political vehicle, the Republican Party.

But in truth, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Barack Obama’s religious convictions other than his occasional eloquence in articulating fairly orthodox insights–such as the need for humility in divining God’s Will, particularly when it comes to questions of secular policy–that are particularly offensive to the revolutionary aspirations of a contemporary cohort of conservative evangelical leaders. It’s Obama’s cross to bear that he is the subject and object of contending forces in our religious culture that have been heading towards an ultimate confrontation for many years.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.