I pastor a church of strong political opinions, both Republican and Democrat. I have parishioners who support the Tea Party, and parishioners for whom the Democrats are far too conservative. But every Sunday morning, when we pass the peace of Christ in worship, they cross the aisles, shake hands, hug, and sincerely communicate their care for one another.
My parishioners teach me about more than what it means to be a good American. They teach me about what it means to be a real Christian. They never question the sincere faith of those who vote differently than they do. They just accept that we all have different ways of living out our faith in the public arena.
Which is why the national speculation about President Obama’s faith has always bothered me. President Obama is a Christian, by both his own attestation and the witness of many others who know him. He prays. He reads Scripture. And I sincerely believe he tries to act out of his faith beliefs. And yet, there are so many Christians who refuse to take him at his word.
Yesterday a prominent evangelical pastor, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, took to Twitter to share this: “Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.”
Now, I had a few initial thoughts about Mark Driscoll’s walk with God upon reading that tweet, but I won’t share them because, really, I have no idea what his faith journey is like at the end of the day. But that means that Mark Driscoll has no idea about President Obama’s either. And he has no place using his position of spiritual leadership to make such an arrogant, condescending, and disrespectful statement.
I’m not saying any of those things simply because Barack Obama is the president (though Driscoll couldn’t have picked a more high profile target) but because every person has the right to have their own relationship with God respected. The Christian right has a long history of trying to tell people whether or not they are “really” Christian, and this is just the latest example. And if they are really serious about their rhetoric of “religious freedom” then they need to lead the way and stop trying to define the faith of others.
If Barack Obama says he is a Christian, if he confesses his faith in Christ, that’s where the conversation ends. The same is true for George W. Bush, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or even Mark Driscoll.
There is a difference between saying to someone “my understanding of Christian faith is different from yours on this issue” and saying “we don’t believe the same thing, so you must not be a Christian.” I often disagreed with George W. Bush’s actions, and struggled to reconcile them with my understanding of Christian faith, but I refused to speculate on the sincerity of his faith. That’s not my place. And I’ve had it done far too often in my life to turn around and do it to others.
And it happens far too often. We forget that some Christian right figures believe that Catholics are not “real Christians”. We forget that “real Christians” used their firm belief that they were right to rail against the faith of those who wanted to end slavery and later segregation. We forget that on an ongoing basis, gay Christians are told by these “loving” “real Christians” their faith is not real.
Some of the most faithful, loving, and sacrificing Christians I know would likely not meet Mark Driscoll’s definition of a “real Christian”. He might tell them, the way he told Obama, that they don’t really know God. That makes me frustrated for them, but it makes me sad for Mark Driscoll. How sad must it be to proclaim the love of God with one breath and to feel the need doubt the sincerity of another’s love for God with the next?
I’m reminded of the disciples who came to Jesus once and told him they had seen a man who they did not know trying to do ministry in Jesus’ name. “We told him to stop, because he was not following us,” they said to Jesus. “Following us” is the key phrase there. The man was a follower of Jesus, but not a follower of the disciples, and that’s what terrified them. Their jealousy must have been overwhelming by the time they reported back to Jesus.
Jesus set them straight, and they didn’t try it again. At least not that with that same man. But through the centuries, the disciples have made the same mistake over and over again. Mark Driscoll may be concerned that President Obama is not following his particular view of Christianity. But Christian faith has never had much to do with following the opinions of the popular crowd, and a best selling book has never granted the author the power to discern the legitimacy of another’s faith. In the end, the only two authorities on Barack Obama’s relationship with God are Barack Obama and God. I’m not either of the two. And so that’s where the discussion ends.