White House spokesman Robert Gibbs Thursday pushed back against Fox News host and religious revivalist Glenn Beck by asserting that President Obama is "a committed, mainstream Christian."
The White House has been flummoxed in recent weeks by surveys showing that a growing number of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim and not a Christian -- one in five express that belief, according to a recent Pew survey
. A Newsweek poll
this week showed that a majority of Republicans believe Obama "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world."
Obama has been a Christian all his adult life and attended a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago until criticisms of his fiery pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, forced him to leave that church during the 2008 campaign. Since winning the presidency and moving to Washington, Obama -- like George W. Bush and other presidents before him -- has not joined a church and has largely worshiped at Camp David or in the White House, in part to avoid security nightmares for any prospective host congregation.
That lack of public church attendance has likely fueled rumors about Obama, though it did not for Bush, for example.
The president has tried not to directly engage Beck or the various urban legends about his faith, or whether he was born in the United States. In an interview
with NBC earlier this week, the president said he'll trust "in the American people's capacity to get beyond all this nonsense."
Since Beck's religious rally in Washington on Saturday, the talk show host has returned to critiquing Obama's Christianity rather than raising questions about whether the president is a Muslim. Beck has accused Obama of embracing "liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim."
"It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it," Beck has said.
That led to this exchange at today's White House briefing for reporters:
QUESTION: For the last four days, Glenn Beck has criticized the president for believing in liberation theology, which he calls a Marxist form of Christianity. I have two questions. One, does the president, to your knowledge, even know what liberation theology is?
GIBBS [After pausing for laughter]: I don't know the answer to that. I will say this. I -- a crude paraphrasing of an old quote, and that is, people are entitled to their own opinion, as ill-informed as it may be, but they're not entitled to their own facts. The president is a committed mainstream Christian. I don't -- I have no evidence that would guide me as to what Glenn Beck would have any genuine knowledge as to what the president does or does not believe.
QUESTION: When's he going back to church?
QUESTION: So this Marxist form of Christianity...
GIBBS: Again, I -- I can only imagine where Mr. Beck conjured that from.
Many Christians wonder where Beck conjured his criticisms from, as well.
Liberation theology is a body of thinking that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s in Catholic circles in Latin America (though it had some roots in post-war European thought) as a Christian response to endemic poverty. Liberation theology linked spiritual liberation to liberation from economic suffering. That combination at various points took on Marxist elements that earned condemnation from the Vatican even as Rome embraced the underlying tenets of liberation theology.
For one thing, Obama has actually never espoused liberation theology, and tends more toward the Christian realism of the Cold War-era theology of Reinhold Niebuhr
. When Obama does speak of biblical liberation, it is usually from the Old Testament narratives of the Exodus story familiar to Jews and African-Americans, in particular. And as one scholar recently reported
, the scriptural passages Obama cites elsewhere are usually the most familiar and mainstream for all Americans.
Moreover, liberation theology is actually a body of teaching widely embraced by Catholic and Protestant leaders, though perhaps less so by Mormons like Glenn Beck.
Jesuit Father James Martin recently parsed the tenets of liberation theology in a widely cited essay
at The Huffington post, for example.
As Martin noted, the late Pope John Paul II was a foe of certain Marxist-inflected versions of liberation theology, but he also championed a true Christian theology of liberation.
"[W]e are convinced, we and you, that liberation theology is not only timely but useful and necessary," as John Paul told
the bishops of Brazil in 1986.
Or, as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, put it in a Vatican document
on liberation theology in 1984:
"In itself, the expression 'theology of liberation' is a thoroughly valid term: it designates a theological reflection centered on the biblical theme of liberation and freedom, and on the urgency of its practical realization."
Then again, Beck has also blasted churches
that speak about "social justice," which is an even more familiar, Bible-based teaching of almost every denomination. To Beck, however, "social justice" is code for Nazism and Communism.
Maybe Obama is indeed a "mainstream" Christian, as Gibbs said Thursday -- but maybe that's not good enough for Glenn Beck.