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Obama Tries to Reassert His Christian Bona Fides, With Words and Deeds

4 years ago
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Barack Obama went to church on the Sunday after Christmas in his native Hawaii, worshiping at a multidenominational service at a chapel at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

And this is news, you ask?

Actually, yes it is, when you are a struggling president facing re-election after a year in which growing numbers of Americans -- as many as 1 in 5 -- thought he was a Muslim, while more than half felt Obama's religious views were different from their own.

Moreover, resurgent Republicans and conservative activists continue to raise doubts about Obama's religious views as a way to sow doubts about his commitment to American values.

Barack Obama and familyIn early December, for example, 41 Republicans -- and one Democrat -- who are members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus wrote to Obama asking why he told an audience in Indonesia during a trip there that the phrase "E pluribus unum" (Latin for, "from many, one") was the national motto instead of "In God We Trust."

"E pluribus unum" was adopted by Congress in 1782 and was considered the nation's unofficial motto, appearing on coins and banknotes since 1795. In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, Congress passed a law establishing "In God We Trust" as the official national motto, just as Congress had added the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.

In his speech in Indonesia, Obama used the phrase "E pluribus unum" to underscore that in Indonesia, as in America, "hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag."

The Prayer Caucus letter also referred to three earlier occasions when Obama cited the second line of the Declaration of Independence -- "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" -- but did not mention "Creator."

Conservative activists ran with it, portraying the phrasing as evidence that Obama doesn't adhere to standard religious, namely Christian, beliefs -- charges that the White House called "silly."

But if the accusations strain credulity, they can also affect public perceptions. So it was likely no coincidence that during the holidays the president seemed to take every opportunity to put the "Christ" in Christmas.

During the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on Dec. 9, Obama repeatedly referred to the birth of Christ and pointedly said the Nativity is "a story that's dear to Michelle and me as Christians." And at a Christmas benefit concert a few days later, the president spoke of how "a child born in a stable brought our world a redeeming gift of peace and salvation," and he called it "a message that guides my Christian faith."

Stephen Mansfield, author of "The Faith of Barack Obama," told Religion News Service that the polls about views of Obama's faith "had to be a wake-up call to the White House."

Politico's Carol E. Lee also tracked Obama's recent religious rhetoric and says that he has used the phrase "Christian faith" more in the past three months than he has over the past year. He also took his family to church in Washington in September, as the midterm campaign was heating up, along with controversies over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan and suspicions about Obama's faith.

As president, Obama has rarely attended church and gave up looking to join a congregation because he said it would be too "disruptive" to whatever church his family picked. So the Obamas attend services at the chapel at Camp David when the family is there, and the president reads the Bible daily.

"I think he's just bringing more of himself to the game, so to speak," Mansfield said of Obama's recent pronouncements. "It's not as though he's changed religions or something. He's just being open about it."

Or he's being more explicit. Obama has frequently used biblical language in his presidential speeches, but he often cites the Old Testament -- the phrase "my brother's keeper," from the Book of Genesis, is an old standby -- and he favors verses from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, for example. But not many Americans can automatically connect those scriptures to Christianity, so Obama has to spell it out.

"The president understands that he needs to continually tell his own personal spiritual story," Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Washington's Wesley Theological Seminary and a former Obama campaign adviser, told RNS. "He did that masterfully in the campaign and I think you're seeing a return to that voice."

But there's also a real question as to whether Obama can ever dispel rumors about his religious affiliation, or the depths of his Christian commitment. After all, Ronald Reagan was an indifferent churchgoer, and George W. Bush never joined a church while he was president, preferring, like Obama, to attend services at the Camp David chapel or to gather with small groups for prayer and Bible study. But no one questioned their faith.

And Obama has hardly been reticent about proclaiming his Christian faith in the past. Just last Easter, Obama gave two off-the-cuff testimonies at meetings with a range of Christian clergy that were profound and eloquent expositions of the meaning of the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Soon after that, the number of Americans who thought Obama was a Muslim started to rise. If this Christmastime renewal of God talk by Obama can produce a different result it would be one of the surprises of 2011.

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