Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

January 18, 2012

Barack H. Obama, a liminal black Christian

Filed under: Barack H. Obama,Culture,Politics,Religion,United Church of Christ — Razib Khan @ 8:17 pm


It is well known that President Obama has a religion issue. The big looming one has to do with whether he is Muslim or not. My own position that he’s as Muslim as I am. With that out of the way, is Barack H. Obama a Christian? To borrow a turn of phrase from Hillary Clinton, I accept him at his word that he is a Christian. But not everyone does. Some people, such as my friend Eliezer Yudkowsky, Steve Sailer, and Ann Althouse, believe that he is not particularly religious, and his avowal of Christian faith and identification is a matter of political necessity.

Obama has said some things which have raised eyebrows. For example, that evolution is more grounded in his experience than angels. Or his lack of certainty about the afterlife. Finally, there is Obama’s tendency toward universalism, which is a major bone of contention in many quarters.


But after engaging the comments below I realized that his choice of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago is a window into what type of Christian Obama is. When Obama’s affiliation with Trinity came to light most of the emphasis was placed on its radical black racial nationalism. What exactly did it say about our future head of state that this is the church he would join when he became a confessing Christian? Yet I realized that there’s another aspect to Trinity often forgotten: it pairs black nationalism with a liberal theology relatively rare in black Christian circles. The black Christian community’s relative social conservatism, derived from a tendency toward Protestant fundamentalism, is well known. Trinity, and its pastors, are not oriented in that conventional direction. Obama’s rather perplexing Christian faith, to believer and unbeliever alike, make more sense when you observe that his gateway to Christianity was the United Church of Christ, arguably the most theologically liberal mainstream Christian denomination in the United States of America.

To clarify the issue let’s look at some survey data. I used the Pew Religious Landscape results, and the GSS. I selected respondents who were National Baptists, the largest historically black denomination in the nation, United Methodists, probably the most representative denomination of mainline Protestantism, and finally those who adhered to the United Church of Christ. From the GSS I also found questions which resembled some on the Pew survey, and limited them to black American respondents from the year 2000 and later, of all religious persuasions.

Black National Baptist United Methodist UCC
Certain of belief in God 83 92 78 65
Bible is Word of God 59 68 25 15
Own religion one true way to heaven - 34 11 5
Homosexuality should be accepted - 35 51 69

On all these sorts of questions the UCC lay at the extreme end of the range for Christian denominations. Respondents are invariably the most theologically liberal, the most equivocal in assertions of their faith, and the furthest to the Left on social issues. In contrast, the black community, and historically black churches, have more in common with white evangelicals in matters of theology and social politics. President Obama’s responses are very peculiar if you expect him to be a modal black American Christian, but entirely unexceptional for a member of the United Church of Christ.

January 17, 2012

Is Barack H. Obama whiter than Mitt Romney?

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Barack H. Obama,Mitt Romney,Mormonism,Politics,Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:09 am

For some reason The New York Times has given the execrable Lee Siegel space to write on its website. Ruminating on Mitt Romney’s candidacy Siegel puts up a post with the title What’s Race Got to Do With It?, and states:

In this way, Mr. Romney’s Mormonism may end up being a critical advantage. Evangelicals might wring their hands over the prospect of a Mormon president, but there is no stronger bastion of pre-civil-rights-America whiteness than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yes, since 1978 the church has allowed blacks to become priests. But Mormonism is still imagined by its adherents as a religion founded by whites, for whites, rooted in a millenarian vision of an America destined to fulfill a white God’s plans for earth.

There is something to this. The ancient leadership of the present day Mormon church grew up in a very different America, and they sometimes reflect that America in their pronouncements. For example, despite the fact that plenty of Mormons are in interracial marriages (I know this from my Facebook friends), there is still some literature floating around in the Mormon church discouraging the practice. Now, granted most Americans’ revealed preferences indicate that they aren’t too into interracial marriage personally, but the social norm is strongly against expressing disapproval in the abstract against the practice.

All that being said, one needs to be careful about overemphasizing the whiteness of Mormons. First, remember that most Mormon males are missionaries abroad at some point in their life, so it isn’t as if they are unfamiliar with societies where non-whites are the majority. And, it is probable that around half of Mormons in the world today are not white (the claims vary on this issue). But it is also notable that Mormons in the USA today are far less white than they were just a generation ago. To illustrate this point I’ve replicated some religious data from the Pew survey. I’ve highlighted in blue some historical mainline/liberal Protestant denominations, and in red some of their evangelical/conservative counterparts.


Denomination/Religion White Black Asian Other Latino N

Evangelical Lutheran 97 1 1 1 1 867
Nazarene 95 2 0 1 2 103
Lutheran, Missouri Synod 95 2 1 1 1 583
Jewish 95 1 0 2 3 671
United Methodist Church 93 2 1 2 2 2232
Episcopal 92 4 1 1 2 468
Presbyterian Church USA 91 4 2 1 2 542
United Church of Christ 91 4 0 4 1 246
Independent Baptist 91 0 1 4 3 905
Unitarian, etc. 88 2 2 5 4 291
Orthodox Christian 87 6 2 3 1 358
Latter-day Saints 87 2 1 3 7 547
Free Methodist 86 7 5 3 0 103
Presbyterian Church in in America 86 5 4 1 4 168
Atheist 86 3 4 2 5 499
Southern Baptist 85 8 1 3 2 2520
Agnostic 84 2 4 4 6 817
Church of God Cleveland 83 2 1 3 11 124
American Baptist 81 4 2 6 7 406
Disciplines of Christ 79 8 0 3 10 137
No Religion 79 5 4 4 8 1971
Church of Christ 76 13 2 3 6 561
Assemblies of God 72 2 2 6 19 477
Catholic 65 2 2 2 29 7393
Religious, no affiliation 60 16 2 5 17 1668
Buddhist 53 4 32 5 4 405
Jehovah’s Witness 48 22 0 5 24 212
Seventh-Day Adventist 43 21 5 4 27 134
Muslim 37 24 20 15 4 1030
Church of God Christ 11 71 1 4 13 158
Hindu 5 1 88 4 2 255
African Methodist Episcopal 1 93 0 5 1 125
National Baptist 0 98 0 0 2 549

Some of the results are not surprising. The Lutheran churches in America have become the ethnic religions of people whose ancestors immigrated from Germany or Scandinavia (and those who marry into these families, who are invariably white because white people have a strong revealed preference of marrying other white people). What is perhaps more interesting is that the list of very white American churches seems somewhat overloaded with liberal establishment denominations. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. These movements have fewer blacks than the Southern Baptists, whose origins are rooted in part in the Southern system of racial segregation! When you compare liberal and conservative divisions of the same church (e.g., Evangelical vs. Missouri Synod Lutherans, United vs. Free Methodists, Presbyterian USA vs. America), there does seem to be a pattern where the proportion of whites is generally higher in the more liberal denomination.

Finally, let’s go back to the Mormon issue. Turns out that Mormons are about as white as Unitarians. This is not too surprising if you’ve ever been to a Unitarian church (I’ve been to several). Mormons are also as white as atheists or agnostics. This will not surprise. But what may surprise is that the denomination into which Barack Obama is baptized has a higher proportion of white members than the Latter-day Saints!

My main point with this post is that you should be careful of toting up numbers, and using that to buttress your position. Mormons in America are proportionally a white denomination. But they’re arguably no whiter than Unitarians, and far less white than Jews. The fact that Unitarians are just as white as Mormons does not imply that they are equivalent in racial sentiments and attitudes with Mormons. Mormonism’s “race problem” is a feature of its history, and a strain of its modern culture, which is independent from its contemporary demographics. Therefore, the demographics should be set to the aside. No one minds that Evangelical Lutherans are overwhelmingly white because there’s nothing about that religion which is particular racist. If there was, then perhaps one could focus on the demographics as a consequence, rather than a suspicious feature.

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