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.

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