WASHINGTON – When Scott Walker pronounced himself agnostic about President Barack Obama’s patriotism and Christian faith, it must have seemed like a clever formulation. “I’ve never asked him, so I don’t know,” he said. And about Obama’s Christianity: “I’ve never asked him that.”
Walker quickly found his pitch unequal to the presidential big leagues. His argument can’t be generalized into a rule. I have never met Billy Graham, for example, but I’m pretty sure what he believes. As political attacks go, this one is particularly heavy-handed – the equivalent of saying: As far as I know, my opponent is not a swindler and a degenerate. A politician who tried this form of passive aggression before also got criticized for it. During the 2008 Democratic primary fight, Hillary Clinton said that Obama is not a Muslim “as far as I know” – sounding more like one of the wackier speakers at a CPAC convention.
For Walker, this is more of a paper cut than a chest wound. But it can’t be good for the Republican Party, which some Americans associate with religious exclusivity, for a front-runner to sound religiously exclusive.
Walker’s Baptist upbringing – he is the son of a pastor – does put a particular emphasis on the personal acceptance of Christ. It was another Baptist governor, Jimmy Carter, who elevated the idea of being “born again” into the realm of presidential politics. For evangelicals in general, there is no such thing as a birthright Christian. Faith requires a conscious and highly consequential decision – a choice that some do not make.
But here Obama has been as forthright as anyone could be. “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian,” he said in a 2008 Christianity Today interview. “I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. I didn’t ‘fall out in church’ as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn’t want to walk alone on this journey. Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.”
Questioning this affirmation involves a serious charge – an accusation of the worst sort of cynicism. And it is simply not the role of a Christian layman to publicly dispute the self-identification of other Christians, especially in a political context. It is a practice that can lead down ugly alleys of sectarianism.
Some, of course, will find the whole idea that human beings can make profoundly consequential religious choices to be foreign. And they may find proselytization – the necessary correlate of religious choice – to be offensive. But here a little patience might be in order. In many cases, adult converts have come through low points of addiction, humiliation or crisis. They believe they have found, past the limits of their own strength, something extraordinary and undeserved, which they can only describe as grace.
You may find such converts to be deluded or annoying, but there is little doubt that they have had a profound experience that defies adequate metaphor. They feel they have been washed by water or refined by fire. They have heard a voice in the night or a melody above the noise. Things previously thought important – status or wealth – appear vanishingly insignificant. They can say, with G.K. Chesterton:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
In such cases, people amazed by grace are wont to talk about it. But this motivation is the opposite of self-righteous judgment. It is gratitude. I have known people who, after a single moment of transforming trust, have spent the rest of their lives in astonished and vocal thankfulness.
But this type of faith, by definition, is unlikely to publicly judge the faith of others. It is founded on recognition of personal limits and failure. In the New Testament, grace often moves in stealthy and unexpected ways – lavished on lepers, Samaritans and tax collectors. Perhaps the modern equivalents would be people with HIV/AIDS, illegal immigrants and … tax collectors.
In any case, Christians should not look to the powerful for definitions of orthodoxy – or be proud of an unmerited gift.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.