Lisa Miller and Richard Wollfe’s cover story on Barack Obama’s religion in this week’s Newsweek is a pretty disappointing performance. There’s little more than what you can find, better written, in Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father. The closest the authors got to the candidate seems to have been a brief interview last week on the campaign plane. In it, he did respond to a question that has troubled some evangelicals in particular; namely, whether he shares their view that Jesus Christ is the one and only Way, or adheres to a species of universalism, believing that salvation is open to all, or at least to some who do not acknowledge Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. There’s no question that Obama falls into the latter camp, as this passage from the article (where he retells what he told Franklin Graham at his meeting with religious leaders in Chicago last month) makes clear:
“It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I’ve said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know … I do not believe she went to hell.” Graham, he said, was very gracious in reply. Should Obama beat John McCain, he has history on his side. Presidents such as Lincoln and Jefferson were unorthodox Christians; and, according to a Pew Forum survey, 70 percent of Americans agree with the statement that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” “My particular set of beliefs,” Obama says, “may not be perfectly consistent with the beliefs of other Christians.”
To put it simply, Obama is a pretty typical contemporary mainline Protestant–which is hardly surprising, given that Trinity United Church of Christ, the only church he ever belonged to, is (for all its African-American spiritual dimensions) part of that most liberal of mainline Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ. That his spiritual journey deposited him where most Americans happen to be makes him more like most American presidents than Lincoln and Jefferson. Neither was a Christian, unorthodox or otherwise. Jefferson belonged to no church and was a Deist, a self-professed Unitarian. Lincoln, though influenced by Christian beliefs, as Mark Noll puts it, “never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian beliefs.” Obama’s done both.