In his regular Washington Post column, Michael Gerson chides Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for questioning the Christian faith of the President of the United States.
Gerson, of course, is an evangelical Christian, a political conservative, a Wheaton College graduate, and a former George W. Bush speechwriter.
Here is a taste of his column:
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.
James LaGrand says
This wasn't a statement from Walker as much as a response to a silly, irrelevant question from two reporters — along the lines of “When did you stop beating your wife?” It certainly reflects poorly on WaPo reporters.
Tim Schoettle says
Jim we see this very differently. I agree with you that Walker took himself to be saying in effect that he would not comment on Obama's religion. But that's not what he actually did. There is a difference between saying, “no comment” and saying “I don't know.” Consider, for example, the question of whether Ronald Reagan was Christian. I think the answer is that Reagan was Christian and I know this even though I never spoke to Reagan. So if asked about Reagan's religion, I could honestly say, “no comment”; but I could not honestly say, “I don't know.” The same goes for Obama. I know that he is Christian even though I have never spoken to him. More to the point, the question was definitely not silly or irrelevant. Far from it. A lot of Republicans believe strongly that Obama is not a Christian and for some this plays an important role in their lives. Many even believe that he is secretly a Muslim. (The purported “fact” that “Obama is a Muslim” plays an important role in the life and identity of someone in my immediate family who is politically active.) These beliefs have been nurtured by some on the right, including some in the press and passed over in silence by many others on the right. This is a golden opportunity for conservatives to show leadership. They could loudly and publicly proclaim that they take Obama at his word that he is Christian, just as we take Reagan at his word that he was Christian. Some have done this, but not enough. Similarly, conservatives could loudly and publicly proclaim that Obama is a legal U.S. citizen. Again, some have, but not enough. I see Walker's response to the reporter's question as (at best) a failed opportunity to show leadership. But really, it is worse than this. Simply saying, “I don't know,” when asked whether Obama is Christian is to fan the flames of mistrust about Obama. If he and other conservatives were to do the right thing here, it would have a direct positive impact on my life and the life of my family. What I need to help my family member is a clear and public statement from all major Republican politicians that 1) Obama is a U.S. citizen and 2) We take Obama at his word that he is a Christian. This would really help my family. I know that my family is not the only one in this position. Poles suggest that quite a few people believe that Obama is Muslim. See for example: http://www.vox.com/2015/2/25/8108005/obama-muslim-poll . Consider also the site conservapedia: http://www.conservapedia.com/Obama's_Religion It’s opening sentence says, “Public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.” The key word here is “recognize” which is a success term. Only figures like Walker are in a position to do something about this problem. Some backbone is needed here.
James LaGrand says
Thanks, Tim. I don't see as much space between “No comment” and “I don't know” as you do. And I'm guessing that the reporters would have run with the narrative-contributing story either way. But your point is a fair one.
The larger issue seems to be this question — To what degree is it a political office-holder's or aspiring political office-holder's responsibility to disabuse a portion of his or her supporters of unsupported beliefs they hold regarding an opposing party or candidate? I agree that it would make for better relationships with neighbors and relatives and co-workers if nobody believed any outrageous things about other politicians. But if this is to be a proper and formal journalistic project, it ought to run both ways. Consider how many of Barack Obama's (or Hillary Clinton's or Elizabeth Warren's) supporters believe that Scott Walker (or Ronald Reagan) “hate the poor”? It's a significant number–all the way from low information voters to Huntington Post and Daily Kos writers. So should some enterprising journalist ask Obama or Clinton or Warren this question after a speech? This too, I'd view as silly.
Please understand that I'm not supporting Walker in this, and agree with you that he might have given a more prudent answer. But at the same time, it seems a manufactured “big moment.”
Tom Van Dyke says
Scott Walker didn't “Question Obama's Faith.” This is a media-manufactured controversy.
Walker gave the finger to the media vultures whose only interest was sabotaging his candidacy. The half of the country that lives outside the media bubble thinks it's hilarious.
Tim Schoettle says
Thanks Jim. Was it a “big moment”? Probably not (though more on this below). I’d say that Walker showed a lack of backbone that is all too common on the left and on the right. So I agree 100% that leaders on the left need to speak up about claims that conservatives like Walker or Reagan “hate the poor”. I don’t believe that either Walker or Reagan hate the poor. In the past when I've tried to make this kind of point among leftists, I've been personally attacked. Politicians like Clinton, Obama, Schumer and others need to speak out about the demonization of the right. They too need to show leadership by not remaining silent, but setting an example about how to criticize an idea without criticizing the one who espouses it. I think race plays a role here as well. The fact that Walker and Reagan are white makes them easier for the left to demonize. But to do so is to play with fire. In the past on COENET I have raised the question of whether anti-white sentiment could be part of what perpetuates cycles of mistrust and racism. I think that the left needs to take this question much more seriously than it has. It is easy for someone on the left to discredit a conservative, especially if that conservative is white. I think this is part of the problem, not part of the solution and I’d like to see more leaders on the left take this seriously. The problem is not simply that the left refuses to take seriously the question I raised on COENET, the problem is that even to raise the question is to open oneself up for attack. More backbone from the left is needed. I posted years ago and I’m still waiting for a serious dialogue on the subject.
I want to be clear about something here. My point is not that everyone deserves our trust. My point is closer to the opposite. One of the reasons why it is important to give the other side the benefit of the doubt is because there are times when demagogues rise to power. When this happens, they need to be called out and identified. If the left demonizes every conservative president and the right demonizes every leftist president, then when a person with ill intentions rises to power there will be no way to tell because everyone is always shouting at the other side and demonizing them. Chavez, Maduro, Kirchner, and Putin are all demagogues. They have been able to remain in power in part by politicizing opposition to them. Their deceit, deception, and bullying is made harder to identify and recognize because they have managed to turn up the volume so that everyone is shouting at everyone else. In this context it is hard to know what to believe or who is telling the truth. Grace and trust need to be the rule rather than the exception. In part this is needed so that when a Hugo Chavez rises to power, we can expose them for the lying, FARC-funding demagogues that they are. (That’s harsh language, but Hugo Chavez earned it.) When too many people use superlatives too often, the superlatives lose their meaning. There is no longer space in public discourse for passing serious negative judgment. So what I’d like to see Walker say to his supporters is this: “Pipe down about Obama’s religious beliefs, nationality, love of the country etc. We need to remain credible so that if and when a wolf appears, people will believe us when we cry “wolf”.” He didn’t do that and his lack of doing this isn’t a “big moment” but it is a big deal, especially because so many other leaders aren’t doing it either. (There should be a newspaper wholly dedicated to notable things that are not happening. These are often more telling than what is. Why hasn’t Al Jazeera published on the rampant anti-Semitism problem in the Middle East?)
James LaGrand says
Well said, Tim. I don't have time now to write much in response, so let me just say you're a mensch.
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