For those keeping score, let it be noted that the White House transcript from the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony says that President Barack Obama shouted "Merry Christmas" before adding "Happy holidays." In fact, Obama said "Christmas" eight times, twice as often as he mentioned "holidays." With his family at his side, the president also used an even more controversial word -- "Christian."
"Each year we've come together to celebrate a story that has endured for two millennia," he said. "It's a story that's dear to Michelle and me as Christians, but it's a message that's universal: A child was born far from home to spread a simple message of love and redemption to every human being around the world."
Politicos did the Beltway math and got this number -- 2012.
God talk is back in the political equation, as the clock ticks toward another campaign. Insiders are counting how often Obama clearly mentions his Christian faith and then subtracting, to cite a key statistic, the number of times he quotes the Declaration of Independence while clipping God from the line that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."
Many pastors seem to be paying attention as well, according to a recent LifeWay Research survey that asked 1,000 Protestant pastors to judge the faith of five public figures. Researchers interviewed a spectrum of clergy, with the selection of participants based on the sizes of their national denominations. Thus, conservative flocks had more votes.
The question: "Which, if any, of the following people do you believe are Christians?" It was thumbs up for former President George W. Bush (75 percent) and GOP lightning rod Sarah Palin (66 percent), but thumbs down for Obama (41 percent), as well as media superstars Glenn Beck (27 percent) and Oprah Winfrey (19 percent).
Among the pastors who said they were Republicans, 23 percent said Obama is a Christian, a stark contrast with the 80 percent of the pastors who identified themselves as Democrats. Among "independents," 52 percent called Obama a Christian.
Bush was viewed as a Christian by 75 percent of the pastors, including 84 percent of those who identified their politics as "liberal" or "very liberal." Meanwhile, 25 percent of the "very conservative" Protestant clergy declined to call Bush a Christian.
One thing this survey made clear is that many American clergy have clashing definitions of the word "Christian," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, which is linked to the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.
For many Americans, he said, "Christian" is "simply an identification on a form. They see a box on a survey and they say, 'I am not Hindu or Jewish. I am from America, so I must be Christian.' ... Pastors may see this differently. For example, evangelical pastors tend to link the term 'Christian' with conversion experiences."
Thus, conservative Protestants believe that people are not born into Christianity, but enter the faith by being "born again."
This is why the Obama controversies are so hard to understand, stressed Stetzer. On several occasions -- including in his memoirs -- Obama has described what is "clearly a conversion experience of some kind" in which he made a public profession of Christian faith and joined the United Church of Christ.
Nevertheless, Obama supporters were stunned by last year's much-publicized Pew Research Center poll that said 18 percent of Americans continue to believe that Obama is a Muslim, while only 34 percent identify him as a Christian. Another 43 percent did not know his religious faith.
There is no way to be sure why so many of the clergy who participated in the LifeWay survey declined to call Obama a Christian, stressed Stetzer.
A few may think he is a Muslim, while others may believe that Obama is so progressive that he is trying to affirm multiple faiths at the same time. It is likely that many conservatives believe that Obama sincerely thinks he is a Christian, but that his religious beliefs are too unorthodox to be considered doctrinally sound.
"I just don't think that the Muslim controversy alone is enough to explain what we're seeing here," said Stetzer. "At the end of the day, we only know that the pastors answered this way, not why they answered this way. We have more work to do on this."