The last thing the White House needed was another TV preacher questioning the sincerity of President Barack Obama's Christian faith. But there was a twist. This time it was HBO's Bill Maher -- sermonizing against religion has become his life's work -- who claimed that Obama is hiding a deep, dark secret. During the Feb. 11 episode of his "Real Time" talk show, Maher said he knows an unbeliever when he sees one and that Obama is probably an agnostic.
This came a week after the president made another attempt, as church people say, to give "his testimony." Yes, his mother was a skeptic, Obama said, during the National Prayer Breakfast, but she was also "one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew." Her values led him to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Baptist, Catholic and Jewish clergy who led it.
"Their call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith, is what led me ... to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the Southside of Chicago," he said. "And it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior."
The presidency has, on occasion, driven him to his knees, he said. But faith has strengthened his family, especially "when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time."
Those old questions remain a concern months after a Pew Research Center poll found that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. At that time, only 34 percent of those polled said the president is a Christian and 43 percent said they didn't know his current religion. Among strong supporters, 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats agreed that he is a Christian.
The bottom line: Millions of voters remain unsure whether Obama is their kind of believer.
Maher's attack was unique, since it came from an outspoken liberal, the acidic wit behind the movie "Religulous," an fierce secularist who is so turned off by faith that he calls himself an "apatheist" instead of an atheist. If Maher has a sanctuary, it's the Playboy mansion.
"With friends like Mr. Maher, Mr. Obama doesn't need enemies," noted Brent Decker, who leads The Washington Times editorial page.
Maher stated his doubts during a roundtable about whether the president is sincere in his attempts to march under a "centrist" banner. The iconoclastic comedian agreed with many religious conservatives on one crucial fact -- that Obama often appears to hide his true beliefs.
"If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really," said Maher. In other words, Obama is pretending to be a centrist and a Christian.
The African-American philosopher and critic Cornel West disagreed: "He is a Christian, he's just a centrist Christian. He's not a prophetic Christian."
Maher stood firm: "His mother was a secular humanist and I think he is too."
This unleashed a lightning-fast series of exchanges, with guests discussing the fact that Obama entered the black church before he entered national politics. As an adult, he had already begun a spiritual journey that took him away from his mother's blend of skepticism and spirituality.
"He changed his mind on the God question, brother Bill," West reminded the host. "He changed his mind on the God question."
Again, Maher insisted that Obama is hiding his true beliefs in the same way that he keeps insisting that he continues to "struggle with gay marriage." It's smart politics for Obama to say one thing while believing the other, said Maher.
Nevertheless, insisted West, "Being a Christian is not a political orientation for the president. He is a Christian."
"I just don't believe him," Maher said.
"Bill, what do you think he is?", asked West. "You think he's agnostic, actually?"
"Yeah, kind of," said Maher.
West grew even more animated, asking, "On what grounds do you say that? ... What kind of evidence you got?"
Maher declined to answer and steered the discussion into safer territory.
Getting in the last word, West noted: "But somebody is wrong about this thing."