Faith in that Barack Obama brand

Here's good news for President Barack Obama: The slice of Americans who believe he is a Muslim is down to 11 percent, according to a new Gallup Poll. That number was up to 18 percent two years ago, in a Pew Research Center survey, after hitting 11 percent in 2009.

This time around, 52 percent of Democrats knew the president is a Protestant Christian, as opposed to 24 percent of Republicans. Only 3 percent of Democrats said Obama is a Muslim, while 18 percent of Republicans thought so. The number of Gallup respondents who answered "none/no religion" was fairly even -- 10 percent of independents, 7 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats.

In many ways, the most remarkable number in these polls is that -- after years of public professions by Obama -- nearly 137 million Americans answer "don't know" when asked to name his faith. That's 44 percent of those polled in this recent Gallup effort.

"It's clear most Democrats recognize that he is a liberal Christian or they just don't care," said Mark Edward Taylor, author of "Branding Obama: The Rise of an American Idol." Meanwhile, on the other side, Republicans are "much more likely to say that they are confused about his faith or that they doubt he is really a Christian.

"That could be what some people really mean when they say they don't know Obama's religion."

Meanwhile, there are liberals who think Obama is lying when he says he is a believer. HBO comedian Bill Maher spoke for this flock when he said: "If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think (Obama would say) he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really."

From this perspective, it's crucial that the president's father was a skeptical Muslim and that Obama has, at various times, described his mother as "an agnostic" and "a lonely witness for secular humanism," as well as "a Christian from Kansas," noted Taylor. Young Obama grew up with Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth," as well as the Bible and the Koran.

Still, there's plenty of evidence the rising politico paid attention during his years at Trinity United Church of Christ.

One thing's for sure: Obama didn't learn his call-and-response pulpit skills at Harvard Law School. He plugged into a liberal African-American congregation in order to build his South Chicago credibility, while hitting the golf links to learn how to reach into executive suites.

By the time he went national, these lessons had been fused into a powerful advertising formula driven by the words "change," "hope" and "believe." In his book, Taylor says the key is that the "believe" component centered on Obama's image, talent and personal story -- not a creed. The candidate offered "himself to America," rather than political or religious specifics.

"At no time did Obama declare, 'I am the Messiah.' Every time he stepped into the spotlight, though, he talked and acted like one," argued Taylor. "Obama created a messianic personality by being messianic. ... He preached justice, righteousness and compassion. He proclaimed the end of war and peace among nations. He prophesied the healing of the planet. Obama never told the American people that he was their Savior. He showed them his plan for redemption."

This take on faith rings true for millions of Americans. Yet millions of other Americans balk at Obama's privatized definition of "sin" as "being out of alignment with my values." In that same 2004 interview with journalist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said he was unsure about heaven and hell, but that "whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing."

Taylor is convinced this division -- between two very different views of faith -- is what keeps showing up in poll results about Obama and religion.

"All I know is that Obama recently played his 100th round of golf on a Sunday morning. I don't know if he went to church that Sunday morning or not," he said. "When we look at these poll numbers, perhaps what we are really seeing is the result of what these Americans think about religious faith. What they say about Obama may tell us as much or more about them as it does about Obama."

Thumbs down for Obama faith, again

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."

Truth, tolerance and faith

ISTANBUL -- When it comes to religion and politics, many skeptics are convinced that strong faith leads to judgmentalism, which leads to intolerance, which leads to oppression and, ultimately, theocracy.

Many people disagree, saying that it's impossible to defend basic human rights without a religious or at philosophical commitment to moral absolutes.

It's easy to tell who is who when they speak out.

Consider this voice: "Freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. ... There is no freedom without truth."

That was the young Polish bishop who would become Pope John Paul II, arguing for a tight connection between truth and freedom at Vatican II.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins disagrees, to put it mildly: "To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Don't be surprised if they are used."

While it's easy to find examples of religion being used to justify great evils, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson finds it hard to grasp how Dawkins and company can study history and say things like that. It's no surprise that Gerson feels this way, since he is best known as the White House scribe who wove faith-based images into so many speeches for President George W. Bush.

"This anti-religious viewpoint claims too much. Do its advocates really intend to lump the Grand Inquisitor with the Amish? To say there is no difference between radical Salafists and Sufis?", asked Gerson, speaking at a global conference entitled "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century." This gathering in Istanbul was organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

"Surely the content of religion makes some difference," added Gerson. "But the central problem with this anti-religious attitude is this: It would remove the main source of reform -- the main source of passion for justice and change -- in American history."

If it's hard to maintain a demilitarized zone between religion and politics in America, it's even harder to do so in a land like Turkey, where many politicians insist that they have created a "secular Muslim state."

Many other Turks have severe doubts about the success of that project, especially those in the nation's shrinking Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish minorities. Ask the Armenians if trying to separate "truth" from "rumor" raises tolerance issues in modern Turkey.

While Gerson discussed a wide range of issues in an off-the-record dialogue session, including the Iraq war, his keynote address focused on the big picture -- his conviction that in "every culture, standing for truth against lies and conspiracy theories is essential to tolerance."

At the very least, he stressed, tolerance requires a belief in at least one absolute truth, a belief in human dignity. And without some kind of doctrine of human equality -- that, for example, all men are created equal and in God's image -- it is hard to defend universal standards of human rights and social justice.

In American history, said Gerson, the source of that moral truth has often been found in the prophetic voices of religious believers.

Thus, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote these words in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." A truly "just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."

Moral relativism, on the other hand, forces leaders to root their decisions in power and power alone, said Gerson. The result is "the rule of the strong -- the rule of those who can seek their wants and impose their will most effectively."

Thus, as a contrast to King, consider this voice from the bloody 20th Century.

"Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition -- if relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be bearers of an objective, immortal truth. ... From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable."

The speaker? That would be Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.

The exaltation of Mitt Romney

It takes lots of praying, preaching and singing to mourn a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a man called Prophet, Seer and Revelator by his global flock.

That was certainly true at President Spencer W. Kimball's funeral in 1985. So when one of the church's most powerful women rose to speak, the leader of its vast Relief Society projects, she simply shared a cherished private memory that pointed far beyond the grave.

While visiting Colorado, recalled the late Barbara B. Smith, "I asked President Kimball a searching question. 'When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?' He looked around those mountains. ... Then he said, 'I'll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.' "

She also recalled this Kimball quote urging Latter-day Saints to help those in need: "What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves? Perhaps the most essential godlike quality is compassion."

It was already rare, at that time, to hear such an explicit public reference to the faith's doctrine of "exaltation," the belief that through piety and good works truly devout Mormons can rise to godhood and even create new worlds.

While this doctrine has caused tensions with other faiths, it has been a key source for the Mormon emphasis on marriage and family. As a mid-1980s text for converts stated: "Parenthood is ... an apprenticeship for godhood."

Now, church leaders have published an online essay -- "Becoming Like God" -- in which they have attempted to reframe this doctrine, in part by mixing the unique revelations of Mormon founder Joseph Smith with New Testament references and selected quotes from the writings of early-church saints such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Basil the Great.

The essay repeatedly refers to Mormons becoming "like" God, rather than becoming gods and uses the term "godliness" many times, and "godhood" only once.

It also notes that Latter-day saints have endured mass-media efforts to turn this doctrine into a "cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets." After all, the showstopper "I Believe" in the rowdy Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" proclaims: "I believe; that God has a plan for all of us. I believe; that plan involves me getting my own planet. ... I believe; that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe; that Jesus has his own planet as well. ... Oh, I believe!"

Nevertheless, the online essay does note that Smith did tell his followers: "You have to learn how to be a god yourself." It also bluntly asks a question frequently posed by critics of the church: "Does belief in exaltation make Latter-day Saints polytheists?"

The essay responds: "For some observers, the doctrine that humans should strive for godliness may evoke images of ancient pantheons with competing deities. Such images are incompatible with Latter-day Saint doctrine. Latter-day Saints believe that God's children will always worship Him. Our progression will never change His identity as our Father and our God. Indeed, our exalted, eternal relationship with Him will be part of the 'fullness of joy' He desires for us."

The problem, according to poet and blogger Holly Welker, is that this downplays images Mormons have for generations used to describe their faith. She noted, for example, that the essay edited a key passage from Mormon scripture to avoid powerful words linked to these beliefs.

Doctrine and Covenants proclaims: "Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them."

That doesn't sound like a metaphor, argued the former Mormon, writing at the University of Southern California's "Religion Dispatches" website.

"Having our own planets," she said, is "absolutely a matter-of-fact way Latter-day Saints have discussed this doctrine amongst ourselves, probably because of statements like this one from Brigham Young: 'All those who are counted worthy to be exalted and to become Gods, even the sons of Gods, will go forth and have earths and worlds like those who framed this and millions on millions of others.' ...

"The essay actually deflects rather than answers this question: So, can we get our own planets, or not?"

'Ghosts' on the God beat

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.

One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don't. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don't get to see them. But that doesn't mean they aren't there.

I want to show you an an example -- a case study, if you will -- of what I am talking about, a ghost in a set of stories that is related to this blog --

But first let me introduce myself. My name is Terry Mattingly and I am journalist who covers religion news. For the past 15 years I have written the national "On Religion" column each week for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. I also teach at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Palm Beach County, Fla., where my title is Associate Professor of Mass Media & Religion.

I will be writing for this blog pretty much every day. The actual editor of the site is my colleague Douglas LeBlanc, another veteran journalist who has covered religion in the mainstream and religious press. In recent years, he has been best known as an associate editor of the respected evangelical news magazine Christianity Today.

Between the two of us, we have been covering religion news in secular and sacred media -- or trying to convince editors to pay us to do so -- for almost 50 years.

We write religion stories and we read religion stories. Lots of them. That's how we start our days and often that's how we finish them. We see all kinds of things and so do our many friends out there in the blogosphere.

Here's that example I was going to tell you about from a few months ago.

Like many people who live far from New York City, my morning email includes the digital newletter version of The New York Times. So I was scrolling along and ran into this.


November 12, 2003

Survivors of Riyadh Bombing Pick Up Pieces


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 11 They were neighbors and newlyweds, and late on Saturday night they bumped into each other by chance outside the obstetrician's office.

That is how Dany Ibrahim and Houry Haytayan found out that the blushing couple who lived next door were also expecting their first child.


It was your basic, solid symbolic person story, a snapshot from the age of terror. I was especially interested in finding out who the authorities thought planned and executed this bombing and why.

The details were, of course, sketchy. But the newspaper of record had to find the pattern that would help readers make sense of this.

"Of the 17 dead, 13 have been identified. A Saudi police investigator at the scene on Tuesday said one of the four unidentified bodies might have been that of a suicide bomber inside the sport utility vehicle.

"Mr. Ibrahim, the young Lebanese husband, lived in Beirut through the 1970's and 1980's when it was racked by civil war. Somehow this is different. He specifically picked this compound to move into six months ago, after the suicide bombings in May against Western compounds, because he thought it would be safer to live in a place that was almost entirely Arab and Muslim.

It was safer to live in a neighborhood that was almost entirely Arab and Muslim. But it was not safe."

Note: Arab and Muslim.

This is one of those strange combinations of words. Not all Arabs are Muslims and many Muslims are not Arabs. This strange combination of ethnic and religious identifications puzzled me.

After all, the terrorists themselves keep saying that these bombings target "infidels." There are, in fact, "infidels" who are Arab. There are even "infidels" who are Muslims. What exactly were we dealing with in this case? Who are the "infidels" and where are they in this story?

So I kept reading and, latter, I found this.


Christian Arabs possible attack targets


From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

POSTED AT 5:40 AM EST Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003

Nina Jibran had everything to live for. The Lebanese school teacher was recently married, pregnant and living in a comfortable compound in Riyadh.

There was even talk of her moving to Canada with her husband, an engineer who worked for a multinational advertising agency.

But then, shortly after the couple returned home from an obstetrician's appointment last Saturday, a suicide bomber ripped through the gates of their residential area, shredding their lives and sparking outrage in Saudi Arabia. Ms. Jibran was among the 17 dead, and her husband, Eliyas, among the more than 120 injured.


Scanning down, I found this newspaper's version of the crucial, defining paragraphs:

"As details emerge about the victims of last weekend's bombing, many observers believe their profile made them targets for the suspected al-Qaeda attack. Ms. Jibran, like her husband whom she married in July of 2002, was Christian. According to Arabic-language news reports, they had also received documentation to move to Canada.

"Elias Bijjani, a Toronto-based member of the Lebanese Canadian Coordinating Council, said many of the couple's neighbours were also Lebanese Christians. He speculated al-Qaeda was targeting Christian Arabs, rather than Muslims."

In fact, the evidence seemed to be that the victims were Arabs, but they were Arab Christians.

The wording in the New York Times story did not eliminate that possibility, but it also did not provide that specific information. In fact, it would turn out that it was hard to explain the location of the attack in any terms other than an attempt to kill a specific form of "infidels" -- Arab Christians.

Why was that information missing? What was the origin of this ghost?

I immediately did what I do several times a day. I sent pieces of these stories and the URLs around to a circle of friends -- journalists, human rights activists, politicos, etc. You know, the usual cyberspace circles. We all have these private circles, right? Mine just happen to care a great deal about religion and the news.

Before long, an interesting thing happened. One of these cyber-colleagues -- Dr. Paul Marshall of Freedom House, which studies religious liberty issues -- took an interest in these two stories. Then he took this case study to another level.

The result was this essay for The Weekly Standard.


Misunderstanding al Qaeda

What you weren't told about their targets in Saudi Arabia.

by Paul Marshall

12/01/2003, Volume 009, Issue 12

AMERICAN REACTIONS to the recent bombing of a foreign workers' compound in Riyadh reveal multiple misreadings of the Arab world and -- more dangerously -- of both al Qaeda and the Saudis.

The media seem to equate Arab with Muslim and, along with some in the administration, think that al Qaeda's war is against Americans and Westerners per se, rather than against all "infidels," a group al Qaeda defines idiosyncratically and expansively as anyone who is not a strictly observant Muslim. Both mistakes are compounded by reliance on the Saudis' distorted account of the attack.

The November 8 bombing took place in a Lebanese Christian neighborhood of Riyadh, and of the seven publicly identified Lebanese victims, six were Christian. Lebanon's newspapers are replete with photographs of Maronite Catholic and Greek Orthodox victims. Daleel al Mojahid, an al Qaeda-linked webpage, praised the killing of "non-Muslims." The Middle East Media Research Institute quotes Abu Salma al Hijazi, reputed to be an al Qaeda commander, as saying that Saudi characterizations of the victims as Muslims were "merely media deceit."

If so, the media fell for it.


Marshall and I had seen the same ghost. He chased it down and captured it in print.

And that is what we hope to do with this blog. It is an experiment by Doug LeBlanc and myself and, we hope, our friends and new readers. We want to slow down and try to pinpoint and name some of these ghosts.

But I don't want to sound like we see this as a strictly negative operation. There are many fine writers out there -- some believe the number is rising -- who are doing an amazing job of taking religion news into the mainstream pages of news, entertainment, business and even sports. We want to highlight the good as well as raise some questions about coverage that we believe has some holes in it.

Most of all, we want to try to create a clearning house of information and opinion on this topic. This is what blogs do best.

So this is why Doug and I are starting this experimental blog. We hope it grows. We hope it forms links with other sites that are digging into the same issues, each with their unique viewpoints and resources. We will point some of those out as well and include them in our links page.

Let's begin.

NOTE FROM TERRY MATTINGLY: This item ran at on Feb. 1, 2004. I am adding it to the site for a simple reason. Due to a technical error, the copy desk at the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C., did not receive my column this week. Thus, it will run a week late. Rather than leave a gap here at the Gospel Communications Network site, I am sharing this opening essay from another web project. I hope you enjoy it.