Maher says Obama's faith is fake

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."

Faithfully listening to Obama

Since returning this fall, Craig Dunham has asked his Biblical Ethics students at Westminster Christian Academy to focus on ways that conservative believers can participate in hot public debates, while showing respect for others. This quote from the book "Uncommon Decency" led to timely discussions.

"How can we hold onto strongly felt convictions while still nurturing a spirit that is authentically kind and gentle? ... The answer is that it is not impossible -- but it isn't easy," argued Fuller Seminary President Richard J. Mouw. "Convicted civility is something we have to work at. We have to work at it because both sides of the equation are very important."

These class discussions are sure to continue after Dunham wrote a commentary urging other evangelicals to watch President Barack Obama's back-to-school address with a mixture of respect and skepticism. Now, his students are getting an eyeful while reading fierce online criticisms of their teacher's views.

While his own Christian school near St. Louis didn't show the speech -- which would have required cutting into curriculum several weeks into the semester -- Dunham was stunned to hear that some parents were ready to keep their children at home in order to avoid seeing it.

"Seriously? ... These are the conversations I would think a parent would be PRAYING to take place," wrote Dunham. "At some point, Christians have got to stop putting the mental in fundamentalist and start interacting with the world. Teaching our kids to stick their heads in the sand and ignore anyone they may not totally agree with is, in a word, unChristian. Folks, we can't counter the culture unless we encounter the culture, so let's take off the blinders."

After parsing the president's text, Dunham said he is convinced he needs to use the video in his classroom.

"You know, from a Biblical Ethics perspective, I don't know how not to talk about this," he said. "If we can't talk about these subjects in a Christian school, where can we talk about them?"

Most of Obama's speech to public-school students focused on familiar themes, especially with its drumbeat call for discipline in an age of video games, rap and reality TV. The president used several candid illustrations based on his life as the child of a single mother, including times when she taught him extra lessons at home -- at 4:30 a.m.

"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems," he said. "If you don't do that -- if you quit on school -- you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."

While Dunham took some lumps online, he was not alone in praising the address.

"This is the speech I expected the president to give to our children -- excellent," wrote the Rev. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, a popular evangelical author. "If you settle for the news headlines that say the president tells the kids to wash their hands and take care of the environment, you will miss the wisdom and courage in this speech."

An influential Southern Baptist leader also praised the speech, while criticizing Department of Education lesson plans -- since withdrawn -- that urged students to describe how they could "help the president."

Many criticisms of this event, argued Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, are "reckless, baseless and plainly irrational. ... At this level, the controversy is a national embarrassment. Conservatives must avoid jumping on every conspiracy theory and labeling every action by the Obama administration as sinister or socialist."

At the very least, this firestorm "smacks of disrespect for the president and, by extension, disrespect for the presidency itself." Even worse, said Mohler, this controversy "threatens to sow seeds of permanent distrust and suspicion in the hearts of the young. In an age of rampant cynicism, this is inexcusable."

Clearly, said Dunham, some religious conservatives are losing their ability to hope "that God can work in any situation," especially during an administration led by a president with whom they have sharp moral and cultural disagreements.

"There is a kind of fatalism on the loose that has many people saying, 'We're doomed'," he said. "That kind of perspective may be a conservative perspective, in a political sense of the word, but it's certainly not a conservative Christian perspective."

That other Notre Dame speech

It was hard to ignore the papal bull condemning the slave trade, which was read to American Catholic leaders gathered in Baltimore in 1839. Pope Gregory XVI proclaimed that "no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor."

Nevertheless, the first bishop of Charleston, S.C., attempted to soften the blow. Quoting scripture and Catholic doctrine, Bishop John England wrote a series of letters arguing that the pope didn't mean to attack those -- including Catholics -- who already owned slaves.

"Bishop England was not a bad man. He was not personally in favor of slavery, nor was he a racist," noted Father John Raphael of New Orleans, at a rally organized as an alternative to the University of Notre Dame's graduation rites.

"In fact, Bishop England exercised a cherished and personal ministry to black Catholics," he added. "But in the face of strong, anti-Catholic sentiment and prejudice, he simply wanted to show his fellow antebellum Southerners that Catholics could be just as American as everybody else and that tolerance of their cherished institution -- slavery -- was not in any way opposed by the Catholic church."

It was wrong for Catholics of that era to seek any compromise on slavery, stressed Raphael, who serves as principal of St. Augustine High School, one of Louisiana's most prominent African-American institutions. It is just as wrong, today, for Catholic leaders to compromise on abortion. At least the slaves were allowed to live, to be baptized and to receive the sacraments, he said.

The symbolism was obvious, since the priest is a prominent African-American graduate of Notre Dame.

The symbolism was more than obvious, since he was speaking at a rally protesting Notre Dame's decision to grant President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree, clashing with a U.S. Catholic bishops policy that states: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

The Mass and rally on Notre Dame's south quad followed hours of prayers in the university's Alumni Hall and famous Marian grotto. These solemn, peaceful events received little media attention, even though they drew several hundred or several thousand participants, depending on who did the counting, as well as 25 Notre Dame faculty members, 26 graduating seniors and Bishop John D’Arcy of the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend. A louder standoff between police and 100 off-campus activists -- led by anti-abortion leader Randall Terry -- received most of the news coverage.

During the actual commencement address, a few protesters yelled, "Stop killing our children." Most of the graduates booed the protesters, then chanted, "Yes we can," Obama's campaign slogan, and "We are ND" as they were removed.

Notre Dame President John Jenkins stressed that Obama accepted Notre Dame's invitation knowing that "we are fully supportive of church teaching on the sanctity of human life and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research."

"President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him," stressed Father Jenkins. Then he added, "Mr. President, this is a principle we share."

Meanwhile, many of the speakers at the "Notre Dame Rally for Life" openly criticized Obama's policies, but consistently focused their harshest words on the actions of the current Notre Dame administration.

"Faith without works is dead, words without actions are meaningless," said Father Raphael. "If, as we have been told, a dialogue is actually taking place … between the presidents of Notre Dame and the United States, between the university and the nation, then, for the university at least, that dialogue must be shaped by truth and charity, and protecting the sanctity of all human life, as the church understands life, must be its goal. …

Actively building a culture of life at Notre Dame must become central to the university's witness and mission to the nation and to the world."

Rush Limbaugh, liberal heretic?

The joke was old, old, old and Rush Limbaugh knew that when -- tongue firmly planted in cheek -- he tweaked it for his flock at the Conservative Political Action Convention. So Larry King dies and goes to heaven, where the CNN star urgently asks St. Peter: "Is Rush Limbaugh here?" Not yet, says his host. Finally, their tour reaches heaven's largest room, where a flashing "Rush Limbaugh" sign hangs over a giant throne. King is confused.

"I thought you said he wasn't here," King asks, in Limbaugh's take on this joke. St. Peter replies, "He's not, he's not. This is God's room. He just thinks he's Rush Limbaugh."

The political question today is not whether Limbaugh thinks he's God, but how many religious conservatives still believe that the radio superstar is on the side of the angels. After all, a rich entertainer who for years has proclaimed he has "talent on loan from God," and that his beliefs are the "epitome of morality and virtue," can expect to hear murmurs in a few pews after his third divorce and waves of headlines about Viagra and mysterious bottles of painkillers.

"Of course, Rush does have his faithful listeners," said philosopher John Mark Reynolds, head of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, an evangelical campus near Los Angeles. "But the people at your local Baptist church are not the people that Rush hangs out with. When they go out to play, they don't do what Rush does when he goes out to play. ... Still, it seems that his base doesn't care. What else could he do to offend them that he hasn't already done?"

No one would dispute that Limbaugh is a powerful Republican voice, just as no one can dispute that Oprah Winfrey's strong voice helped President Barack Obama defeat a crowded field of experienced Democrats. But in recent weeks, the White House has campaigned to anoint Limbaugh as -- to quote chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel -- the "intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."

Ever since, conservatives have been firing salvos at one another in bitter debates about Limbaugh's political sins and virtues.

As a Christian conservative, Reynolds is asking a different question: Are Limbaugh's beliefs truly "conservative," as this term would be defined historically or philosophically? In an online essay entitled "Rush Gave a Bad Speech," he underlined a frequently quoted passage in the CPAC address.

Conservatives, stressed Limbaugh, do not view the "average American ... with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

"This is a core. I want the best country we can have. We want the most prosperous people. We want to be growing. ... We want this country to be so damn great and we just cringe to watch it -- basically capitalism -- be assaulted and our culture be reoriented to where the people that make it work are the enemy."

Reynolds noted that the speech was built on the "dubious notion that 'the people' are always good and that they will always do what's right, if the state will just get out of their way. This is completely different than the conservative belief that we must maintain checks and balances because we live in a sinful, fallen world and it's wrong to trust either the people or the state -- or the church, for that matter -- with total power."

Limbaugh's vision of unfettered human potential and his complete trust in corporate America is especially jarring, noted Reynolds, in light of the economic crisis unfolding on Wall Street and in communities nationwide.

The bottom line: Limbaugh seems to have little or no sense of sin, which is a vital component in classic conservatism.

"Why isn't it," asked Reynolds, proper "for conservatives to say that pillaging our laws and economic institutions is wrong and a sin and that the government has a valid role to play in seeking justice? We should be able to say that it's wrong to tell lies and it's wrong to defraud the government.

"But you don't hear Rush saying anything like that. Instead, you hear these Utopian views that are not truly conservative. In fact, they are the opposite of conservatism."

Culture wars 2008

If you could erase one moment from Sen. Barack Obama's White House campaign, which would you choose?

That's an easy question for evangelicals, Catholics and other religious believers who back Obama. Most would happily erase all evidence of his speech last spring to a circle of insiders behind closed doors in San Francisco. For those who have ignored national news in 2008, Obama talked about meeting voters in rural Pennsylvania, where hard times have crushed hopes and fueled resentments.

"So it's not surprising then that they get bitter," he said, that "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them ... to explain their frustrations."

Welcome back to the "culture wars," all you politicos who hoped and prayed that talk about "values voters" and "pew gaps" would disappear. Instead, Republicans have been chanting this mantra -- "bitter," "cling," "God" and "guns" -- for months.

"In small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening," said Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as she hit the national stage. "We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco."

It's crucial to know that this kind of cultural warfare has evolved throughout American history, said Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism and sociology at Columbia University in New York City. The issues change from campaign to campaign, along with the fierceness of the fighting. But cultural and religious issues always matter.

"The culture wars always matter because Americans vote not simply, and not even necessarily first, for what they want but for whom they want. And whom they want is a function, in part, of who they are and how they ... want to think of themselves. In a word, what kind of culture they embody," said Gitlin, during a pre-election forum sponsored the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

These battles over symbols and substance are rooted in the fact that America was created "as the fruit of an ideology, not a nationality." Thus, he stressed, "America is a way of life, in other words, a culture. So culture wars are as American as egg foo yung and tacos."

But what are these "culture wars" really about? From Gitlin's point of view, the fighting is not a simple standoff between "religion and irreligion," because there are religious voices on both sides. Most would agree, he said, that these clashes pit "forces of modernization" against "forces of tradition." Often, this seems to pit small-town values against cosmopolitan culture, or red-zip-code preachers against blue-zip-code professors.

From his perspective on the left, he said, all of this looks like an "ongoing fight ... between the Enlightenment and its enemies." Seriously, he said, "American has to outgrow this childish negation of reason."

For Americans on the other side of the "culture wars," that kind of talk sounds rather condescending, said Yuval Levin, who leads the Bioethics and American Democracy Project at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

From the right, this cultural warfare resembles a "war of two populisms, what we might call in very broad terms, cultural populism and economic populism," said Levin.

As a rule, the American left has been effective when it comes to appealing to the economic passions and resentments of average Americans. The right, meanwhile, has been stronger -- especially since the earthquake that was the 1960s -- when appealing to old-fashioned values of faith, family and unashamed patriotism.

In this election, economic fears may certainly triumph over concerns about traditional "culture wars" issues such as abortion, gay rights, the role of religion in public life and the moral content of popular entertainment.

Nevertheless, stressed Levin, Obama's "bitter" speech proved that cultural questions are always lurking in the background. The candidate said, right out loud, what heartland conservatives truly believe San Francisco liberals think about them.

That mistake may not matter this year, but it isn't a wise long-term strategy for a president.

"In America, unlike in Europe, cultural populism has generally been a lot more powerful than economic populism," said Levin. "Americans don't resent success. They don't assume that corruption is the only way to the top, but they do resent arrogance and especially intellectual arrogance."