Some of the controversy has focused on his remarks about the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery in the United States and Jim Crow. But those who challenge what he said are merely trying to whitewash (literally) history. The fact that some Christians used their faith to justify horrible deeds is simply a matter of fact.
In declaring President Obama "not a Christian in any meaningful way," Erick Erickson gets to the fundamental difference that ignites the controversy. He quotes this part of the President's remarks.
I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth...I was immediately struck by Erickson's response:
And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion -- any religion -- for their own nihilistic ends.
Christ said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me." (John 14:6) Christ himself is truth. When we possess Christ, we possess truth.What stood out to me is his use of the word "possess." It not only implies a kind of ownership (similar to Sen. Rand Paul's suggestion that parents own their children), it also suggests that - as human beings - we can thoroughly know (and posses) the mind and heart of the Son of God. One has to wonder what folks like Erickson do with Paul's warning against this kind of hubris in I Corinthians 13: 11-12.
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.It is when acts of dominance, intolerance and - ultimately - violence are fed by that kind of hubris that President Obama was warning us about.
Over the years, Barack Obama has expressed the same sentiments several times. For example, back in 2004 Cathleen Falsani interviewed him about his faith. At the time, he said this:
I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up, a suspicion of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.And in his commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009 (a speech I have suggested is one of the most important of his presidency), he talked about it this way.
I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.
I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.
And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.What it all comes down to is a question of humility over the temptation of hubris and certainty. I doubt that its a coincidence that Paul's warning against the latter came at the end of one of his most powerful statements about the supremacy of love (charity) over faith and hope. As President Obama said, that is what "moves hearts and minds."
But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen...
And this doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.