Christianity and the presidency: What makes one a Christian in the eyes of the American public?

The question invites consideration of Christianity and the past two U.S. presidents. Despite evidence to the contrary, Barack Obama is still believed by many to be a Muslim. At the same time, Donald Trump is accepted by legions of Christians to be among them, again despite the known history. An explanation relates not to the two men, but to the American public.

41o1kepgbbL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Barack Obama is a Christian. He converted to Christianity (after not following any particular religion) in 1988 at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago. The event is covered in the former president’s book, The Audacity of Hope, and has been supported by many, including his Republican rival in the 2008 election, Sen. John McCain, who answered firmly, “No, ma’am, he’s not,” when a constituent called Obama a “closet Arab.”

Books have been written about Obama’s faith. Numerous Muslim commentators have pointed out that, from their perspective, he’s not a Muslim. There is ample evidence of Obama’s Christianity in his official life. He often quoted the Bible, most notably in both his inaugural addresses. He maintained George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, renaming it the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. As president, he regularly engaged in spiritual conversations with a pastor, the Rev. Joshua Dubois. His family life is exemplary, per Christian conservative morality – married to one woman, with a devotion to his daughters.

Donald Trump likewise belongs to a Christian denomination. In his early life, he attended the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, Queens. As an adult, he frequently attended the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan where he was married to his first wife by the renowned Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

Though Trump claims to be Presbyterian, however, his claim raises more questions than it answers. Trump has said that he does not ask for forgiveness, a statement that simply cannot be squared with the doctrine of any of the Presbyterian denominations in America. Trump’s personal life history seems to be an abrogation of conservative Christian morality. Married three times, he has bragged about bedding some of the “best” women in the world. He is not a big donor to the church, monetarily or through his deeds. One of his most savage critics, Southern Baptist leader Rev. Dr. Russell Moore, has called his sexual attitudes those of a “Bronze Age warlord.”

Given Obama’s and Trump’s personal lives, interviews with them and evidence of Christianity in the way they govern, there are so many questions.

More than 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted pulled the lever for Donald Trump, a staggering figure. Alternately, among committed Republicans, there is a general rejection of Barack Obama’s Christian identity. Why?

Race is part of the answer. Despite what he has said about Mexican-American judges, African-Americans and the inner cities and his close relationship with the alt-right, Trump’s supporters hold that he is not a racist. His on-the-record utterances simply don’t seem to matter.

It is possible that Trump is not personally racist, but that he opportunistically and politically engages in race-baiting. We see this in his attacks on Mexicans and his plan to build a border wall. He recognizes the fear of “others” held by many in his base, whether others are Mexican, African-American or Muslim. In his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” he was nostalgic for a time when America was “better.” It is no coincidence that the phrase evokes a period in American history when African-Americans did not enjoy equality, when immigrants were not perceived to be taking American jobs.

Whether from the depths of depravity of Trump Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, a known racist, or from Trump’s own sensibility, the argument that slaveholder Andrew Jackson would have solved the problems that led to the Civil War is a call to accept racism and to marginalize African-Americans. In this picture, Barack Obama and the color of his skin does not fit with some notions of American Christianity – especially in worship. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, there is no more segregated hour in America than 10:00 on a Sunday morning.

Another part of the answer is political evangelicalism. Frances Fitzgerald has argued that there has been a splintering of evangelicalism in the modern age, that the Christian right is losing some of its political power. While that may somewhat recent, we must accept that for at least two decades, political evangelicalism divorced from any Christian creed has been a force in American politics.

Randall Balmer has argued that the foundation of the Christian Right was engineered by Paul Weyrich, not around the protection of unborn life, but to protect racially exclusive policies at Christian colleges. Political evangelicalism is the logical extension of the appearance of Christianity with simultaneous rejection of its essence. Political evangelicalism uses the language of Christianity, but rejects its substance. It demonized liberal political figures for their failures, most notably Bill and then Hillary Clinton. But, when faced with the bragging of their candidate about sexual assault, political conservatism argued that policy and leadership were more important than Christian character.

One of the most cited statistics in the analyses of the “Christian vote” in the 2016 election is that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. But a much less studied and analyzed aspect is that Trump did best among those who identified themselves as evangelicals, but he only rarely attended church. The concerns of the Trump base were economic and cultural. These supporters were freed from actual worship and the Bible’s message that might engender a generosity of spirit toward others, like the poor or the stranger that the New Testament protects. Instead of hearing biblical messages in church, they became the consumers of political evangelicalism’s message of making America great and white again.

Trump’s supporters continued to reject the concept of a black Christian man. It became far easier to paint him as a Muslim, one who attacked Christianity in the “true” America. There are reasons that many in America reject Barack Obama’s Christianity. But they have nothing to do with the Christian gospel.

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