Sure, They Name-Drop Jesus. But What in God's Name Do They Know?
Barack Obama with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., in a now-famous photo taken three years ago
There were the “Cocktail Christians”: the Lutherans in my Wisconsin hometown who did their sacred rites on Sunday morning and tipped multiple martinis Sunday night. Punch in; punch out. That was their version of the Christian faith, performed to the tune of dirgelike hymns and clinking cocktail glasses.
Another one of my mother’s pet phrases was “All this and Jesus too.” These were the folks who celebrated their own wonderfulness -- their wealth, their health, their beauty -- and tacked on a few props for Jesus when things were really sweet.
My mom was altogether different, a righteous Democrat wrapped around a core of abstemious fundamentalist. She told me how, at 18, she’d watched Martin Luther King Jr. on television and concluded, right there in her all-white neighborhood on the South Side of Milwaukee, that he was right and everyone else was wrong. She shook a pale finger in her parents’ faces and pronounced them racists.
She hauled me to Vietnam War protests when I was a kid and taped an anti-war poster to my bedroom door. Later on, she’d work the phone at a crisis pregnancy hotline. All of this left a deep impression on me.
I found out that fighting for social justice didn’t contradict our theologically conservative Christian beliefs. She was a Bible-thumping provocateur, pricking the consciences of her staid brethren while holding tight to Jesus-is-the-only-way. She was my hero.
I thought of her pet phrases when I examined the buckets of God talk dumped on us by the presidential candidates, especially the Democrats. Have we ever heard so much Jesus name-dropping? And what’s interesting, looking at some of the statements Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have made, is that their words sound remarkably authentic to these holy-roller ears.
You know how it is when foreigners try to cuss in English and they put the F-word in all the wrong places? That’s how politicians usually sound when they do Jesus talk. But let me tell you, Clinton and Obama are slick. Either that or they’re sincere.
Hillary Clinton Gets the Holy Ghost
Last summer, Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, told The New York Times, “I believe in the father, son and Holy Spirit, and I have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions in my years on this earth.”
Wow, Hillary, this is like a Pentecostal moment. See, holy rollers talk all the time about the presence of the Holy Spirit. If you’re real old-school, you say “Holy Ghost.”
Now Bible Girl has also felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions. It’s one of the really cool things about being a whoopin’-and-hollerin’ Pentecostal -- not that you have to be a Pentecostal to experience it. But us holy rollers kind of make a point of “inviting” the presence of God into our worship services, our prayers, our times of meditation on the Word of God. We like hanging with the Holy Ghost.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is when you can actually feel God in the room -- it is a palpable thing. It engages the senses; it often makes me feel kind of tingly. There are times when it has caused me to shake involuntarily, often when I am ministering in the church or praying for someone. I know I’m weird, so don’t feel the need to point it out. People respond to the presence of the Holy Spirit in all kinds of ways. I have seen weeping, falling, dancing, crazy joy.
Don’t know how it happened to Hillary; she doesn’t offer details. But I have observed something else about the presence of the Holy Spirit: When it is there, things change. People become sorrowful for their sins and repent. Folks get healed, delivered from the oppression of evil spirits and destructive habits.
So Hillary, what did the Holy Ghost do when he hung around you?
“I think she’s just saying that to try to appeal to black voters,” one friend told me.
Hillary went on to tell The Times she believes Jesus was physically resurrected, a mark of orthodox Christian belief. She wiggled a bit, however, when queried about two matters evangelical Christians hold dear: whether Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and whether the Bible is the Word of God, meaning it is the authoritative guide for life and doctrine.
Is belief in Christ needed to go to heaven? “That one I’m a little more open to,” Hillary responded. “I think that it is, as we understand our relationship to God as Christians, it is how we see our way forward, and it is the way.”
Translation: It is the way if you think it’s the way.
Asked how literally one should interpret the Bible, Clinton said, “I think the whole Bible is real. The whole Bible gives you a glimpse of God and God’s desire for a personal relationship, but we can’t possibly understand every way God is communicating with us. I’ve always felt that people who try to shoehorn in their cultural and social understandings of the time into the Bible might be actually missing the larger point that we’re supposed to take from the Bible.”
Translation: I’m looking at the broader points Scripture makes. The pesky little stuff, like warnings against various kinds of sins? Stick with the big picture.
Clinton professes to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but she is no evangelical. Her beliefs are spongy. She has left plenty of room to depart from traditional Christian thinking.
Barack Obama Comes to Jesus
Obama wasn’t raised in any particular faith. His father was Muslim, a fact some of my fellow Christians have used to take pathetic cheap shots. Obama is, in fact, an oddity for America: He is an adult convert to Christianity. He belongs to a United Church of Christ congregation on the South Side of Chicago led by controversial pastor Jeremiah A. Wright.
As noted on the excellent blog Get Religion, Obama’s conversion story has gotten short shrift in media coverage. Asks Get Religion contributor Dave Pulliam, “When was the last time a major presidential candidate made this explicit of an expression of his personal faith in Jesus Christ?”
Here is what Obama told a church audience in Hartford, Connecticut, recalling his response to a sermon by the Reverend Wright:
“…[D]uring the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
“It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.”
Re-read those last two sentences, OK? Now, all you evangelicals out there, is that an authentic come-to-Jesus moment or what?
You’ve got all the essential elements: a realization of one’s sin. An understanding of the need to place one’s trust in Jesus Christ. A decision to submit to God’s will.
Obama’s confession of faith is more complete and “theologically correct” than any of the major candidates’. Yet when I picked up my son at his Christian school the other day, the kids were engaged in a heated discussion about whether Obama is really a Christian, no doubt echoing conversations they’ve heard in their homes. One 9-year-old boy, the budding cynic, opined that Obama just says that to get votes.
So what does all this mean? I for one consider Clinton and Obama a brother and sister in Christ, based on their explicit statements about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Their words are persuasive; they have the ring of authenticity. No, I’m not so jaded that I attribute all this talk to mere politicking. Obama has said far more than he had to concerning his faith, and he has risked turning off the young, educated voters who’ve propelled his campaign thus far. That speaks to his sincerity.
But there is a disconnect with both of these candidates, a decided incongruity. Obama talks about dedicating himself to discovering God’s truth; so where is he in grasping God’s truth concerning the sanctity of life? Both he and Clinton are strong supporters of abortion rights.
Both candidates say they’re opposed to gay marriage but that they would not seek a constitutional amendment prohibiting it. Obama believes in some type of civil union that would afford gays most of the legal rights that accompany marriage.
Well, is gay marriage a healthy option for families, or is it not? If it is, why not go all the way and put it on a par with marriage between a man and woman? Both candidates, it seems, have chosen ground that delays having to make a real choice.
I know what my mom would have said back in the day. So they say they’re Christians? Big deal. Faith, you see, is always followed by fruit.
“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do,” as James’ letter puts it.
I can see and hear the sneer. “All this and Jesus too.” --Julie Lyons
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.