What it Means to be ‘Christian’ in Political America

by Katie Rich

 

Earlier this week, Wisconsin governor and 2016 GOP hopeful Scott Walker came under fire for claiming he does not know if President Obama is a Christian.  His answer seemed to deflect the question at hand, spiraling into a series of defensive remarks, as reported by the Washington Post: “‘I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that,’ Walker said, his voice calm and firm. ‘I’ve never asked him that,’ he added. ‘You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?’”

The Post went on to quote a series of times that Obama reportedly mentioned his faith, and certainly, they are readily found: just a few weeks ago, the president hosted the National Prayer Breakfast, he always extends his “thoughts and prayers” to victims of tragedy, and nearly all of his public addresses end with an emphatic “God bless the United States of America.”  Obama, if not truly a believing disciple of Christ, is certainly covering his bases to appear as one.  The real question, however, should not be about the particular religious beliefs of Barack Obama, but rather why it is that this country needs to constantly seek assurance in its leader’s Christianity, and why the president himself is equally eager to guarantee it.

 

In his foundational work, Mere Christianity, CS Lewis discusses the deterioration of language.  His example is the word ‘gentleman’.  A gentleman used to refer to a very specific kind of person, one of a certain social standing with a coat of arms and a piece of property.  Saying a man was not a gentleman was no more of an insult than saying that man was not a doctor; it was merely stating a fact.  But someone came along and decided that what was truly the defining characteristic of a gentleman was not his property and coat of arms, but his behavior.  Now the word ‘gentleman’ is synonymous with being an upstanding man, and has since lost its unique meaning that made it a useful word.  Lewis argues that a similar fate as befallen the word ‘Christian’, that when someone is acting as a Christian or doing the Christian thing to do, it now means that particular person is acting in a good, charitable way.  While the connotation is positive, it has diluted the meaning of the word into something less useful.  Now if we say that someone is not acting as a Christian, it is taken as an insult, rather than merely stating that they are not a believing disciple of Christ.

 

Hence, regardless of the president’s actual religious leanings, it is now perceived as an insult to say the president is not a Christian, just as it is an insult to say that he is not a gentleman, despite his lacking a coat of arms.  In a country born of dedication to religious freedom, the president should not have to close each address with “God bless America” in order to keep the public happy and himself in a positive light.  Love of God and Love of Country have become equivalent and co-dependent, as evidenced by the resulting inquiries as to whether or not Scott Walker thinks the president “loves America,” as the Huffington Post reported.  Scott Walker should not be accused of haranguing the president’s character or patriotism by questioning his Christianity.  The Washington Post should not have to vehemently try and defend the president’s faith in order to defend his virtue.  The word ‘Christian’ needs to be divorced from the meaning ‘good, upstanding man or woman’ in the American public eye, as the two are certainly not mutually exclusive.

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