I’m not so sure after the uproar of the last week or so. It all started with a post by my friend and colleague John Fea. Dr. Fea is the chair of the Department of History here at Messiah College, a thoughtful Christian, and an exemplary historian specializing in early American History. He is very careful to approach his craft in a way that allows his beliefs to inform his work, but never to turn his work into propaganda in support of his views. The furor erupted over what, in my opinion, is a gross inability of Glenn Beck to let the facts stand in the way of a good story that he could gain publicity from.
The kerfuffle is based on an interesting piece by Dr. Fea on Patheos a week or so ago. Dr. Fea points out that President Barack Obama has cited his faith as a part of his policy-making and life at a level that is somewhat unprecedented. In fact, after citing some examples, Dr. Fea makes the statement:
Obama may be the most explicitly Christian president in American history.
Now, this is not a proclamation, of course. Dr. Fea qualifies the statement with “may be”, but Beck and his disciples seem to have not been able to read that part. They have accused Dr. Fea of stating that Obama is the most explicitly Christian president in American history. Here is the whole paragraph in context:
Obama may be the most explicitly Christian president in American history. If we analyze his language in the same way that historians examine the religious language of the Founding Fathers or even George W. Bush, we will find that Obama’s piety, use of the Bible, and references to Christian faith and theology put most other American presidents to shame on this front. I think there may be good reasons why some people will not vote for Obama in November, but his commitment to Christianity is not one of them.
Worse than just missing the “may be”, they also seem to not know what explicitly means. How Beck, and his disciples, read this as an endorsement of Obama’s theology is beyond me. Dr. Fea does not even say that Obama is, in fact, a Christian, let alone an exemplary one. He is simply saying that Obama has been more public about his claimed faith. He also says that Christians can’t really find fault with his commitment to Christianity as a basis for voting against him. Can we find fault with his personal theology? Sure. Can we disagree with how he thinks his faith should be worked out in policy? Of course. Do we have any real evidence that he is not a Christian or is not committed to his faith? No. Sorry. I didn’t vote for him in 2008, but I have no doubt that he is a Christian, and find claims that he is a Muslim laughable.
Now, one might ask if the problem is that Beck views Dr. Fea as a liberal shill for Obama. The answer is clearly a resounding no, if you take the time to read the rest of the article. Here is the last two paragraphs of the original:
Unfortunately, for all of his religious rhetoric, Obama the president has failed to articulate the faith-based political vision he promised us that night in the tiny village of Grantham, Pennsylvania. His handling of the recent contraception issue was a disaster. He missed a wonderful opportunity to explain his health care proposal—disparaged by the GOP as “Obamacare”—as a direct extension of his Christian convictions to care for the poor and the needy. He has failed in his promise to reduce abortions in the United States and, as a result, protect the weakest and most vulnerable of the “least of these.” His plan to tax the richest members of society is driven by populist rhetoric, but it lacks a prophetic edge informed by the radical implications of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels.
If Obama wins in 2012, we will see his true colors on matters of faith and policy. Without another election to worry about, he can either turn toward secularism or provide a vision of faith-based political action that would be quite different from what the Christian Right and his GOP rivals are offering. Will we get the Obama of the Compassion Forum or the Obama of the last three years?
This is certainly no endorsement of Obama. This seems to be Dr. Fea calling for Obama to actually deliver on the rhetoric in which he is so “explicitly Christian”. Somehow the few comments I read through seemed to miss this entirely. Perhaps they never bothered to read the second page of the piece? I wish that his pieces would be one page, but it is always worth clicking for page 2 when needed. To raise a furor about this radical professor without actually taking the time to read the whole piece and actually evaluate the claims is another sign of what is wrong with our current political climate, and why I have no way to argue with those Christians who have decided to withdraw from the voting/political process. (see this post from yesterday)
The only redeeming quality about the furor is that perhaps some have read the whole piece and realized that Beck is wrong in his characterization of Dr. Fea. I want to also point my readers to read the whole thing, but also to consider the response of Dr. Fea. After dealing with an inbox and voice-mail box filled with vitriol from those who believed Beck’s lies and misrepresentation, Dr. Fea offered grace-filled response on his blog. Here is a taste, but I suggest that reading the whole thing will give a more balanced perspective on the type of faculty I get to work with here.
I do not want to dwell on this too much. As a writer I realize that in the United States people are free to disagree. I guess that comes with the territory. But I would like to at least make two comments:
1. I continue to stand by my argument about Barack Obama being the most explicitly Christian president in American history. Perhaps I could have said this more clearly, but I do not know of any president (certainly not Washington, Adams, or Jefferson, the three presidents who I focused on in my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?) who has talked more openly about his Christian faith than Obama. If future historians judge Obama’s rhetoric in the same way that today’s historians judge the rhetoric of George Washington or John Adams or any other president, they will conclude that Obama has used his faith as part of his public rhetoric to a much greater extent than these Founders. When I wrote this I was not making a statement about whether Obama utilizes Christian faith correctly or not. I was rather making a statement about how explicitly Christian Obama’s rhetoric happens to be.
I do not agree with many of Obama’s policies. Some of my agreements stem from my Christian faith. I tried to reference some of my disappointment with Obama in my Patheos piece. But when Obama says he is a Christian, I take him at his word. I think Jesus said something about he who is without sin cast the first stone.
2. After what happened to me today I am even more deeply convinced about the need for civil dialogue in America. You can read the comments for yourself, but I would say that most of the 800 comments on The Blaze have nothing to do with the argument of my piece. They instead focused on the controversial headline.
But even if some of Glenn Beck’s followers did read the whole piece and concluded that they disagreed with my argument, the level of vitriol I have experienced today has made me concerned for our country. How can democracy flourish without civility, respect for those with whom we differ, and a sense of mutual understanding? I continue to believe that the answer lies in education, particularly in history and the other humanities. It is these disciplines that have the potential to bring meaningful change to the world because they are rooted in virtues such as intellectual hospitality, empathy, understanding, and civility.
My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian remind me that we are human beings, created in the image of God, and thus worthy of respect. My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian calls me to listen to those with whom I might disagree and perhaps even learn something from them. To do otherwise is a failure to love my neighbor (Mt. 22:39–I did not feel much love from my Christian brothers and sisters who wrote to me today). My Christian faith and my vocation as a historian teaches me humility and reminds me that sometimes I may need to sacrifice my own deeply held convictions for a better opinion.
Democracy does not require us to abandon our most cherished beliefs. Far from it. Democracy implies that we bring our cherished beliefs to the public arena (and the Internet) with vigor. A democracy offers the opportunity to debate others with whom we differ and try to convince them–rationally and civilly–to come over to our point of view. As Christians, we are required by God to love our enemies, but in the process we might even learn something from them. The cultivation of this kind of democratic culture is America’s best hope.
Thanks, John, for being willing to model Christian grace and civility despite the mean-spirited nature of the attacks on him. If Beck (who ironically is a Mormon, which many Christians would classify as outside orthodox faith), had offered the same grace-filled response to Dr. Fea and started a dialogue, the situation might have caused more growth and understanding, rather than furthering the negative nature of politics in the US. I am thankful that there are still moderate voices who seek to understand and reason with others, rather than simply out-shout their opponents. If I had any respect for Glenn Beck, this might have been the final straw. Of course, I lost my respect for Beck long ago, and this situation seems in conflict with his pledge of nonviolence which promised more civility.
Note: I am intentionally not linking to Beck’s website which helped escalate the issue since driving more hits for him would only compound the problem since it would encourage him to continue making money off of this type of con.
Also, comments that resort to personal attacks or add to the vitriol will not be approved, or will be deleted. Comments adding voices to the discussion in a civil fashion are welcomed.