Barack Obama the evangelical?

By Justin Thacker
21 Mar 2008

If you have been avidly following the US elections as I have, then you will be aware of the stories that have circulated suggesting that the leading Democrat candidate, Barack Obama, is in fact a Muslim.

Earlier this month, a photo was circulated, showing him dressed in a supposedly Islamic outfit (it was in fact Somali), and a number of broadcasters have repeatedly used his middle name, Hussein, to try and suggest he has Muslim tendencies.

In response, Obama has felt the need to reassert his Christianity. So, his faith and conversion story have appeared prominently in his stump speech, and he has given interviews to a range of Christian outlets. It can usually be assumed that US presidential candidates will subscribe to some form of religious faith, but the question that arises is what kind of Christianity does Obama hold to? In particular, could he be called an ‘evangelical’, or would he want to be?

In an interview with Christianity Today, Obama stated, “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life.” Such statements certainly suggest that Obama has an orthodox Christian faith, but do they qualify him as an evangelical?

When Obama was asked directly whether he considered himself to be an evangelical, his response was typically nuanced rather than an outright denial: “Gosh, I'm not sure if labels are helpful here because the definition of an evangelical is so loose and subject to so many different interpretations…Does it mean that you feel you've got a personal relationship with Christ the savior? Then that's directly part of the black church experience. Does it mean you're born-again in a classic sense, with all the accoutrements that go along with that, as it's understood by some other tradition? I'm not sure."

In saying this, Obama is simply reflecting the fact that in the US the term ‘evangelical’ means different things to different people. Having said that, Obama is also clear about the practical difference that his faith makes. “I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful….Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.”

Whether or not we would agree with all the conclusions Obama reaches as he applies his faith to his life, it seems certain that the man has an authentic relationship with Jesus. Of course, we could be cynical about all this, thinking that his protestations of faith are merely to win over the electorate. However, the Rev Jim Wallis, a leading US evangelical, writes “I have known Barack Obama for more than 10 years, and we have been talking about his Christian faith for a decade.”

Whatever we think of him as a possible future President, we should always stand against lies that are spread about any candidate. So, despite the reports, Obama is not a Muslim. He is a follower of Jesus, and one that makes clear that faith must make a difference to life. Amen to that!

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(c) Justin Thacker is Head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance UK. He edits the regular FNT 'Friday Night Theology' feature - http://www.eauk.org/publictheology/friday-night-theology/

Justin's book Postmodernism and the Ethics of Theological Knowledge was published by Ashgate in October 2007. It will be reviewed on Ekklesia shortly.

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