Beliefnet
God-O-Meter

You needn’t have strayed from traditional news sources in the past 24 hours to get the basics of Senator Obama’s Father’s Day speech. In brief, he talked about the responsibility of fatherhood itself and made pointed reference to the absence of fathers in many African-American homes. The IIlinois Senator, whose own father left Obama’s mother when Obama was a toddler, “laid out his case in stark terms that would be difficult for a white candidate to make,” the New York Times reported. But what makes the speech more interesting, from God-o-Meter’s viewpoint, was where Obama chose to deliver it and the words with which he opened. He spoke to the congregation of a largely African-American megachurch, the Apostolic Church of God, which claims 20,000 members, on Chicago’s South Side. And he began–one might say appropriately, given the venue–with a couple of verses from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.

But what makes his remarks notable, too, is the sentence with which he follows the biblical quotation, in which he describes the church itself as having been “founded on the rock of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.” You can read the text of the speech here. It’s the possessive pronoun, “our,” that stands out. One might suspect Obama intentionally placed that phrase high up in his speech, as another reply to those he doubt he is “a committed Christian,” as he has often said and as his website declares.

That doubt say daylight again in a nationally syndicated column published shortly before the speech by the well-known and influential conservative commentator  Cal Thomas. He said Obama might call himself “anything he likes” but falls short of the “clear requirement for one to qualify as a Christian,” which Thomas identified as proclaiming Christ as the unique savior of humankind.

In his column, Thomas attributes his doubts about Obama’s faith to several statements in an interview Obama gave to religion writer Cathleen Falsani in 2004, later published in her book, “The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.” According to Thomas, Obama told Falsani that he–Obama–was “rooted in the Christian tradition,” and added, “I believe there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power…” Thomas says many people would recognize the quote as evidence of “universalism,” a theological conviction first articulated among English-speaking Christians in the mid-18th century that a loving God would not consign people to eternal damnation.

Still, it would seem there may be another way to read that particular quotation–and that would be to do so literally: The “the same place” to which people on different paths are led is belief in “a higher power.” That wouldn’t be universalism–far from it–but rather an acknowledgment that many different religious believers hold to some kind of deity or first cause out there in the universe. It’s a statement straight from the first week’s lecture to freshmen in World Religions 101.

But even if the quote can be taken as evidence of univeralism, would that be such a hard pill for Americans to swallow? It certainly was once. In 1775, some of Washington’s officers attempted to block appointment of a self-declared universalist as a chaplain in the Continental Army. (Washington overruled them without comment.) But we live in a different time, and Americans’ ideas of goodness and ethnical behavior can trump traditional theological understandings. Take, for example, the findings by a poll published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2002, which reported that fully three-quarters of Americans believed that many religions could lead to eternal life. Fewer than one in five said theirs was “the one true faith.” 

As E.J. Dionne Jr., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Washington Post columnist, said then, for many Americans, “there is a desire to be simultaneously religious and tolerant.’

  


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