On “Real” Christians

Last week Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked whether President Obama was a Christian. His response, Walkeraccording to the Washington Post:

I don’t know. I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say that either of you is a Christian?

Another well-known politician, Francis Underwood, would have put it like this:

Some have raised questions about the President’s religion; I couldn’t possibly say.

Walker’s people claim that the governor was really trying to push back at media questions designed to trap or distract potential candidates rather than asking substantive questions about policy or experience. There may be some validity in that.

But Walker’s answer is consistent with the kind of boundary maintenance issues we’re all too familiar with. Even if he doesn’t feel comfortable evaluating the president’s faith statements, lots of other people do. Many people within the overlapping circles of conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics make similar judgments as a matter of course.

This week, Cathleen Falsani shared an interview she’d done with then-State-Senator Barack Obama when she was religion reporter for the Chicago Sun Times in early 2004. This was before his opponent for the Senate race dropped out (to be replaced by Alan Keyes) and months before the DNC speech that made Obama a national name. It’s a very revealing interview. Obama clearly isn’t evangelical and while he does talk about a personal relationship with Jesus that confirmed his grandparent’s religious views, he stops short of calling it an epiphany. He describes an intellectual view of the faith that makes emotional response harder and asks questions many have asked. {For all who like to claim that he grew up in a Muslim country (Indonesia), a usually overlooked fact is that he went to Catholic school where they “studied the Bible and catechism each day”.]

Also this week, Laura Ortberg Turner wrote a very interesting piece on Katy Perry’s pentecostal faith. In spite of her pop-star celebrity and some past distance from her pastor parents, a centrality of faith remains. God is interested in all of the details of her life; from her cup size to her Super Bowl performance. It’s a jarring image given Katy’s public persona. But Laura captures a key element of Katy’s belief system:

Where other denominations, like the Southern Baptists, are most focused on making sure people aren’t heretics, the charismatic church, to put it crudely, wants to make sure that people believe. That is both a cause and result of their conception of God as unconditionally loving, and unconditional love is a prominent theme in Perry’s music.

Yesterday, progressive media figure Anna Marie Cox “came out” as a Christian on the website The Daily Beast (which isn’t a venue for testimonies in the way Christianity Today might be). Here is a political liberal (I loved it when she appeared on Rachel Maddow) who affirms that she’s following Jesus. She writes:

Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.

I’m sure there are folks who struggle with these confessions of faith. They want to find other markers to confirm the faith that is claimed (Mike Huckabee was very upset at young female Fox News staffers who frequently dropped F-bombs). They want to know if these people “really” believe in Jesus. And if so, how can they be progressives or pop stars?

Of course, I can ask the same questions of others who claim to follow Jesus. Can you follow Jesus and celebrate mistruths at the Conservative Political Action Convention or the Values Voters Forum? Can you ignore calls for institutional repentance in light of the church’s non-action (or actual action) when it comes to issues of race? Can you blindly support military solutions to all problems? Can you seriously demagogue the poor among us?

I’ve been arguing for a long time that we need to ground our faith in identity terms instead of positional terms. We must find ways to telling our real stories, wrestling with the challenges, owning the inconsistencies, and seeking forgiveness where we’ve been wrong.

Another article this week caught my attention. Published on the Leadership Journal webpage, it was a piece by Tony Kriz called “Seven Lies Christians Tell”. The first one is particularly apt:

We lie when we claim we are more confident than we really are. The culture of pretending within Christianity seems almost at an epidemic level. Many of us feel the need to hide our doubts and questions. We feel compelled to act like our faith life is totally satisfying, when in fact it often feels limited, dry, cold or numb. I think we also believe that our “witness” will be less powerful if we reveal a less than “perfect” religious experience. The funny thing is that the opposite is often true. Non-Christians are often drawn to stories of an authentic and even struggling faith.

In a funny way, this week makes me think that maybe Scott Walker was more right than we might have thought (and maybe than he intended). Maybe the only way to evaluate who is a Real Christian is to listen to how they describe their relationship with Jesus. It may not match my story but I need to be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, it’s what keeps me from being Francis Underwood.

Frederick Buechner has it right. In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, he tells us about Christians:

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anyone else. Just better informed.

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