by Jay Johansen | Aug 3, 2016
It's popular today to ridicule people who are exclusive about their religion. That is, if someone calls himself, say, a Christian, no one has the right to question that. If he calls himself a Christian, than he is a Christian. If you say that you doubt that someone is really a Christian based on his actions or his stated beliefs, you are being narrow-minded and exclusive and intolerant.
Take the media's discussion of Mr Obama's religion as a case in point. As I write this, his term of office is just about over, so his religion will soon be a moot point to everyone but himself and God. I'm not going to discuss whether he is or isn't a Christian.
What I will discuss is the position of the media and others on discussion of Mr Obama's religion. They are quite adamant that no one is allowed to question Mr Obama's claim to be a Christian. For example, when a Washington Post reporter asked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker if Obama was a Christian, Walker said he didn't know because he has never discussed the subject with the man. That would seem to be reasonable statement: Yes, Obama says he is a Christian. I don't know if that claim is true or false, as I have not discussed it with him to see what he thinks being a Christian means. But the media pounced. Obama says he's a Christian, end of story, period! If you don't accept his self-identification, you are either ignorant or a bigot.
Would we apply this standard to membership in any other belief group?
I've often heard people say, "I'm not a racist, but ..." followed by some outrageously racist statement. Like, "I'm not a racist, I just think that African-Americans should stay in their place." (Usually they use another word instead of "African-Americans".) Does the fact that the person says he is not a racist mean that we cannot look at the rest of the sentence and say, "Yes you are"?
Suppose a factory owner was accused of illegally dumping toxic waste into the water supply. And suppose he defended himself by saying, "I'm an environmentalist. I would never do anything to harm the environment." Would you say that his claim to be an environmentalist cannot be challenged? If he says he is an environmentalist, than we must accept that he is an environmentalist. Any claim that his actions prove that he is not an environmentalist are narrow-minded and bigoted. How can you presume to define what an environmentalist is? Who says that your definition of environmentalism is right and his is wrong?
There are all sorts of reasons why a person might falsely claim to be a member of a group. He might not understand what the group really stands for. He might think there is some social advantage to being part of a large and popular group. That would surely especially applies to politicians.
Obama himself does not follow this principle with respect to others. He has repeatedly said that ISIS and other terrorist groups are not "true Muslims", because Islam is a religion of peace and no true Muslim would engage in terrorism. But they call themselves Muslim. The majority of Muslims world-wide accept them as fellow Muslims. Mr Obama says he is not a Muslim, but he knows what a "true Muslim" is better than any Muslim? Surely that is the height of arrogance. At least people who question Obama's Christianity mostly claim to be Christians themselves, and so maybe know something about what it means to be a Christian.
Who has the right to define what it means to be a member of a group? Well, words have meaning, so we might start with the accepted definitions of words. When there are one or more organizations built upon a belief system, those organization are generally recognized as defining it. Like if I wanted to know what a "real environmentalist" is, I might ask the Sierra Club. If I want to know what the real rules of football are, I might ask the National Football League. Etc.
The founder of a movement is often recognized as defining the movement. If I want to know what a "true communist" is, I might check what Karl Marx had to say on the subject. Unfortunately, this does not appear to work with Christianity. Jesus Christ was very confused and closed-minded on this point. He said, "Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 7:21, NKJV) I guess Jesus Christ just doesn't know as much about what it means to be a Christian as reporters for the Washington Post do. He should have checked with them.
© 2016 by Jay Johansen