by Jay Johansen | Oct 24, 2015
I've noticed a funny dichotomy:
Saying that someone -- a terrorist, for example -- is not a "real Muslims" because he does not follow the teachings of Islam as you understand it: tolerance.
Saying that someone -- President Obama, for example -- is not a "real Christian" because he does not follow the teachings of Christianity as you understand it: intolerance.
I use President Obama, not because I think the question of his faith is more or less important than anyone else's, but because he is an excellent example of this strange paradox.
Many conservatives have said that they doubt that Obama is a "real Christian" for a variety of reasons. He actively opposes Christian teachings, for example on abortion and homosexuality. He has publicly ridiculed belief in the Bible, for example he gave a speech in June 2006 in which he sarcastically asked, "Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination?" (New York Times, June 26, 2006). He has repeatedly attacked Christianity, for example in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2015 he blamed Christianity for slavery (Washington Post, Feb 5, 2015). My point here is not to prove that Obama is not a Christian, but simply to say that there are plausbile reasons to question it.
Yet the mainstream media in the U.S. insist that eveyrone must accept Obama's statements that he is a Christian without question. See, for example, MSNBC, Feb 21, 2015 . A reporter asked Republican Scott Walker whether Obama was a Christian, and Walker replied that he didn't know because he has never discussed the issue with Obama. The media went into a frenzy, accusing Walker of bigotry and irresponsibility for not accepting Obama's self-identification.
And yet, President Obama himself has repeatedly asserted the right to question the religious self-identification of others. In a speech in September 2014, referring to the group that calls itself "ISIS", the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (but which for some reason he calls "ISIL", the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"), he flat out said, "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents." (Real Clear Politics, Sept 10, 2014)
The media blasts Christians for saying that Obama's identification of himself as a Christian settles the matter. Yet I have never once heard anyone in the media criticize Obama for saying that ISIS's identification of itself as Muslim settles the matter.
When Christians say that they doubt Obama is a Christian, they are claiming to know what a "real Christian" is. That is, they are claiming to know what they themselves are. But when Obama asserts that someone is not a "real Muslim", he is saying that he, as an avowed Christian, knows more about what Islam really means than Muslims do. Surely this is the height of arrogance.
And really, in what other area would we say that someone's self-identification is all we need to know? Lots of people exagerrate or lie, for many reasons. Have you ever heard someone say, "I'm not a racist, but I just think that ..." followed by some outrageously racist statement? Does the fact that the person claims to not be a racist mean that we cannot question this identification, no matter how racist his other statements and actions? Suppose that a factory owner was accuased of dumping hazardous chemicals in the water supply, and he made a public statement saying, "Hey, I'm an environmentalist myself. I would never do anything to harm the environment." Would you say, "Oh, well then, no need to investigate further. If the man says he's an environmentalist, case closed."? I sincerely doubt it.
It's perfectly fair and valid to question someone's claim to be a member of this or that group, or religion, or ideology. Especially if we are talking about a politician, who has every reason to be slippery with the facts when he thinks that people are more likely to vote for him if he's a member of "their group". We might also question self-identification if we think the person honestly doesn't know what being a part of this group really means. I don't see anything particularly outrageoius or shocking about someone saying, "People who are not members of our group often don't know what our group is all about."
© 2015 by Jay Johansen