Being Presidential About Religion

The news that a poll had found nearly one American in five convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim prompted a predictable response: No, he isn’t—he’s a Christian. He just doesn’t like to talk about it much. According to Joshua DuBois, White House advisor on faith-related matters, “the president’s spiritual life…is something that is important to him not for communications reasons or political reasons.”

Fair enough. Different presidents have handled this matter in very different ways. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, for instance, wore their faith on their sleeves. If Obama would rather not do that, I not only respect his decision but, for reasons of personal temperament and taste, feel sympathetic to it. No matter how sincere public displays of religiosity may be, when a president advertises his faith the line between advertising and exploiting is easily crossed.

But the Obama-as-Muslim flap points to a different sort of problem. Too much presidential reticence regarding his beliefs can only exacerbate confusions that may already exist. We need to strike a reasonable balance here—a golden mean between too much and too little public display of presidential faith. Here are three principles offered as a modest contribution to that.

First, it’s essential to bear in mind that our constitutional tradition bars any religious test for office. Adherence or non-adherence to some form of faith shouldn’t  automatically exclude anyone from election to anything. This is one of the essential pillars of a pluralistic nation grounded in religious toleration.

Second, presidents not only may but should share their views on fundamental questions of human dignity and rights. Doing that comes with the job and should be required of anyone who aspires to the office. If the views are religiously based, that should not only be expected but applauded.

Third, as already noted, a president is entitled to do as he wishes when it comes to public displays of his personal faith. All the same, though, every chief executive needs to take seriously the teaching function of the office he occupies, and from that perspective occasional public reminders that a president is a person of faith who tries to shape his conduct in its light are not just acceptable but highly desirable.

By coincidence, the attention currently being paid these matters coincides with the 50th anniversary of an event that did as much as anything in modern times to befog understanding of the issues at stake. I refer to John F. Kennedy’s famous talk to the Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, at the height of his presidential campaign.

At the time Kennedy was facing an upsurge of anti-Catholic bigotry that threatened his candidacy. Houston was his response. And he answered the bigots by largely caving in, delivering strongly-worded assurances that his faith as a Catholic would have no influence on his performance as president. This was a huge step toward the privatization of religion—its exclusion from anything more than a ceremonial role in American public life.

Kennedy’s words in Houston helped him win in 1960, and the election of the first Catholic president was a historic event. But thanks in large part to what Kennedy said that day, we are still paying a high price in terms of muddled thinking and conflict regarding the relationship between religion and the presidency. As far as I can see—and leaving aside personal likes and dislikes—Barack Obama’s buttoned-down approach probably doesn’t hurt very much, but in the end the nation needs and deserves something better than that.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Cooky642

    I’m sorry to disagree with Mr. Shaw’s point of view, here, but Mr. Obama is certainly NOT a Christian in the sense of the word most of us use. Before his election, he was overheard talking about those of us who “cling to [their] bibles, [their] guns, and [their] antipathy toward anyone who doesn’t look like [them]”. After his election, he told his first foreign audience that America is “no longer a Christian country” and has, in fact, had a strong Muslim contingent for all of it’s history. Post-election, he has deliberately ignored the National Day of Prayer, but hosted 2 Ramadan dinners in the White House. Additonally, he has misquoted Scripture on a regular basis, and said the “lovliest sound in the world is the Muslim call to prayer”. These are not the words and actions of anyone genuinely committed to Jesus Christ.

    On the other hand, I agree that he’s not a Muslim, either. He grew up in that religion and culture, and seems to have an affiinity for it, but he’s not a practicing Muslim from what we know.

    So, from his actions, words and policies, it would seem most likely that Mr. Obama is just a run-of-the-mill, average, agnostic Humanist. And I will give credit where it is due: he’s a darned good one!

  • Christopher Fish

    “First, it’s essential to bear in mind that our constitutional tradition bars any religious test for office. Adherence or non-adherence to some form of faith shouldn’t automatically exclude anyone from election to anything. This is one of the essential pillars of a pluralistic nation grounded in religious toleration.”

    I’m not sure if this was meant as it reads but as it reads it is untrue.
    While as an american constitutional principle law should not bar anyone from being president based on their religious/ moral views. The founding fathers had every expectation that the electorate would do just exactly that. They should prevent evil men who believed wrong headed things from getting into public office.

    So yes, it is perfectly acceptable not to vote for someone because you don’t like their take on religion. As a matter of fact there is no other good reason to vote for anyone other then that you believe they will act morally and wisely when carrying out their duties. A persons religion has a great deal to do with their ability to do both. For instance a Muslim ,would not act morally under many circumstance, as their are immoral things codified into their belief system.
    The same is more true for a liberal materialist or some other such thing.
    Often times people simply don’t believe their is no such a thing as ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ and from what I can tell our current president fits more squarely into that category.

  • goral

    The god-man transcends religious categorization. Not since Hercules have we had someone like him. Watch his raised chin and abrupt tone when he speaks.
    Surely this “man” is above all of us in all things except… smoking.