Whether President Obama is a Christian or a Muslim is back in the news. Apparently some pollsters had some free time on their hands so they asked people whether the president was a Christian or a Muslim. A surprising number – across the political and religious spectrum – appear uncertain.
I have never heard of Mr. Obama claiming to be anything other than a Christian. I have heard of him claiming to be a Christian. In general, when I hear folks claim to be Christian I take them at their word.
I know that people can say they are Christian and be wrong in so claiming. They can be lying, confused about the concept, or fail to measure up. If you’d have asked me, “Are you a Christian?” before my senior year of high school I would have said, “Sure!” But by my later understanding it wasn’t until that year that I came to faith in Christ. I know, therefore, that Mr. Obama could count himself as a Christian but be wrong in his reckoning. Again, however, where through my experience of coming to faith in Christ I was able to recognize my own error of claiming the status “Christian,” I have no access to similar information about Mr. Obama. Having no such information, again, I have no reason to doubt his claim to be a Christian.
What of those who say that Mr. Obama is a Muslim because his father was a Muslim? Within the system of Islam that claim may be valid. But Mr. Obama, as a professing Christian, is not within the system of Islam. Here we are beginning to see that the question, “Is X a Y?” is always situated within a particular system of discourse. Within the Christian way of speaking, if you profess faith in Christ, you are a Christian. Within the Muslim way of speaking (at least according to some), if you are the child of a Muslim man, you are a Muslim. Observe that people can find themselves crossways with these systems. That is, according to Christian discourse one can be a Christian, while according to Muslim discourse one is a Muslim. These statuses are relative to particular systems of discourse.
So which is he? Is he really a Muslim or a Christian? Notice how emphatically I put that – even using bold letters! Not just “really” but “really?” My argument is that there is no “really” apart from particular modes of discourse. Since my residence is within the Christian mode of discourse, I will use forms of identification inherent to that system. So will I say that Muslims are wrong to call Mr. Obama a Muslim (if they do)? Their opinions about Mr. Obama’s religious status are irrelevant to me. If they decide to act in some particular way toward the USA because of their understanding of Mr. Obama’s status (“He was born a Muslim – the son of a Muslim man – but claims to be a Christian, having renounced Islam and its prophet, so he is an apostate and we ought to treat him accordingly)” , then their opinions may become relevant to me.
So in the meantime, I will pray for Mr. Obama because he is the president of my country. And as a fellow claimant of faith in Christ, I can pray for him as one Christian for another also. I can also lament (perhaps) that news people and pundits are wasting their time on this issue, lacking anything substantive to talk about.