The great national mystery over President Obama’s religion – Islamic? Follower of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Adherent of the Sunday morning church of golf? – has a new twist. How about Latin American liberation theology?
Let’s roll the tape. Tuesday night Fox’s Glenn Beck was riffing about how recent polls on Mr. Obama show that many Americans “don’t recognize him as a Christian.” The problem, Mr. Beck said, is that the president does not conform to “true” Christian values.
Beck played a montage of clips from the president stating variations of the theme that individual and collective salvation are intertwined. “”My individual salvation rests on our collective salvation,” says Obama in one clip. Beck jumped on this equation as his most critical evidence that the president is not really a Christian – and by implication, not a loyal American. Then he unloaded.
“It does not. It does not," he asserted. "That is not a Christian belief.”
Rather, he said, it is liberation theology – a Catholic movement aligned with Marxism that originated in Latin America.
Beck then went on to play a clip of Pope Benedict strongly condemning liberation theology. This is what Harold Attridge, dean of the Yale Divinity School, calls a classic shell game, allowing Beck to tar the president twice – first as a non-Christian, then as a disloyal American.
“This is nothing but political rhetoric,” he said after reading a transcript of Beck's Tuesday show. At best, he adds, Beck has a very narrow view of what constitutes “true” Christianity.
“There are many Americans with many views of Christian faith that align with what the president believes,” Dr. Attridge says, noting that the tradition of individual responsibility to the larger community runs deep in Christian teachings. He notes, for instance, in Matthew 25, Jesus says that what one does to the smallest member of a community, one has done to Christ. In Romans 12, Paul says that we being many are one body in Christ, and the Gospel of John says that we do belong to one another, by the grace of God we have to care for one another. But most important, Attridge says, this is not really about a genuine religious dialogue. “This is political rhetoric designed to stir up anti-Obama sentiments,” he says.
Expect more of these calculations, says Richard Flory, senior research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Clearly it has to do with the upcoming elections,” he says, adding that many people have gaps in their religious understanding – not just of the faith of others but even their own.