Anyone who invokes Alan Keyes as an authority must be having a hard time proving his case, and I think that especially applies to Sean Higgins’ article that alleges that Obama is an agnostic (“The Unbeliever” is the title). Let’s be clear about something: Obama is a liberal Protestant, which means that by definition his kind of Christianity is not going to mesh with mine or Alan Keyes’ or most conservatives’, in part because his denomination emphasises the Social Gospel and the activism associated with that, but also because it belongs to a very different theological tradition. The unwittingly hilarious adoption of the very literalist idea that we should not place a period “where God has put a comma” is a perfect example of how the UCC almost makes a dogma out of the idea of evolving, adaptable religion. Obama has read and actually likes Reinhold Niebuhr, which I assure you is exceedingly rare among anyone who is not genuinely interested in Christian theology, however liberal its form. As a rule, agnostics would not bother to read Niebuhr or, having read him, would either become convinced atheists as a result of boredom or would become Christians. Everyone who knows much about Obama understands that he came to Christianity intellectually, as one might expect given his style and personality, and this is the one place where I am most sympathetic to Obama, because my conversion was similarly not produced by a blinding flash or light or a tolle, lege moment, but was the result of a gradual process of reflection, study and a slowly dawning understanding why God became man to save us. It’s true that there was a single moment when I understood that Christianity had to be true and that Christ was, is God, but even that came through reading a quote from Berdayev. Am I an agnostic because I was not thrown to the ground by a vision? This line of attack is misguided.
It seems to me that Obama was annoyed by Keyes for a couple of reasons: Keyes is an histrionic looney, who would annoy anyone who had to debate him for any length of time, and it is insulting to have one’s faith and integrity attacked by a ludricrous Pharisaical showman. I think Obama’s views on, and more importantly his votes and actions related to, abortion are entirely incompatible with faith in Christ, but we should be very clear that even this would make him at most a bad Christian, not an “unbeliever.” Unless we would play the role of the Pharisee, we should be careful not to declare someone to be agnostic because he does not live out that faith as he should (or, more to the point, as we think he should). As someone who came to the Faith by an intellectual and fairly academic route, I would say that arguments that assume that all conversions happen in the same way are going to get things badly wrong quite often. I grew up without much in the way of religious instruction, and I was educated at very secular private schools, and I went through the same syncretistic and multiculti phase that Obama did, so I think I probably relate to his conversion to Christianity better than most and I take umbrage at the suggestion that it is somehow less than genuine or phoney or staged for effect. If it is, there is no way that you or I can possibly know that; God alone knows. Let’s have some humility.
Update: Mr. Higgins offers this most unresponsive of responses. I’ll grant the point–Mr. Higgins wasn’t citing Keyes as an authority. He was employing him as a rhetorical club, which is a much more suitable role for Keyes to play. So, very well then, Higgins cited Obama about the exchange with Keyes, but this citation does not support the larger claim. If you were accused of a lack of faith by a bombastic clown, it would get under your skin, too. The overriding point that Mr. Higgins did not even begin to prove his case remains.