Obama's Religion: Christianity 101 For The Willfully Ignorant

By Dick Staub
Religion News Service

(RNS) The flap about President Obama's religious affiliation reveals our national ignorance about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Here are some facts we ought to understand about Christianity before we go around rating the Christian character of Obama or anyone else:

1. Much is being made of Obama's childhood years in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. Obama attended a Catholic School and later a public school that he has described as "Muslim" where the Quran was part of the curriculum.

Praying to saints in Catholic school didn't make Obama Catholic; praying with friends inside a mosque didn't make him a Muslim, either.

I visited Indonesia in 1968, right after the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. During a talk to high school students about life in America, one student asked me, "If America is a Christian nation, why are you killing your leaders?"

I responded then as I would now, adding a local cultural twist: "Being born in a garage does not make you a car, being born in a rice shelter does not make you rice, and being born in America does not make you Christian."

2. One is not a Christian because their mother or father is. Obama's mother was raised Christian and later became an agnostic. His father was born Muslim and later became an atheist. Obama made his personal choices about religion later in life -- just as his parents did, and just as many of us do.

It is indisputable that Obama staked his claim as a follower of Jesus. In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," he said of his decision to follow Jesus: "What was intellectual and what was emotional joined, and the belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life -- but also that, through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and our foibles -- I found that powerful."

This Easter, he said of the Resurrection, "We are awed by the grace Jesus showed even to those who would have killed him ... We are thankful for the sacrifice he gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection."

3. You are not a Christian because you pray every day. One of the more comical defenses of the president was from White House spokesman Bill Burton, who declared, "The president is obviously a Christian. He prays every day." Devout Muslims, of course, pray five times daily and most religions have some form of daily prayer. Daily prayer does not a Christian make.

4. You are not a Christian simply because you say you are. Jesus said his followers were not hearers only but also doers of his words. Orthodoxy means believing the right things, orthopraxy means doing the right things. Saying the right things doesn't really count for much in Jesus' view. He also said his true followers would deny themselves, take up his cross and follow him daily.

5. Within all religions there is a lot of diversity. Many Orthodox Jews do not consider Reform Jews truly Jewish. Some Catholics believe Protestants are not Christians, and some Protestants believe Mormons are not Christians. The moderate Muslim does not consider the radical terrorist fringe to be truly Muslim. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson has accused Obama of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology." When some say Obama is not a Christian, what they're really saying is that he's not their kind of Christian.

6. Jesus himself was not a Christian. Perhaps the most overlooked fact by religious illiterates is that Jesus was a Jew, and he never referred to his followers as "Christians."

Jesus referred to his followers as disciples. Only decades later in Antioch was the term "Christian" used of Jesus followers, and it was a derisive term coined by detractors.

So will someone remind me again why we're getting so worked up about whether or not Obama is a Christian, when Jesus himself wasn't?

(Dick Staub is author of the just-released "About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive" and the host of The Kindlings Muse ( His blog can be read at