When It Comes to Religion, You Are Whatever You Say You Are
Apparently, Republicans do not believe that President Obama is a Christian. A recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll shows that 86% of Republicans either don’t believe that Obama is a Christian (54%) or say they don’t know (32%). And of course, there’s the recent imbroglio over Donald Trump’s failure to correct or challenge a questioner at a campaign event who stated that Obama is a Muslim (and it was pretty easy to tell from the rest of this “gentleman’s” remarks that he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Personally, I do not regard the word “Muslim” as an insult, but apparently there are far too many Americans who do). Now of course, none of this is true, and in some ways the religion issue is a companion piece to claims that Mr. Obama wasn’t born in this country; both are shameful efforts to tar our democratically elected president as somehow “other” than a real American. But the two claims, though both are false and scurrilous, have an essential difference, because when it comes to religion, unlike place of birth, you are whatever you say you are.
Religion is neither in-born nor immutable. When a baby is first born, it has no religion. In most instances, that baby will be raised in the religious tradition of his/her parents, and so will take on that religion as well. But this is not genetic; it’s taught. Say a newborn, both of whose birth parents are Jewish, is given up for adoption and raised in a family that practices the Hindu religion. In all probability that child will grow up to be a Hindu, and the fact that his/her birth parents (and all their ancestors) practiced Judaism will not matter one whit. Religion, as distinct from ethnicity, is a belief. When it comes to religion, you are whatever you want to be, and therefore you are whatever you say you are. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is an excellent example of this principle. He was born to Catholic parents, and initially raised as a Catholic. Then his family switched to Mormonism, and then switched back to Catholicism. Now, as an adult, he sometimes worships at a Christ fellowship fundamentalist church and sometimes at a Catholic church. So what religion is he? Whatever he wants to be and says he is. Just like all Americans, he has the right to choose a religion (or not), and then he is whatever he happens to choose at any particular time.
Which brings us back to President Obama. His father was from Africa, and so his race/ethnicity is one-half African. That fact is immutable. But the fact that Obama’s father was a Muslim in no way determines the president’s religious beliefs, past or present. He was raised almost exclusively by his Christian mother and her family, and so, not surprisingly, he was raised as a Christian. Also not surprisingly, in his adulthood he has decided to remain a Christian, which is his right. Could he be a Muslim? Of course he could, just like anyone else could be, if they so chose. But Christianity is the religion he chooses, and so he is a Christian. The people who say he isn’t have an ugly agenda of tarring our president with “otherness”, and it is right and proper to call them out on this. But my main point here is somewhat different. What I’m saying is that to accuse Obama of not being a Christian makes no sense in a land where the First Amendment gives everyone the right to choose their religious beliefs (or the lack thereof) for themselves.