The religion and politics of division

Last week, the Christianity police, in the persons of Rick Santorum and Franklin Graham, came forward to discredit the president’s religious beliefs. First, Santorum called President Obama’s theology “phony”; then, on “Morning Joe,” Graham refused to accept Obama into his Christian band of brothers: “He has said he’s a Christian, so I just have to assume that he is.”

With rhetoric like this, these Christian conservatives are playing an ancient game. They are using religion to separate the world into “us” and “them.” They are saying, “The president is not like us.”

The president’s Christian beliefs are hardly unusual. He was raised by a mother whom he has called “agnostic” and who today might be dubbed “spiritual but not religious.” (The fastest-growing religious category in the country is “none”: people who believe in God but don’t affiliate with any denomination.) When Barack Obama walked for the first time into Trinity Church on the South Side of Chicago, he was 27. He had read widely in theology — Saint Augustine and Nietzsche and Reinhold Niebuhr — but he had no formal religious training.

Perhaps he was drawn to Trinity for pragmatic reasons: As a young community organizer, he needed the credibility of a church base. Perhaps he was on an identity quest and found at Trinity the African American family he never had. Perhaps in Trinity’s fiery pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama found a guide to faith — a man of great learning, musical talent and homiletic gifts — and a friend whose friendship he would live to regret. Perhaps he found himself transported by the joyful, soulful sounds of Trinity’s 300-member gospel choir.

In any case, Obama has said he found Jesus at Trinity. In the memoir “Dreams From My Father,” he describes a revelatory morning in church this way: “The stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories — of survival and freedom, and hope — became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears.” He was transported. He felt the spirit. After that morning, he was baptized in the name of Jesus.

Religion has done much good in the world, but it becomes dangerous when the “us and them” worldview grows rigid — when “we” claim moral (or theological) superiority over others. No one should know this better than Santorum, for Roman Catholics have been among the most persecuted groups in America. Yet for Santorum, history has had no modulating effect. The “phony” remark seems, at worst, calculated to remind voters of Wright and the “liberation theology” he preached, and in so doing to incite racism and fear.

One major theological disagreement between Obama and religious conservatives concerns salvation. Obama happens to be the kind of Christian who believes non-Christians, including his beloved mother, can go to heaven.

Here is what he told a colleague and me when we interviewed him for Newsweek magazine during the 2008 campaign: “It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I’ve said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know . . . I do not believe she went to hell.”

Most Americans are with Obama on this. According to a 2008 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than half of American Christians believe there are many paths to heaven. The data say it best: No matter what exclusivist doctrines pastors preach from the pulpit, Americans are more open-minded. Last year, an evangelical pastor from Michigan named Rob Bell roused the ire of his colleagues by suggesting, in a book called “Love Wins,” that mostly everybody goes to heaven. It was a massive bestseller.

America was founded by people who hoped that by allowing religious diversity to flourish, they might discourage extremism from growing. Counter to the claims of so many Christian conservatives, the intent of the First Amendment is not to protect any particular brand of Christianity from government encroachments, but to allow all kinds of believers to practice freely.

“I hate polemical politics and polemical divinity,” a politician once said. “My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition . . . in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation of which I am but an infinitesimal part.”