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“I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt – not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.”

maxresdefaultThose are the words of President Obama at last week’s national prayer breakfast, following controversial comments about how human beings, no matter their religion, possess a sinful tendency to distort religion’s goodness for violent ends. Many conservatives have focused on the president’s implied moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity, but it’s the latter section (quoted above) that best illuminates the president’s view of religion.

For President Obama, faith is not the enemy, but confidence.

In Slate, William Saletan puts forth a similar view. In his list of conservative responses he finds problematic, he includes this belief as dangerous: Jesus is the only way to God. Saletan then compares Christians who believe in the uniqueness of Jesus to Islamic extremists:

There’s only one true faith—ours—and anyone who says otherwise isn’t a real Muslim. In this respect, the debate within Christianity mirrors the debate within Islam.

Saletan concludes:

Obama is right. At its best, religion is about humility. It starts with a faith in something greater than yourself. Part of that faith is understanding that you’re not great enough to understand who God is. All you know is that he isn’t you.

When you start to think that you know God’s mind, that he speaks only to you, that you alone are in possession of the truth, that’s when you become dangerous. And being a Christian won’t save you.

According to President Obama and Will Saletan, religious belief isn’t dangerous, as long as it knows its place. It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, as long as you hold to it loosely, with a measure of doubt, humbly recognizing that you are not great enough to understand who God is. The problems of our world flow, not from religious belief, but religious conviction. Certitude, conviction, and confidence are the drivers of religious conflict.

This understanding of religion may be widespread in our pluralistic society, but it runs aground on its own premises. Underneath the surface of humility lies an imperialistic methodology intent on shaving off the distinctive edges of the world’s major faiths and leaving a bland morality in their place. In fact, even speaking of “religion” so generally – as if the teachings of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims can be lumped into one pile – is condescending; it fails to properly consider the variety of religious belief.

Furthermore, if you take a look under the hood of humility, you find an engine of certitude that is just as powerful as that of the religious adherents targeted for critique. The one thing the president and Will Saletan are certain about, convinced of, and confident in is that none of the religions have an exclusive claim to truth. All the religions are made up of opinions that we are free to believe in or dismiss, as long as we don’t harm anyone else.

“Faith must begin with doubt,” says the president, but how can we accept such a statement without being confident and certain we are right, the very thing he believes is the fuel for religious conflict?

“No religion can possess the full truth of God,” says Will Saletan, but how is it humble and not breathtakingly arrogant to tell all the religious adherents of the world: None of you can be right? And how is it “humble” to consign convinced Christians or Muslims to the category of “dangerous” simply for believing they are right and others are wrong?

For many today, an exclusive claim to objective truth is ruled out from the start, under the guise of open-mindedness and inclusiveness. This is precisely what G. K. Chesterton foresaw a century ago: the movement of “humility” from doubting oneself to doubting the truth.

“Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.”

When you think the problem is due to someone having too much confidence in the truth of their religion, you are implying that the content of their religious beliefs is irrelevant. But the Christian Church is built upon the conviction that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. Therefore, the content of Christian belief matters.

So, yes, there is a sense in which Saletan is right: we shouldn’t think we are ”great enough to understand who God is.” Thinking we are “great enough” is the mark of self-righteousness and an overly exalted view of human nature. And that’s precisely where the content of Christianity comes in, agrees, and then turns the whole scenario upside down, You are not great, but God is, and He is so great and so good that He has revealed Himself to humanity. It’s not the belief that you are right and all religions are wrong that humbles you, but the content of Christian teaching that says, Don’t be confident in your attempts to understand God. Be confident in God’s revelation through His Son. 

My point is this: you don’t deal with violent expressions of faith by pretending that confidence is the problem and content doesn’t matter.

And yes, sinful humans have committed atrocities in the name of Christ, but in each of these cases, the problem was a failure to be true to the content of the Christian faith. It wasn’t certitude and confidence in Christianity that led to the Crusades, but the idea that Jesus could be coopted by a political and military endeavor. The crusaders weren’t “holding too tightly” to the content of Christianity; they weren’t holding tightly enough. How else can we explain the transformation of a Savior suffering for His enemies into a warring king charging into foreign lands?

So here we are in the 21st century. And ironically, despite the popular pluralism espoused by the president and writers like Saletan, one of the drivers of religious conflict today and one of the explanations of the West’s inability to deal adequately with radical Islam is exactly this failure to consider the content of the beliefs being presented.

It’s simply not true, no matter how often our leaders tell us, that confidence in our beliefs is bad while the content of our beliefs is neutral.

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15 thoughts on “President Obama and the Problem of Religious Conviction”

  1. Arthur Sido says:

    This is a much better response to the President than the knee-jerk responses in defense of the Crusades. How far we have fallen as the church that making common historical cause with the very same mindset that led to the Reformation for the sake of political expediency. Perhaps we should also question the wisdom of a “National Prayer Breakfast” in the first place?

  2. Truth Unites and... Divides says:

    I doubted Obama and so I never voted for him.

  3. Curt Day says:

    Considering the reaction that some Conservative Christians gave to Obama’s warning against Christians being on their ‘high horse’ because of our own atrocities in the past, such as the Crusades and Jim Crow, perhaps Obama’s sin in speaking about faith was that he had the wrong words for the right concern.

  4. Wesley says:

    I am confident you have hit the nail directly on the head here Trevin. Thanks for this bro.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Don’t be too confident, Wesley. You might be dangerous. ;-)

  5. Stacy Long says:

    Thank you for this article. The sentiment expressed in the statement quoted at the beginning of this article is also what stood out to me in listening to the President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. I agree that his advocacy of pluralism is at the heart of the problem, even more so than his slur about the Crusades.

  6. Bryant Parsons says:

    Thank you so much for this!!!! You got to the heart of the issue!!

  7. Chip M Anderson says:

    Irony: There are no exclusive claims except the claim that there are no exclusive claims. So when POTUS (anyone of them) or a writer tells me I am dangerous for believing my Christian claims are exclusive I am to repent, act humbly, and submit to his or her exlcusive claims on neutrality, lack of confidence, inclusion, and, oh, that I am wrong to think Jesus is exclusively the only way to God. Now that’s ironic and dangerous–for in the end, all POTUS and/or the writers are doing is claiming exclusive knowledge that should be followed, albeit in a gracious, humble tone and appearance, but this, too, is all about power–theirs.

  8. Jack Hartfordd says:

    As one who was raised Christian and still approach God through the Christian tradition, I can say with certainty that the older I become, the more doubt I have. The Christian tradition resonates with me because it was the environment I was raised in. Had I been born in India, I’d probably say the same thing about the Hindu religion. Had I been born in Utah, I’d probably be Mormon. I’m not saying all faiths are equally true. But I do believe that all faiths contain elements of truth, and we can learn from one another. I am as unlikely to convert a Muslim to Christianity as a Muslim is to convert me to Muslim. So I talk. I listen. I try to learn from others and bring to the table what I have learned. We are all on a journey together. All of us are human and are seeking God. God speaks to us all. Not int he sense of telling us what to do, but how to live. He speaks to us by nudging us to love our neighbor, to give to the poor, to help one another, to enjoy the company of one another, and to worship him in our own way and tradition.

    Again, I’m not saying all religions are true or equally valid. But I don’t see a reason to try to convert others. I do see a reason to share what I find universally true, and to listen to what others have to say..

    1. Zach Hamilton says:

      Jack, what if the content you’ve concluded is “universally true” conflicts with what another person from a different background has concluded is true? Who is the arbiter when worldviews collide? And what if it’s not a “live-&-let-live” matter like Pepsi vs. Coke, but a critical issue like abortion on which individuals have polar opposite, but equally fervent beliefs? The president and others would probably say that a modern consensus would have to then prevail, but to the follower of Jesus, that’s insufficient. Humans are never going to outgrow authority; it’s just a matter of whether we’re placing our trust in the final authority of our own opinions? Or the determinations of informed experts? Or in the revealed Word of God?

      1. Jack Hartfordd says:

        You are talking about something entirely different. You are talking about political conflicts, which is quite separate from personal religious expressions. What I am talking about is a person who seeks God. My political thoughts and religious thoughts are completely separate. I believe God speaks to people in all religious traditions. I am not saying all religions are equally true, but all people who seek God will find bits of truth in their religion. I do not believe God condemns millions to hell for the sole reason that they were born and raised in a different religious tradition than I was. I simply cannot fathom that one who was raised a devout Muslim or Hindu, who truly seeks after God, cannot find glimpses of the sacred in their religious tradition. I may not understand it, their traditions may not speak to me in the way it speaks to them, but God can transcend religion and reach people in many different ways. I listening to the Dali Llama, I cannot help but know that he has found God and is likely much closer to the heart of God than I will ever be. I do not find everything about his faith true, but there is much truth in what he says.

        I think American Christianity has largely made an error in politicizing Christianity. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church where church and politics were inseparable. I was a Christian so I must go to rallies to oppose abortion, and democrats and everything else that is wrong with our political system. Today, I no longer subscribe to that. What is important is that I love God with all of my heart and that I love my neighbor as myself. Jesus did not come to build a physical kingdom, so why do we get hung up on political issues?

        1. Zach Hamilton says:

          My apologies for using abortion as my example, Jack; I was simply using it as a current example of an issue on which people take very strong positions based on their conclusions as to what is moral and right. And I agree that the American church for too long gave in to the temptation to try and primarily effect change in our nation through the political system.

          That said, you didn’t answer my question about what to do when individuals’ “bits of truth” come into conflict. Different belief systems may contain elements of truth, that’s true. But who determines what parts of another’s worldview are true, and what parts are dangerously aberrant? Why do you or I get to decide what is an act of love, and what is an barbaric act of cruelty?

          My authority is found in the perfect Word of God, which doesn’t cater to the will of the rich or the preferences of the many. The Bible reveals the Lord’s standards. So when Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), that informs my ethic as to what path leads to God. When Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (John 14:23), it defines true love and devotion for me.

          If you don’t agree with all of the Bible’s demands, I can’t force you to accept it. But what is the foundation for _your_ belief system?

  9. Megan says:

    “We come from many different faiths, yet we share this profound conviction: We believe that God listens to the voice of his children and pours his grace upon those who seek him in prayer.”

    George W. Bush, 2007 National Prayer Breakfast

    “I recall that Moses was 80 when God summoned him for public service, and he lived to be 120. And Abraham was 100 and his wife Sarah 90 when they did something truly amazing. And he lived to be 175. Just imagine if he’d put $2000 a year into his IRA account!”

    Ronald Reagan, 1982 National Prayer Breakfast

    I recently read about a study that compared the level of partisanship by gender. The study found that, when presented with neutral arguments, both men and women read the arguments and came to similar conclusions. If arguments were ascribed to a political party, women behaved much the same as before, reading the arguments, weighing them in an open-minded fashion and drawing their own conclusions. Men, on the other hand, spent less time reading partisan arguments, and reached conclusions influenced by party loyalty rather than by facts, a phenomenon attributed to a “warrior” mentality.

    This may explain why women are more likely to be courted as “swing” voters, and why female politicians are more inclined to reach bipartisan agreements in Congress.

    I’d guess this “warrior” mentality applies to religion as well as politics, which may explain the problems with the Crusades. So, while President Obama’s commentary at the prayer breakfast might not tickle the ears of conservative Christian males, it probably is clearly understood by many women, non-Christians and liberal males. Perhaps Obama should have added the admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

  10. Simon says:

    Perhaps this is an instance where the culture warriors are talking past each other. Knowing what we can’t know about God has always had a rich tradition in the church, especially in the East where an apophatic approach to God heavily influences Orthodox theology and spirituality. The Church has always been able to proclaim Christ as the only true and sure way to eternal life whilst being very careful so as to not condemn those outside the Church. St Paul seems to be able to hold this tension also, particularly in his epistle to the Romans. I think the President is right if this is what he means by “doubt” .

    I think extremism and fanaticism, despite the content of a particular religious tradition, leads to violence. Buddhist fanatics in Myanmar violate the content of their religion’s teaching. Often the problem is not consistency with the teachings of a particular religion. The problem is the darkness of human hearts. It scarcely matters what your religion teaches when there are people are bent on doing harm. Look at what happened in northern Ireland – protestants and catholics killing one another despite the teachings of their respective religion. Look at when each one of us does harm to one another despite the teaching of our faith. I think this is what the President was getting at. I don’t think he was saying that we should give up our dogmatic convictions.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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