As polls show doubt, Obama underscores Christian identity

December 14, 2010

When President Obama lit the National Christmas Tree behind the White
House in the 2009 ceremony, he spoke of a "child born far from home"
and said "while this story may be a Christian one, its lesson is
universal."

This last December, Obama referred to that same "child
born far from home" but added a more personal twist: "It's a story
that's dear to Michelle and me as Christians." Three days later, at a
Christ­mas benefit concert, the president again talked about how the
story of Christmas "guides my Christian faith."

What changed? For
one, three separate polls in the past year have found that one in four
Americans think the president is a Muslim, 43 percent don't know what
faith he follows, and four in ten Protestant pastors don't consider
Obama a Christian.

Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of Barack Obama, said the polls "had to be a wake-up call to the White House."

Though
Obama has spoken of his faith numerous times, saying he prays daily and
talking at Easter about how "as Christians, we believe that redemption
can be delivered by faith in Jesus Christ," his most recent words about
his faith are even more open, more personal.

"I think he's just
bringing more of himself to the game, so to speak," said Mansfield.
"It's not as though he's changed religions or something. He's just being
open about it."

The White House, which declined to comment on the
president's recent choice of words, has called him a man of "strong
Christian faith" in the past. Nonetheless, White House observers noticed
a marked change in tone.

"The president understands that he needs
to continually tell his own personal spiritual story," said Shaun
Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Washington's Wesley Theological
Seminary, who served as an Obama campaign adviser. "He did that
masterfully in the campaign, and I think you're seeing a return to that
voice."

Timothy Sherratt, professor of political science at Gordon
College in Wen­ham, Massachusetts, said lingering questions about
Obama's faith, as reflected in the polls, probably played a role in his
latest phraseology.

"Some of that, one would think, has to be in
the back of his mind," said Sherratt, who taught a class this semester
in political communication at the evangelical college. "Where there's
ambiguity, it's always tempting to bring more clarity."  —RNS