A recent survey determined only one in three Americans can identify Barack Obama’s faith as Christian. Add to that an increasing number who believe him to be a Muslim (1 in 5) and it’s no surprise to see Obama taking steps to clarify. On September 19 he and his family attended worship at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House; only the sixth time in two years he has gone to church. At one of his recent backyard chats in Albuquerque, President Obama clarified his Christianity saying, “I’m a Christian by choice. My family didn’t…they weren’t folks who went to church every week. My mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew but she didn’t raise me in the church. So I came to my Christian faith later in life.”
Is Obama a Christian? I don’t know. He, like all of us, is a sinner whose only hope is the cross of Christ. Ultimately only God and the President know if he has been transformed by the gospel. However, while he claims Christ, his lack of faithfulness to the church preaches a different message. His recent expression of faith comes in the midst of a turbulent political season and on the heels of several surveys indicating Americans doubt his claims. This gives the impression his Christianity is a façade to achieve political ends; similar to when a couple wants a wedding ceremony in the church and suddenly begins attending for the first time in years. One can’t help but be slightly suspicious of their motivation.
Is Obama using Christianity to further his political image? Who knows? And lest you think I am a partisan kool-aid drinker wearing a Rush Limbaugh t-shirt while throwing bombs at a democratic president; let’s bring in Bush and Reagan. Bush never became a member of a local church in Washington, had no home church in Texas, and attended services infrequently preferring the chapel at Camp David. Reagan attended church only once in the eight years of his Presidency. Both claimed Christianity as their faith. Both operated with elements of a Christian worldview. Both acted indifferently toward the gathered assembly of God’s people in worship.
Is a person who fails to attend church with any regularity a Christian? While I can’t judge a heart, I am commanded by Jesus to judge the fruit of a life (Matt. 7:5, 16-20). The approach of these presidents encourages the view in our culture that Christianity is just another – to use Obama’s word – choice in life. It may influence our values and decisions, but is only ultimately one among many commitments and priorities a person has. This idea may be popular but it is not New Testament Christianity. Jesus declares in Matthew 10:38-39 that the gospel doesn’t influence a life, it radically changes it:
Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Can we say someone who finds church only important enough to attend 2 or 3 times a year is really taking up their cross and following Christ? Being a Christian isn’t just another choice; it will transform and demand your entire life.
Commenting on Obama’s church attendance versus his trips to the golf course, comedian Dennis Miller made an obvious point when he said,
“If the guy who lives across the street from you twenty Sunday mornings in a row comes out not dressed for church in the shined shoes with his best tie on, but with a golf bag – after twenty times if I asked you what do you think is more important to him on Sundays what are you gonna say? He’s a golfer!”
The sad reality is this logic describes not only the President but the nation he leads. While 78% of Americans claim some form of Christianity only 44% report attending church regularly and actual numbers reveal only about 17.5% of Americans are in church on Sunday. Meanwhile church roles continue to contain the names of hundreds of people who haven’t darkened the door of a church since the Reagan administration.
Gathering to exalt Jesus and sit under the teaching of the Word has been a regular practice for all Christians since Acts 2. Most of the commands in the New Testament directed toward believers are meant to be carried out in the context of the local church. To simply not go is to live in willful disobedience of the Scriptures. What do you call a Christian who lives in persistent, willful disobedience? A non-Christian. John explains this in 1 John 2:4, “Whoever says ‘I know Him’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar and the truth is not in Him.”
Do you value the assembly of God’s people? What would those in our lives say if we compared our commitment to the church to our other commitments and applied Dennis Miller’s simple logic? Would they say, ‘he loves Jesus passionately’ or ‘she’s committed to her church’? Or would they say, ‘he claims Christ, but he’s really passionate about the NFL’? Or golf? Or Dancing with the Stars? Or Chinese food? Or fishing? Or music? Or career? Or family?
I can’t tell you where Obama, Bush, or Reagan stands with God. Perhaps after leaving office they attended (or will attend) church regularly. But I can say it is time to demand more of what it means to be a Christian. It is not selecting our favorite choice from the menu of world religions, appreciating the life and teaching of Jesus, agreeing with some facts about God, praying the sinner’s prayer, or obeying a set of rules we inherited from childhood. It is not on par with picking what sports team to cheer for or what career path to follow. It is being radically transformed by the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, covenanting together with brothers and sisters in the church, and living every moment for His glory rather than our own.