Presidents and Heretics

If you're following the interesting debate over whether Barack Obama is a Christian, one thing to keep in mind is the extent to which heresy of various sorts pervades American Christianity at this point - and, moreover, the extent to which it cuts across confessional, cultural, and political lines. The Obama interview that provided the grist for this conversation does indeed suggest, as Larison puts it, that our President subscribes to some sort of semi-Arian conception of the nature of Christ, which isn't surprising at all given that he entered Christianity through the liberal-Protestant gate. But heresy of this and other stripes is hardly confined to liberal Protestants. Americans of all denominations are pretty murky about even the most important theological questions, and thus as likely to offer semi-Arian (or semi-Pelagian, or semi-Nestorian, or what-have-you) formulations out of ignorance as out of considered belief. And of course a distinctively American strand of heresy is integral to a large swathe of what we think of as "conservative" Christianity: You could call it Americanism or Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or something else entirely, but whatever label you choose it owes as much to Emerson, Hegel and Norman Vincent Peale as to Nicaea and Chalcedon, and its emanations and penumbras influence everything from the prosperity gospel to the foreign policy of George W. Bush.

Now it's true that if he had been asked about Christ's nature, Bush - or Ronald Reagan, to take another conservative President with an idiosyncratic religious sensibility - might have given a more Nicaean answer than Obama did in the interview in question. But then again maybe not! (And God only knows what John McCain, the most pagan Presidential contender we've had in some time, might have said.) Given the muddled way in which most Americans approach religion, and the pervasiveness of heterodoxy, I suppose I'm basically with Alan Jacobs: I think that figuring out exactly what sort of things Obama believes about God and Christ and everything else, and how those beliefs may affect his Presidency, is ultimately a more profitable pursuit than arguing about whether he should be allowed to call himself a Christian. Or put another way: I expect my Presidents to be heretics, but I think it matters a great deal what kind of heretics they are.