Note: This post contains positive statements about President Barack Obama. These are my personal, not pastoral, views and should not be construed to be the official position of First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS.

The Religious Right has so gained control of the perception of what’s “Christian” in this nation that the sort of perspective on faith that once was widely shared and understood now is declared to be not Christian at all. So Barack Obama is criticized for not being a Christian and is even labeled a Muslim. This despite his referring to his faith more times than most presidents ever have. “‘But for many it’s the wrong kind of faith,’” says Jim Wallis of Soujourners, an evangelical social justice organization.

The Rev. Gary Cass, a conservative Christian, claims that “progressive Christian” is a contradiction. For him, Obama and others who support liberal causes and do so because they read the Bible differently are liars. They’ve co-opted Christianity to support their own agenda (John Blake, “The Gospel According to Obama, October 21, 2012; http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/21/to-some-obama-is-the-wrong-kind-of-christian/?hpt=hp_c1).

For these kinds of conservatives, there is obviously only one kind of Christian that can be considered the “right” kind. You have to use the “proper” language (“I’m born again, praise the Lord”), be on the “correct” side of issues (gay marriage, abortion, the structure of the family, health care, taxing the rich, the Middle East, global warming, science), believe in a literal six-day creation, go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church, and vote Republican. As scholar Diana Butler Bass says in the cited blog, “‘The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.’” Progressive (AKA “mainline”) Christianity has lost its place in the public square and has to fight these days to be understood. Its nuanced, intellectual, and not-easily-summarized-in-a-sound-bite faith is hard to articulate when everyone seems to want only short answers that confirm what they already believe, not challenge and invitation to thoughtful consideration.

So, is there a “right” kind of Christian? I think so, but it’s not what the Religious Right and people like Cass say it is. For me, the right kind of Christian is someone who pays more attention to what Jesus did as reported in the gospels than to made-up doctrines about him. Such a believer models his or her life after Jesus and so is open to those who are marginalized, voiceless, scorned, and feared. He or she is not afraid to criticize and call to account his or her own religious system and question its departure from its core values in favor of distorted doctrines and exclusive traditions. This sort of Christian can admit and celebrate that those outside his or her faith tradition, including other Christians or those who follow a different path, can be and are pleasing to God, as Jesus did with the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman in Matthew. This kind of person’s life is about hospitality and justice and compassion, not intolerance, hatred, and judgmental condemnation.

It is the total witness of someone’s life in public and private, not a position on this issue or that or a certain reading of the Bible that shows whether one is a Christian or not. Jesus said it. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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