Obama: not a matter of "once evangelical, always evangelical"

The usually meticulously logical philosopher Jeremy Pierce (whose blog is very hard to comment on, so I am bringing the discussion back here) seems to have got his logic seriously confused, in his comments on my post about Barack Obama’s faith and in his own post on the matter. The problem came when I wrote that Obama

had a clear evangelical conversion experience

and Jeremy understood me to be claiming thereby that Obama is an evangelical. But Jeremy seems confused about how to define who is an evangelical.

In his post Jeremy offers an outline of what it means to be an evangelical based on a set of theological views, mentioning some doctrines held by conservative evangelicals but questioned by some who he would consider to be on the fringes of evangelicalism. I would not agree with all the details, but that is not my point in this post. But I note that the definition given is entirely in terms of views on theological and moral issues. There is nothing here about giving one’s life to Christ or having an ongoing relationship with him, nor even about faith except in the sense of intellectual assent. Well, perhaps that is a reasonable way to define “evangelical” as the word is generally understood.

The problem only arises when in a comment Jeremy implies a totally different definition:

Conversion experiences are nearly definitional for most evangelicals. A genuine conversion experience, to most evangelicals, means that God has initiated a work in your heart, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh and transforming you into Christ’s likeness. A genuinely evangelical conversion experience produces a genuine evangelical.

So, Jeremy, which is it? Is an evangelical defined by intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, or by the fact that “God has initiated a work in your heart”? The only way to rescue any kind of consistency in your definitions is by making an assertion that any person in whose heart God has initiated a work therefore necessarily believes for all eternity in the full set of evangelical doctrines. It also implies concerning any person who has apparently undergone a conversion experience but after that even temporarily wavers in their intellectual assent to evangelical doctrines, that God has not even initiated a work in their heart. That would actually include myself as I went through a period of serious doubt after my conversion experience. It further denies the possibility that people like Obama, apparently, can undergo some kind of genuine conversion experience if they do not then become fully theologically committed evangelicals.

Jeremy, is this what you intend to teach? Should we believe “once evangelical, always evangelical”, which implies “if not now evangelical, then never has been evangelical”? Or are you just being completely inconsistent? Or have I somewhere missed the point?

Here is a fuller record of our conversation. I wrote that Obama

had a clear evangelical conversion experience.

My evidence for this was the following taken from a 2004 newspaper interview:

So that, one of the churches I met, or one of the churches that I became involved in was Trinity United Church of Christ. And the pastor there, Jeremiah Wright, became a good friend. So I joined that church and committed myself to Christ in that church.

Did you actually go up for an altar call?

Yes. Absolutely.

It was a daytime service, during a daytime service. And it was a powerful moment. Because, it was powerful for me because it not only confirmed my faith, it not only gave shape to my faith, but I think, also, allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.

How long ago?

16, 17 years ago. 1987 or 88

So you got yourself born again?

Yeah, although I don’t, I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. …

In other words, Obama went through the classical experience as described by evangelicals of committing his life to Christ by responding to an altar call. While I don’t suppose it is only evangelical churches which have altar calls, they are certainly a typically evangelical phenomenon. It is entirely on the basis of this passage that I wrote of Obama’s “clear evangelical conversion experience” – and perhaps a bit on the basis of my memory of John Hobbins’ descriptions of Trinity UCC which unfortunately I can’t find on his blog which is unsearchable in more ways than one. I did not intend to imply anything from these words about Obama’s current beliefs or practices.

Jeremy responded in a comment:

it doesn’t sound as if he’s an evangelical

with which I agreed:

Jeremy, I did not say that Obama was now an evangelical, only that he had an evangelical conversion experience in the past.

He clearly read this comment because he responded to it. But in a later comment he wrote:

I just worry about flat-out assertions that he’s an evangelical. …

I’m not sure why you think Wright is an evangelical

This left me puzzled. Where had he found any flat-out assertions anything like this? Certainly not on my blog. But then just a few minutes later there appeared his own post Is Barack Obama an Evangelical?, which in its original form started as follows:

Peter Kirk thinks so, but the interview he links to leads me to conclude not.

After having to type in my supposedly remembered personal info twice and resubmit my comment (thanks, Movable Type) I was at last able to object:

Jeremy, please withdraw the lie in your first few words. I have never said that Obama is an evangelical.

and Jeremy amended and expanded the first sentence of his post to:

Peter Kirk takes Obama’s conversion experience as evangelical (but see his comment below resisting the seemingly-uncontroversial inference from having an evangelical conversion experience to being an evangelical). The interview Peter links to in support actually leads me to conclude that he’s definitely not an evangelical, and a case can even be made that there’s nothing distinctively Christian in his personal faith.

This is how I then responded:

Jeremy, thanks for the correction. But I simply cannot fathom the inference which you claim to be “uncontroversial” but which in fact totally belies your definition of evangelical. If everyone who has had an evangelical conversion experience is an evangelical, that completely puts paid to your definition of “evangelical” in terms of a set of beliefs and replaces it by a definition like “someone who, regardless of their present beliefs and behaviour, has at some time in the past made an evangelical profession of repentance and faith”. Now I can understand the argument that this is the condition for salvation, but not that this is the correct definition of “evangelical”.

It was in response to this that Jeremy wrote:

I don’t think it’s a crazy inference to move from the claim that his conversion experience was evangelical to the claim that he’s an evangelical. Conversion experiences are nearly definitional for most evangelicals. A genuine conversion experience, to most evangelicals, means that God has initiated a work in your heart, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh and transforming you into Christ’s likeness. A genuinely evangelical conversion experience produces a genuine evangelical. So yes, I did take you to have asserted by implication that he’s an evangelical, and I don’t consider it a lie to report your assertion as what it implies. But I’ve tried to make your position clearer, since you don’t seem to accept that inference.

0 thoughts on “Obama: not a matter of "once evangelical, always evangelical"

  1. Peter,

    To find something on my blog, google ancient hebrew poetry plus a few relevant words, like Obama Trinity. Suitable results will appear at the top of the list.

    On topic, I would think it becoming of evangelicals to emphasize rather than minimize the impact and formative influence evangelical Christianity has had on the vast majority of recent American Presidents (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama).

    In that context, it is then possible to note a variety of paradoxes, such as: Carter, doctrinally speaking, is in many ways the most informed evangelical of the bunch, but would not be considered on that account to have been a better President.

    Obama, more than anyone else, can be said to have passed from the kind of syncretistic indifference that characterizes many who belong to the educated classes in the West, to a robust enough form of Christianity that he considers worship and raising his kids in the faith – unlike Ronald Reagan – essential aspects of his walk with God.

    Furthermore, Obama is against same-sex marriage on “religious grounds:” I for one have no reason to believe he dissembles in so saying. On the other hand, Obama has not articulated a credible pro-life position.

    In response to questions from Rick Warren at the Saddleback Forum and on other occasions, Obama gave the impression that he concurs with some typically evangelical priorities such as a government “hands off” of faith-based initiatives, a revamp of adoption laws, attention to victims of Aids and malaria in Africa, a commitment to reduce the number of abortions in the US, etc.

    If he makes good on those promises, hats off to him. So far, to judge by his appointments, he will govern from the center. In European terms, that translates to “mildly to strongly conservative.” My own guess is that Obama’s administration will pull Europe rightward, not leftward.

    He will do so, furthermore, to the praise of Euroleftists. That’s because most Euroleftists gave up believing in traditional leftist policies some time ago.

  2. Peter,
    This raises an interesting question as to how to we know who is an ‘Evangelical’ or indeed is a ‘Christian’ for that matter. Clearly, subscription to certain beliefs play a part in Evangelical identity , yet Jesus’ definition of someone who has passed from into life is somewhat botanical in nature.

    The parable of the sower and allusions to ‘bearing fruit’ all point to the evidence being based on an external outworking that is visible for all to observe.

    So called altar calls do not seem to me, to be a guarantee that someone has had a conversion experience. I find it disheartening that among many of my charismatic friends, a great proportion of them have fallen away, yet although at one time seemed to be having some kind of spiritual encounter with God, it was not able to sustain them.

    So in Obama’s case, I am more interested in what he does rather than what he says. I think that in the end, it is the fruit that enables us to make this kind of judgement.

    I certainly hold evangelical beliefs but if my life is not bearing the fruit that Jesus speaks of, then I fear I may be disqualified however evangelically orthodox I am in ‘saying the right things’.

  3. John, you are of course right that being a good evangelical does not make someone a good President.

    Don’t tell me about Euroleftists. I am beginning to wonder if I have to vote Conservative if I don’t want Thatcherite weakest-to-the-wall economic policies.

    Iconoclast, I agree. We will have to wait and see what Obama actually does, if he bears fruit consistent with a genuine Christian faith.

  4. Peter, I didn’t claim to be giving an “outline of what it means to be an evangelical”. I wasn’t giving a definition, just some content to evangelical faith that I see as central to being an evangelical. As D.A. Carson would say, being an evangelical is very much more than having a core set of propositional beliefs, but it’s also certainly not less. You accused me of lying about what you said, and then you went on to give a very uncharitable account of what I’d said.

    That being said, I said lots of things about Obama’s statements’ implications for not having a relationship with God. For one, he says he prays but then describes his prayer life as talking with himself. It goes without saying that that’s not much of a relationship with God. He says he sees Jesus as a good moral teacher who is in some vague way a bridge to God (one among many, he says). That doesn’t constitute the kind of relationship with God that the Bible speaks of as founded in one’s being atoned for, however you interpret the atonement. If Christ is just one way among many to bridge the gap to God, then it’s not his atoning sacrifice on the cross that serves as the basis of the relationship, since it’s not about atonement at all.

    Again, if there’s no heaven to be saved to or hell to be saved from, then the relationship isn’t one of salvation at all, and thus it isn’t the relationship spoken of in scripture between Christ and his church.

    As for the main argument of your post, I think we’re disagreeing on the public meaning of “evangelical conversion experience”. You seem to be using “evangelical conversion experience” to mean any kind of altar call involving some kind of faith commitment, where I took it to mean the kind of conversion experience evangelicals believe is the initiation of a salvific covenant relationship with God through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. I can see now how you might have meant it as something else, but I do think how I took it was the most reasonable interpretation.

    Once we think about what you said that way, it’s pretty easy to see how what I said follows. If that’s what the expression means, then Obama seems to me not to have had such an experience, and if he had then I think he would have a very different attitude toward scripture (for one thing, actually believing it and following it when his inclination is to reject it as making God too cruel). I accept your correction of what you meant, but I do think it was reasonable of me to infer from your statement that you meant to be describing him as having had that kind of experience, and I think all the evidence he gives in the interview points to the conclusion that he did not have that kind of experience.

    John, there’s very good reason to believe Obama is not serious in opposing same-sex marriage. See here. His justification for opposing Proposition 8 in California isn’t really consistent with his statements against same-sex marriage. (There are ways to oppose same-sex marriage but also oppose things Prop. 8, but his justification for opposing Prop. 8. seems to me to be flat-out inconsistent with opposing same-sex marriage even on religious grounds.)

  5. Jeremy, I’m sorry if I seemed uncharitable. But I note that you persisted in misrepresenting my position even after I corrected you, and when on my further specific request you withdrew the misrepresentation you did so only in terms which put me rather than you at fault for this.

    Thank you for clarifying that when you wrote about “what I think the boundaries of evangelicalism can include”, in purely doctrinal terms, you did not intend to define these boundaries but that you had in mind an additional precondition for being an evangelical. I would agree with you in principle here, although not on every detail of the doctrinal boundaries.

    You imply that this additional precondition is what you understood me to mean by an “evangelical conversion experience”. But that is not what I had in mind, so we do indeed differ over the meaning of this phrase.

    Actually there are several complex layers of disagreement here. You seem to be suggesting that the set of evangelicals is identical to the set of those who will eventually be saved. I quite specifically deny this: I believe that many Christians who would never call themselves evangelical (and perhaps some who would not call themselves Christians) will be saved, and that there may also be those who would be defined as evangelicals by themselves and by other humans who will not be saved because they are in fact self-deceived hypocrites. There are also all kinds of difficult issues with your position regarding evangelicals, or those who at least appeared for a time to be evangelicals, who wander away from faith or into liberal theology. If you allow that such people exist, then your concept of “evangelical conversion experience” is one which has a meaning only after death and final judgment, as before then we can never know whether any other person’s experience is genuinely leading to salvation.

    Now I can see that the definition you are working with is meaningful within the framework of certain kinds of evangelical theology, kinds which you know I do not accept. But especially within those kinds of theology the term “experience” is misleading because it implies that people will feel something rather specific at the time of conversion.

    My understanding of “evangelical conversion experience” is much more down to earth and popular, with no clear theological implications. I am talking quite specifically about an experience, such as of responding to an altar call – what Obama did, and felt about it. Such an experience, I’m sure you will agree with me, even if subjectively felt in a very genuine way, does not guarantee final salvation. It is on that definition that I claim that Obama genuinely had such an experience. My theology, and I think yours, prevents me from saying definitively that he will be saved, or will not.

  6. Peter, when you left the comment accusing me of lying, I was genuinely taken aback. I had to look back to find the comment where you had said otherwise, and I didn’t remember having seen that. It’s possible that I had written my earlier comment very quickly without enough time to read carefully, or maybe I wrote it in between doing several other things.

    Keep in mind that this was on Thanksgiving in the U.S. and the day after, part of a four-day holiday weekend, and there was a lot going on around our house with a lot of people coming in and out doing many things. There’s no reason for me to think that I didn’t read it the first time, but it’s not surprising to me that it didn’t stick in my long-term memory. I certainly didn’t remember it when I put together my introduction to the post the next day when I incorporated some of the comment I’d left the previous day.

    I made the correction as soon as I saw your comment, and I mean within seconds (or at least I started it within seconds). I did not do so to put you at fault but to explain how I had interpreted you that way and why I didn’t think it was unreasonable to do so. It’s very possible for one person to be innocent in phrasing something in a way that someone else is innocent in misinterpreting, especially if they speak somewhat different dialects of the language and are talking about a slipper term describing a group, in part based on very different experiences of the group the slippery term is supposed to refer to.

    I wasn’t asserting that the set of evangelicals is identical with the set of saved people. I said very clearly in my post that I think there are Catholics who aren’t evangelical who are saved. I do think that genuine evangelicals are all saved. There are some who call themselves evangelicals who aren’t saved, but I wouldn’t call them genuine evangelicals. Evangelicals are subset of those who are saved, and there are cultural pseudo-evangelicals who aren’t genuine believers. I don’t count them are true evangelicals. We, of course, aren’t usually in a position to determine which people these are, so we go about calling them evangelicals, but I think that’s strictly speaking false.

    What I mean by an experience is simply an encounter, a real interaction with God. I don’t mean how it feels, and I don’t mean what content it contains (although there must be a bare minimum for it to be a genuine evangelical conversion). I mean whether it objectively happened. I don’t mean what it seemed like from within.

  7. Jeremy, I should apologise for accusing you of lying because of the implications that that was deliberate. Nevertheless you did continue to misrepresent my position, after I wrote a correction which you accept that you saw. So this is a case of misrepresentation even if accidental.

    Thanks for clarifying the definitions you use. Personally, and I know you disagree here, I don’t find helpful definitions based on matters which we cannot in principle know. Therefore I would prefer to define “evangelical”, and for that matter “Christian”, on the basis of what a person currently professes to believe, and puts into practice, without thereby implying that they will be eternally saved.

    Also I understood the term “experience” in terms of what someone felt, not a matter of what objectively happened. I think that is more in line with normal use of language, but I accept that there is some variation.

  8. Even if I didn’t see your correction, it would be misrepresentation. All that’s required for that is that the way I presented it isn’t something you would accept. I could do that completely innocently. Whether it’s misrepresentation depends only on whether the presentation is accurate.

    On a very different note, I wonder if some of our different perceptions on this are from different contexts of faith. There might be linguistic differences between the UK and US and in our particular locations within the UK and US and our different faith communities that come from different traditions.

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