Was it cynical to ask Walker if Obama is a Christian? (Yes) Was it a valid political question? (Yes)


Perhaps Gov. Scott Walker should have just said, "Who am I to judge?"

In a way, it appears that this may have been what he was trying to say, or at least that's one reading of his problematic remarks to The Washington Post.

Or perhaps he should have just said, "Of course Barack Obama is a Christian. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., confirmed that Obama was baptized in Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago sometime during the early 1990s, although it doesn't appear that the church recorded the date. Some people think that it was in 1988, but no one is sure."

Republicans who are asked this gotcha question in the future will know that -- while the doctrinal specifics of Obama's faith remain a mystery, and he has never joined a church inside the DC Beltway -- this is a man who has testified, as follows:

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn't suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

As David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network candidly put it: "That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience."

So, as I have stressed many times, there is no reason not to believe that Obama considers himself a member of the United Church of Christ, for decades the flock that has defined the left edge of free church, congregational Protestantism.

So what happened in The Washington Post story that is creating such an online buzz?

The key question, frankly, is the headline. Does it express what Walker was actually saying? That headline, of course, proclaims:

Gov. Scott Walker: ‘I don’t know’ whether Obama is a Christian

Now, read the top of this report and try to figure out what happened in this exchange.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott K. Walker, a prospective Republican presidential contender, said Saturday he does not know whether President Obama is a Christian.

“I don’t know,” Walker said in an interview at the JW Marriott hotel in Washington, where he was attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

Told that Obama has frequently spoken publicly about his Christian faith, Walker maintained that he was not aware of the president’s religion.

“I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that,” Walker said, his voice calm and firm. “I’ve never asked him that,” he added. “You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?”

Clearly, this exchange with the Post team at the scene was somewhat combative.

My reading is that Walker is trying to say something like this: "That's a clown question, bro. How am I supposed to know the contents of another man's soul?"

The Post team, to its credits, does show enough of the exchange to let readers know that Walker thought this question was unnecessary:

Walker said such questions from reporters are reflective of a broader problem in the nation’s political-media culture, which he described as fixated on issues that are not relevant to most Americans.

“To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” he said.

You also know that Walker's press team was standing nearby, say, "No, no, no...."

After the interview was completed, Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster telephoned The Washington Post to say the governor was trying to make a point of principle by not answering such kinds of questions, not trying to cast doubt on Obama’s faith.

“Of course the governor thinks the president is a Christian,” she said.“He thinks these kinds of gotcha questions distract from what he’s doing as governor of Wisconsin to make the state better and make life better for people in his state.”

So what was going on here? I was a "gotcha" question, of course. But was it a valid question?

It is rather cynical to say "yes," but I think it was a valid question, because of the political age in which we live.

But here is the problem and it's one that I run into whenever -- in GetReligion posts -- I stress that I believe that Obama is what he says he is, a person's whose moral and political beliefs point toward his faith ties to liberal Protestantism.

You see, there are people who want to know more about the CONTENT of Obama's faith, before they accept his profession of faith. There are others who say, "The man says he's a Christian, so he is. People should just accept that and move on."

That's an interesting debate, but not one that is taking place inside newsrooms. The question, for most newsroom people, is, "So what kind of wacky believer is this particular Republican? Let's find out."

Is this a doctrinal question? Of course not. It's a political question. Never forget that politics is real and doctrine is not so real.

So what would it look like, if a reporter tried to turn this situation around and ask a similar question or two to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton? What gotcha questions should reporters ask her, if the goal is to use religion to score political points? Perhaps walk her line by line through the Ten Commandments?


Some figures on the right have consistently questioned Obama’s faith, with some suggesting suggested that he is a Muslim. Obama, however, has often talked about his Christian faith, as he did recently at the National Prayer Breakfast.
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