Return of the apostate president

Gentle readers, it's time to set the wayback machine to May 12th in the year 2008, where we read the following in a New York Times op-ed page piece written by historian Edward N. Luttwak, of the Center for Strategic andInternational Studies.

In Islam, however, there is no such thing as a half-Muslim. Like all monotheistic religions, Islam is an exclusive faith. As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother's Christian background is irrelevant.

Of course, as most Americans understand it, Senator Obama is not a Muslim. He chose to become a Christian, and indeed has written convincingly to explain how he arrived at his choice and how important his Christian faith is to him. His conversion, however, was a crime in Muslim eyes; it is "irtidad" or "ridda," usually translated from the Arabic as "apostasy," but with connotations of rebellion and treason. Indeed, it is the worst of all crimes that a Muslim can commit, worse than murder (which the victim's family may choose to forgive).

This drew a fierce response from Clark Hoyt, the Times public editor. He said this information was totally, totally, totally wrong and the newspaper should not have printed it.

Hoyt is, of course, at least half wrong. Here is what I wrote at the time here at GetReligion:

Luttwak clearly used language that was too simplistic on the issue of apostasy and Muslim identity, where claims of faith and ethnicity blur many lines. Yet it seems that, after interviewing some scholars in the context of North America -- Hoyt comes close to going to the other extreme and saying that all Muslims agree with his more moderate, tolerant, evolving view of Islamic law. ...

The problem, of course, is that there is no one Islam, no one view of this issue. Truth is, debates continue to rage inside a number of different Muslim nations and cultures on how to handle apostasy and blasphemy. ...

So all Muslims will see President Obama as an apostate? Wrong.

So there are no Muslims who will see President Obama as an apostate? Wrong again.

Be careful out there.

Now, don't you wish that the Times would view this as a real news story that deserves coverage of both sides of this debate? In fact, don't you wish that the mainstream press would admit that there is no one Muslim point of view on this issue and treat it as a subject worthy of serious reporting? Instead, the press has gone into full-press attack mode and is ignoring a valid angle of the story.

Right now, CNN seems to have found someone to blame for the president's Muslim identity problem -- the Rev. Franklin Graham. What does Graham -- who has spent time in prayer with Obama -- say about this issue?

Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, son of famed presidential religious adviser Billy Graham, said ... that he believes President Barack Obama is a Christian, but that the president was born a Muslim because of his father's religious beliefs.

Asked by CNN Chief National Correspondent John King if he had any doubts about Obama's Christian faith, Graham, who has made controversial comments about Islam in the past, said the president's background is fueling the false perception that he is a Muslim.

"I think the president's problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name," Graham said on CNN's "John King, USA."

"Now it's obvious that the president has renounced the prophet Mohammed and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That is what he says he has done, I cannot say that he hasn't. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said," Graham continued.

So let's review.

From a Christian point of view, Obama has confessed faith in Jesus Christ as his savior and he -- for a long time -- was active in a liberal mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ. That created controversy, but the Obama family had a clear identity.

Since moving into the White House he has worshiped privately with a wide variety of liberal Christians and progressive evangelicals, but has elected not to join an actual Christian congregation (which has raised eyebrows in African-American church circles). As you can see in this new Washington Post story, the president's handlers are pushing this story line like crazy in response to the Pew Forum poll results.

Now, while conservative Christians have plenty of reasons to argue with his theology, there is no public evidence that he is anything other than what he says he is -- a liberal Christian who takes a non-literal, modernist approach to scripture and some doctrines.

What if he is a Christian who believes that salvation is found through the practice of Islam as well as Christian faith? That's irrelevant, since that would be consistent with his beliefs as a liberal Christian. There is no evidence whatsoever that he is somehow trying to practice both faiths day after day (like that famous Episcopal priest up Seattle, who was defrocked, last time I heard).

From a Muslim point of view, things are more complex. There are Muslims who would argue that it is impossible to convert out of the faith. Thus, Obama is a Muslim. Others would say that he has left the faith and that he is a Muslim apostate, which is a horror. Others would say that he was a Muslim, but that he has converted to Christianity and, while that may be bad, his new identity must be accepted.

Are there any Muslims -- outside of a faculty lounge at Georgetown University -- who would say that he was never a Muslim? That would be an interesting issue for coverage with detailed quotations that are on the record.

Yes, religion is complex, especially when mixed with issues of race and ethnicity. But don't you wish the mainstream press had taken this subject seriously a long time ago?

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