by John Blake
(CNN)—People have all sorts of questions for presidential candidates in an election year. But there was one question I asked last weekend that scores of readers griped about:
|BACK ON THE TRAIL—President Barack Obama walks from the White House to Marine One, Oct. 24, in Washington, enroute to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Why do so many people doubt President Barack Obama’s faith?
Obama has talked publicly about his faith for years, but doubts persist. Why? Was it race? Was he a different kind of Christian than his predecessors? How can anyone judge whether another person is a Christian?
Those are some of the questions I presented in the article. The reaction was stunning: more than 8,000 comments, 25,000 Facebook shares, 700 tweets and citations on political websites such as Talking Points Memo and the Washington Monthly.
Praise and criticism came from all political sides—liberals and conservatives both liked the piece and loathed it. Some saw it as a ringing defense of the progressive Christian traditions that shaped Obama’s faith. Others thought I was trying to sabotage the president’s re-election chances with an unfair question.
The comments from readers tended to land on certain themes.
He’s not Christian—no matter what anybody says:
I got the impression that if Obama were suddenly surrounded by an angelic host during a press conference, and the voice of God declared, “He is not a Muslim,” some still would not believe it.
A reader named “Paul” put it this way:
“Sorry, the premise that Obama is a new kind of Christian is, in my opinion, just flat wrong. He is a Muslim.”
Who gets to determine if someone is a Christian?
Other readers took offense at some pastors in the article who declared that Obama couldn’t be a Christian because he never talked about being “born again” and he supported same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
The article mentioned several prominent conservative Christians—including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham—who questioned Obama’s faith.
One pastor in the article, the Rev. Steven Andrew, author of “Making a Strong Nation,” even said that he thought Obama was “an anti-Christ.”
A reader identified as “C. J Mills” wrote:
“These ministers represent the kind of Christianity that makes me reluctant to say to people I don’t know that I’m a Christian, and the kind of speakers for the faith that drove all my children out of churches because they would not put up with such judgmentmentalism. …”
A ‘hit’ piece on Obama?
What was most surprising to me was the reaction of Obama supporters. The article featured several progressive Christians who said the sources for Obama’s faith are not sinister. The president’s faith is influenced by a brand of liberal Protestantism that dominated American public life during the early 20th century and a biblical perspective shaped by his exposure to the Black church and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
A “Cindy” called me Sunday and left a two-minute phone message skewering the story, and added a lengthy e-mail.
“Your Sunday morning pre-election hit piece on President Obama is an outrage! ‘Is he the right kind of Christian?’ ‘He’s been called the anti-Christ.’ Really? It is disgusting, and doing it on a Sunday morning is an outrage.”
I called Cindy at home and, after apologizing for her “cranky” message, she explained the source for some of her anger. She’s an Obama supporter living in a conservative state, and she said was on edge because of the election. She thought any article questioning Obama’s faith would convince people not to vote for him.
Another reader, “Muffin72,” had the opposite reaction. The reader thought the article was a puff piece on Obama:
“Nice CNN Obama PR piece trying to get a last grasp at another group of voters. … You can’t support abortion and be a good Christian at the same time. … Sorry, it just doesn’t compute.”
Other commentators asked when I would write a story asking if Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, was a Christian. One commentator frankly declared progressive Christianity was an “apostate form of false Christianity.”
One of most unusual comments came from a “Clarke.”
“John Blake, I do not care for your article. To be fair, please tell us in your own words, what is the right Jew, the right Mormon, the right Christian. Why CNN would let you write about any religion, is beyond me. Religion is a personal thing, and does not belong on your sleeve and for you to judge others is just wrong. Makes me wonder if there was not money exchanged for this article. Shame, shame on you and CNN.”
I can assure you Clarke, no one paid me to write the story. Yet there was a payoff for me.
Most journalists love to get people talking about what they write. Though I’ll always wonder if some of the commenters actually read the entire article, I’m glad that a provocative question could generate so many follow-up questions, even angry ones.