American exceptionalism: Does Obama really believe in God and America?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 7 2011 7:30 PM

Exceptionally Articulate

Obama's eloquence fails to quiet charges that he does not believe in God or America.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

President Obama does not treat all conspiracy theories alike. He dismisses those who question where he was born, but he's unsettled by those who question whether he is born again. At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, he said his Christian faith has sustained him through his presidency—"all the more so," he said, "when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Americans like their presidents to share their values, and religion is often a proxy for that connection. There has been at least some confusion about what Obama believes; in a recent poll, half of Americans said Obama holds religious values different from their own. Those who see the difference tend to view him unfavorably.

Of the three prayer-breakfast speeches the president has given since coming to office, this was his most personal talk on faith. As Time's Michael Scherer pointed out, in 2009, Obama used the first-person pronoun I 15 times in his prayer-breakfast remarks. He used the first-person pronoun 10 times in 2010. Last week, he used it 44 times. It was hard not to see the political balancing act: He was trying to give the religious charge just enough credence to smash it to pieces. It is a strategy Obama will need to perfect as the 2012 election approaches as he faces a similar charge—"he just doesn't believe in it"—on such issues as "American exceptionalism" and capitalism itself.

All of these issues represent inroads to a broader toxic argument against Obama that Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, articulated in a strategy memo four years ago: "I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values." Penn proposed targeting Obama's "lack of American roots" by wrapping Clinton almost literally in the flag. "Let's explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy fund" What Penn wanted to do—without ever getting caught doing so—was raise the question in voter's minds: Is he one of us?

At its most corrosive, this set of issues promotes the idea that the president isn't simply supporting the "wrong" policies but has the "wrong" beliefs. But Penn failed (spectacularly), so how potent is this mix now?

It's big enough that the president had to address the religion element in his prayer breakfast. Sen. John McCain also addressed these issues when trying to make peace with Obama by defending him against the toughest conservative charge: "He is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals."

The size of the exposure may also be determined by which GOP candidates try to feed it.

Is that what Mitt Romney was trying to do when he changed the subtitle of his book from No Apology: The Case for American Greatness to No Apology: Believe in America? It sounds right out of Penn's playbook. Romney's critique of the president is not just that Obama does not share American values but that Obama is intent on smothering them. Then again, as Romney allies say, maybe he is just trying to increase book sales.

When Newt Gingrich suggests the president "doesn't seem to have the kind of personality that allows normal Americans to get the rhythm of who he is," he is hitting on this theme. In his recent book he does it with a sledgehammer by suggesting Obama and the "secular-socialist machine" pose as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. He has since moderated that charge but not its essential thrust. Even if he's not comparing the president to those two regimes, he's saying that he is so non-American that a person must stretch to find an analogy among the people who committed the greatest acts of human depravity.

On Monday, the president addressed the Chamber of Commerce in the latest of a series of steps aimed at rebutting the idea that he does not believe in American commerce. It is the easiest of these values charges to rebut because the president has some control over policies that might help or hurt business.

Opponents are likely to see Obama's prayer-breakfast speech or the American boosterism of his State of the Union address as insincere: He's just talking about these issues now because he's got an election coming. Such charges may have some power, especially if voters don't want to investigate them. But on the two big charges—that Obama doesn't believe in God, and doesn't believe in America—it's hard to make the case that the president has just discovered his faith or his voice in praising the American spirit.

Obama is a Christian—as he likes to put it, he has "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." You don't have to hunt for proof. His embrace of Christ is a key point in his 1995 autobiography. He has spoken throughout his career about his faith. In 2004, he gave an extensive interview on the topic. In 2006, he scolded his own party for shutting out religion and scolded himself for not always boasting about the Christian roots of his values. A Politico story written in the first year of his presidency said he referred more to Jesus than George W. Bush did. (In the face of this, those who still want to judge Obama an unbeliever should go read their Matthew.)

It is also possible to find the same antecedents for the president's State of the Union address. When Obama spoke about America's history and the unique ability of Americans to shape their destiny, many saw it as an attempt to answer the charge that he did not believe in "American exceptionalism." That was certainly part of the pitch, but he didn't have to go to the library to hunt up the passages. Before Obama was facing the charge that he was not a believer in this brand of American bootstrapping, he was singing the identical song as a candidate.

To Obama's strongest critics, his view of "American exceptionalism" will not be sufficient. But they're not the audience for Obama's suasion. The voters who may need convincing are the ones in the middle of the electorate, the ones who believed he shared their values even when Sarah Palin said he was "palling around with terrorists." It's the message the president gave in his interview with Fox's Bill O'Reilly. "I'm the same guy."

Become a fan of Slate and  John Dickerson on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.