Now, the Presidential race is really on – and down to two candidates, both who identify themselves as "Christians." But, it appears, that many Americans (and a strong majority of evangelicals) don't think either of them actually are Christians. In other words, both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney profess to be Christians, but that profession is widely disbelieved. Romney is doubted primarily because he is a Mormon, while President Obama is doubted for a variety of reasons.
The obvious question is: are they Christians? Evangelical Christians see being a Christian as having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ made possible through Christ's death on the cross, for our sin, and in our place. Through His sacrifice we can receive new life in Christ, a new life that comes through a conversion experience. This inward reality is accompanied by outward signs bearing witness to that fact. In the end, though, only the person (and God) can say with certainty whether he or she has been converted.
Even though about 75% of Americans believe themselves to be Christians, most devout evangelicals do not believe that three of four Americans are "Christian" and would actually seek to share Christ with them so they might become Christians. In other words, for evangelicals being "Christian" is not a demographic category-- "I was born in America, am not Jewish, and went to church as a child"– but rather a faith commitment with a conversion when they moved from unbelief to belief. To use Bible terminology, they've moved from death to life, and, to use Jesus' words specifically, they are "born again" (John 3:3).
In a case where someone is within a religious tradition which evangelical Christians consider to be outside of "biblical Christianity," most evangelicals would believe such a person could be a Christian. For example, if you ask an evangelical, "Could a Mormon be a Christian?" they will generally say "yes" but will follow up stating that as a Christian they should and will eventually leave Mormonism.
In short, I don't know whether Governor Romney or President Obama is a Christian because God has not granted me the insight to see into a person's soul, nor have I been invited to have spiritual conversations with either of them to help me understand what they mean when they convey their experiences and beliefs.
So there is much we cannot know with certainty. Yet there are some things we do know: the perceptions of Protestant pastors, evangelical churchgoers, and random Americans on this issue.
First, about President Obama:
- President Obama has a compelling testimony that would make an evangelical proud (See CBN's David Brody's comments about his testimony), yet his positions and policies have left many evangelicals questioning the sincerity of that belief.
- President Obama is thought by a substantial minority (incorrectly) to be a Muslim. He is a mainline Protestant and thinks and acts like one (being inclusive of other religions, celebrating others faiths, etc.) Yet, his testimony is very "evangelical" in its approach.
- Protestant pastors, however, are not convinced: according to our research, only 41% of Protestant pastors consider President Obama to be what he claims-- a Christian.
- Furthermore, Americans on the whole are not convinced: according to a 2010 Pew Research poll, only 34% consider the President to be a Christian.
Second, about Governor Romney:
- Governor Romney, it appears, is a devout Mormon. He has even served as a Mormon missionary doing a standard two-year stint.
- He calls himself a Christian as many Mormons do. The Mormon faith now considers itself to be a Christian denomination, which is a major shift from formerly calling itself the one true church and seeing denominations as apostate.
- Regardless of this shift within Mormonism, a significant number of Americans, and the majority of evangelicals Christians, do not believe Mormons to be Christians, viewing them as a completely different religion outside of the denominations of Christianity. In our research, 75% of Protestant pastors (not just evangelicals) disagreed that Mormons are Christians. According to a 2007 Pew Research poll, only 52% of Americans consider Mormons to be Christians and evangelicals would be even more wary of seeing Mormons as Christians.
If the election continues as it is shaping up, it presents an interesting situation that should lead to some important conversations. What do you do with two candidates, both of whom profess to be Christians when so many people do not believe they actually are Christians? My hope is that we might have a helpful discussion about the three ways that people seem to use the term "Christian":
- as a demographic category. (I am a non-Hindu, non-Jewish, non-Muslim, non-atheist American filling out my Facebook profile.)
- as a church attendance connection. (I regularly-- or even sporadically-- attend a church that considers itself Christian.)
- as a faith conversion. (I was once without Christ but have now trusted him as Savior and follow him as Lord.)
Evangelicals tend to see the third category as "Christian" in the biblical sense of the word. That makes it hard to demand an answer to the question, "Do you believe _________ is a Christian?" However, it is an incredibly important question.
As political campaigns begin in earnest, this issue will become part of the debate-- and it will not be easy to make clear distinctions that show both truth and grace. Evangelical Christians already hold a minority position as to what a "Christian" actually is-- one which others often find judgmental even while Evangelicals see "conversionism" and biblical Christianity as central to what it means to be a Christian.
Yes, politics will always make things more complicated. Yet, even in the midst this politically charged religious conversation, Christians need to explain what they mean by "Christian" terminology and why. They must, ultimately, "be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you [and to] do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15-16, HCSB).
That will be a difficult and necessary balance during this political season.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.