Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bible

Obama’s Absurd Claim About Judaism

Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.

Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.

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Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.

Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.

Perhaps what the president meant is that he’s known more Jews than other presidents. This too is an absurdity, as Ronald Reagan spent 30 years in Hollywood and had Jews coming out his ears. In fact, chances are Barack Obama knows less about Judaism than most presidents, except that he knows a lot of liberal Jews.

What the president does, without question, know a great deal about is the act of preening.

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Franklin Graham’s Selective Outrage

In response to President Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage, the Reverend Franklin Graham put out a statement that said this:

On Tuesday, my state of North Carolina became the 31st state to approve a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. While the move to pass amendments defining marriage is relatively new, the definition of marriage is 8,000 years old and was defined not by man, but by God Himself. In changing his position from that of senator/candidate Obama, President Obama has, in my view, shaken his fist at the same God who created and defined marriage. It grieves me that our president would now affirm same-sex marriage, though I believe it grieves God even more. The institution of marriage should not be defined by presidents or polls, governors or the media. The definition was set long ago and changing legislation or policy will never change God’s definition. This is a sad day for America. May God help us.

About this statement, I have several thoughts, the first of which is that the definition of marriage has changed even within the Bible during those 8,000 years. For example, among the wealthy in ancient Israel, polygamy was a commonly accepted practice. Sarah gave her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham. Jacob married two sisters (Rachel and Leah). Esau had three wives. And marriages were often arranged. So even the Bible’s definition of marriage hasn’t been quite as static as Graham insists.

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In response to President Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage, the Reverend Franklin Graham put out a statement that said this:

On Tuesday, my state of North Carolina became the 31st state to approve a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. While the move to pass amendments defining marriage is relatively new, the definition of marriage is 8,000 years old and was defined not by man, but by God Himself. In changing his position from that of senator/candidate Obama, President Obama has, in my view, shaken his fist at the same God who created and defined marriage. It grieves me that our president would now affirm same-sex marriage, though I believe it grieves God even more. The institution of marriage should not be defined by presidents or polls, governors or the media. The definition was set long ago and changing legislation or policy will never change God’s definition. This is a sad day for America. May God help us.

About this statement, I have several thoughts, the first of which is that the definition of marriage has changed even within the Bible during those 8,000 years. For example, among the wealthy in ancient Israel, polygamy was a commonly accepted practice. Sarah gave her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham. Jacob married two sisters (Rachel and Leah). Esau had three wives. And marriages were often arranged. So even the Bible’s definition of marriage hasn’t been quite as static as Graham insists.

Second, does Graham believe that then-Governor Ronald Reagan “shook his fist at the same God who created and defined marriage” when Reagan embraced the first no-fault divorce law in the nation? (Reagan also signed legislation liberalizing abortion laws when he was governor of California.) Nothing has done more to damage the institution of marriage than the “divorce revolution” that began in the late 1960s. In addition, and of particular relevance to Graham, Jesus was far more critical of divorce than he was of homosexuality (of which Jesus said nothing).

My point isn’t that there’s no Scriptural guidance on matters of sexual relations. Instead, it’s the selective nature of the outrage. If one were to list the catalogue of things that grieve the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, it would be long – and near the top of the list would be indifference to the poor, pride, self-righteousness, anger, gossip, and hypocrisy. I image the people drafting press releases at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association will be kept quite busy speaking out against these things.

I wonder if Franklin Graham realizes (as his father eventually did) that his forays into politics are beginning to undermine his ministry (this is a subject I’ve written about before. It appears that Graham is a fiercely conservative person whose politics is to some degree sculpturing his religious/political priorities. And Graham’s words and statements, at least in the political arena, are often censorious and lack a spirit of grace and reconciliation. It is one thing to state, in an intelligent and measured way, one’s objection to same-sex marriage. It is quite another for the president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to say the president, in expressing his personal support for same-sex marriage, is “shaking his fist at God.” I say that as someone who shares Graham’s religious faith and probably agrees with him on most political issues. Yet his public pronouncements are at times cringe-inducing, his explanations shallow, his tone belligerent.

There is such a thing as being a winsome and effective witness to one’s faith. C.S. Lewis possessed those qualities. I wish Franklin Graham did.

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