Who Is the ‘Real’ Christian?

American politicians, unlike European ones, not only can but must play the Jesus card when they are faltering. Accordingly, Obama has done so, and just as accordingly, earnest Christians are now mulling over the “Is he really a Christian?” question that always arises whenever any polarizing public figure says he or she believes in Jesus.

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For myself, I’m happy to accept his or anyone else’s profession of faith. My attitude toward anybody who wishes to call himself “Christian” was determined decades ago by the formative experience of a) becoming a crappy half-assed Christian myself and b) reading The Screwtape Letters, which impressed upon my soul the dangers of reading others out of the Body of Christ as though somebody died and made me bishop. Screwtape warns Wormwood to keep just one question from his “patient’s” mind: “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?”

It’s a question I never forget when somebody who doesn’t look all that Christian to me tells me, “I’m a Christian.” So my discipline, absent the charism of reading souls, is to grant the status of brother or sister in Christ to any person who professes faith in Christ. I extend this very far and will grant that even the most confused person (say, a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness) who says he or she is trying to obey Jesus is trying to obey Him and is not necessarily culpable for his or her wrong ideas about Him.

Similarly, when confronted with a person who professes belief in Jesus, yet who is acting in a way that seems to me to obviously constitute either venial or grave matter for sin, my starting assumption (which can change, if experience and common sense beat it out of me) is that that the person’s culpability may be diminished by ignorance or lack of freedom. This largely frees me from playing the game of saying, “I will judge whether you are really a Christian by your actions, but demand that you judge me by my intentions.”

Yes, some people make it obvious that Jesus knew what He was talking about when He said, “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Mt 7:6). But still and all, the best place to start is with Mark Twain’s counsel: “Never attribute to malice what can be sufficiently explained by stupidity.” Compared to a moral fault, an intellectual fault is a mere peccadillo. Having my own share of moral and intellectual faults, I prefer to cut them the same slack, as Jesus has cut me, and grant them the basic status of brother or sister in Christ if they ask it of me.


However, that said, when somebody contradicts the teaching of Holy Church in thought or deed, I also have no compunction at all about arguing with error and, where necessary, rebuking sins. So I can, to give a very public and obvious example, credit apostate Catholic and Mormon Glenn Beck’s claim to be (in some sense or other) seeking to follow Jesus. Who died and made me his judge? Given what appears to be a rather tortured family history and psychological profile, he may, with only the most minimal culpability, be utterly ignorant of the Catholic Faith of his childhood and might, for all I know, be doing his utmost to follow Jesus through the tangled thicket of his disordered mind and emotions. More power to him if so. I will certainly not presume to stand in judgment of how such a poor soul stands in the judgment of the Lord of Hosts, and I hope that God will reckon him to have been as faithful as he could be to the Light he has received. How could it be otherwise, given my own tangled thicket? As St. Ephraim supposedly said, “Be kind to every person you meet. For every person is fighting a great battle.”

But being kind does not, in the slightest, mean that I have to accept Beck’s claims about the truth of the Mormon faith, nor about any of the many other crazy or silly things he alleges. He wishes to be accepted as somebody who places faith in Jesus? Fine and dandy! I do so. He wishes me to believe that Woodrow Wilson is the source of all evil in the American Experiment? Show me the evidence. He wishes me to believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls are secret Christian documents hidden to protect the faith from Constantine?  Sorry, Glenn, but you have no idea what you are talking about, and I will tell you that to your face. Doesn’t mean I don’t credit that you are trying to follow Jesus despite your faults and failings. It just means that, on this subject, you have just displayed a massive failing, and I am under no obligation to order my life according to your historical quackery.

In exactly the same way, I will accept Obama’s claim to be a Christian but feel no obligation whatever to think him a particularly good one. Intellectually, he clearly has only the barest familiarity with actual orthodox belief about the person and work of Jesus. Morally, his thinking suffers (like so many Americans) from an uncritical embrace of consequentialism, which leads to killing babies at home and fruitless wars abroad (not to mention voting himself the power to murder anybody he pleases for the sake of “national security”).

Is he a “real Christian”? Depends on what you mean by that. Does he see himself as attempting to follow Jesus? He says he does. So I’ll take him at his word, just as I will take anybody else at his word when he says that. Is he doing a bang-up job of that project? To look at results, I’d say, “No.” But “results” only cover externals. Some of his views and actions constitute grave matter for sin — as, for instance, his support for abortion, including such extreme forms as partial birth abortion. That’s all I need to know to disagree with and oppose him on such matters.

But as to his interior freedom and knowledge in supporting that intrinsic and grave evil? I ain’t God. Not my job to judge his soul, just his actions and words. My purpose in judging his actions and words is not to prognosticate about his eternal destiny any more than it was to prognosticate about the souls of Catholic torture supporters (who, if they knew their faith, had much less excuse than a man who was raised with no exposure to Catholic teaching). It is to do the much more mundane work of acting as a citizen of the United States (and as a member of the body of Christ) so that I can inform my own conscience and act rightly in the public square as a Christian citizen.


In short, then, I think the question, “Is so and so a real Christian?” is largely a waste of time. In common parlance, it means, “Can we determine from somebody’s words and actions whether they are worthy in our eyes of being regarded as a disciple of Jesus Christ and an inheritor of salvation?” That godlike presumption requires us to make judgments that no mortal flesh can make about the interior life of another human being. If somebody asks me to regard him or her as a Christian, I think the Christian thing to do is to honor the request in charity. Does that mean I am now certain they are going to heaven? Of course not! I’m not even certain of that for myself. As Dante reminds us, merely being a Christian is no “Get out of Hell” card. His Inferno is full of them, including a number of popes. I just mean, “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?”

At the same time, if a person asks me to regard him as a good Christian (which is what remarks like Obama’s are calculated to do, because they mean, “Trust me as a leader and a determiner of public policy, because I am an exemplary member of your religious tribe”), I have as much right to ask of him what Jesus asks of me whenever I sin or fall short intellectually and morally: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” A brother or sister Christian who, by word or deed, offers me venial or grave matter for sin by, say, proposing the truth of Mormonism or the goodness of abortion or the embrace of consequentialism is proposing ideas and actions that I can reject without the slightest hesitation. If he lives out those sins, I can rebuke them without the slightest hesitation as well.

That doesn’t mean I am standing in judgment over his or her eternal destiny, though. What do I know of their culpability? And still less do I know the action of grace in their lives. I have sinned badly at times, and yet God has never given up on me. So if a serious sinner asks me to believe him when he says he is still trying to follow Jesus, I will grant that he is. But I will not pretend he is not still a serious sinner, and I will by no means uncritically accept what he says merely because of some tribal affiliation. I will compare what he says and does with the teaching of the Church.

So it comes down to the old maxim, “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” To be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus. It is, in the most elementary analysis, to have been baptized. Just a step up from that, it is to seek, in the barest possible way, the Lord who is easy to please and hard to satisfy. The Good Thief was a man whose entire life was a huge waste. Everything he had done with his life had led to the most ignominious execution that any loser in antiquity could face. By his own confession, he had it coming. All he had to bring to the table at the end was that miserable confession of abject failure. And yet, by the miracle of grace, he was accepted by our Lord as a “real Christian.”

If a slob like that can, in the final minutes of his life, bring that little to the table and still find acceptance by Jesus, then I think I had better not put too many membership requirements between me and Jesus by reading others out of the Body of Christ, for the measure I use will be measured to me. I don’t have to buy a fellow Christian’s ideas, and I don’t have to approve of his actions (nor will I when he contradicts the teaching of the Church). But I do have to accept him for the sake of the Lord he professes to seek. If I’m wrong, I figure Jesus will sort it all out on That Day.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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