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Is Obama a Gnostic?

Thomas Whitley

Yesterday Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. That letter said, in so many words, that the Department of Justice would no longer be defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that was signed into law under Bill Clinton in 1996. I think this is the right move because the law clearly discriminated against gays and lesbians. No matter your position on same-sex marriage, denying that this law (and the recently repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell") is simply untenable.

There has been some conservative backlash to this move by the President and his AG, but it has been admittedly mild, with Republicans seemingly realizing the political futility of fighting the President on this issue at this time. The religious right, though, is not worried about their political future (at least not in the sense of national secular politics) and so many from this fray are speaking out against President Obama's decision, which he and Eric Holder is strictly a legal one.

Al Mohler has said, as expected, that this "represents a tragic milestone in the betrayal of marriage." I will not get into my disagreements with the general substance of Mohler's post, as I'm confident most of you know where I stand on this issue. There was one statement, though that jumped off the page at me.

President Obama's new Press Secretary, Jay Carney, said in the presser yesterday that Obama's personal opinion on same-sex marriage was “distinct from this legal decision.” Al Mohler, clearly not buying this goes on to say:

Well, there may be issues in which the distinction between the legal and the moral arguments makes a real difference, but this is not one of those issues. To suggest that President Obama does not personally support same-sex marriage is to posit a dualism within him that is nothing less than Gnostic.

For starters, I am glad to know who to turn to when I need clarification on when it is appropriate to make a distinction between a personal and a legal position. The kicker for me, though, was Mohler's accusation that Obama is a Gnostic. A Gnostic? Really?

Besides that fact that gnosticism (notice the little "g") was a rather popular movement in the second and third centuries (we may even be able to talk about proto-gnostics in the late 1st century), the idea that there were Gnostics - i.e. a specific group that can be labeled by this name and by a specific set of beliefs - has largely fallen out of vogue with many scholars of early christianities. That is not to say that their may not have been, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine. It is much more appropriate to speak of gnostic groups; that is, groups that can loosely be defined as gnostic because they held certain beliefs that we today have come to call "gnostic," though many groups did not hold all of these beliefs.

Furthermore, even if President Obama does support same-sex marriage yet has been defending DOMA until now does not make him a Gnostic, as Mohler believes. For Gnosticism (or gnosticism)  is the belief that all material things are bad and that the spiritual is what is right and what should be sought. Further, gnosticism teaches that knowledge (gnosis in Greek) is the key to salvation. President Obama displays none of these characteristics.

Now, was Al Mohler really trying to label President Obama as a gnostic, the likes of which the world has not really seen for about 1700 years? I doubt it. Instead, what I think Mohler was trying to do is use "Gnostic" as a scare tactic. That is, many Christians, if they've even heard the word, would likely think of it as "heresy" (which, as we know, is always defined by those in power and just so happens to never encroach on any of their beliefs). So, if we can't label Obama as a Muslim, then we might as well label him as a heretic. That should work, right? It's the same tactic that Republicans have been trying to use with the words "socialism" and "socialist." They are "dirty" words in our society, never mind the numerous studies that have shown just how "socialist" most people in our country really are ("For most of the government programs tested in the poll, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, college loans, and aid to farmers and unemployed workers, Americans say that avoiding significant spending cuts is more important than reducing the deficit." via CNN).

So, is Obama a Gnostic? In a word, no. President Obama is no more a gnostic than Al Mohler is. Though President Obama may well personally support same-sex marriage even while saying that his views on the issue are "constantly evolving" that does not make him a gnostic, not even close. It makes him a politician.