President Obama interviewed a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for a New York Review of Books piece published Monday, but it was his comment on devout Christians that captured headlines.
Obama and Marilynne Robinson spoke on numerous topics, but the interview took a strange turn when the president brought up “Gilead,” the author’s book about a pastor living in Iowa in the 1950s.
“How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Obama asked, the New York Times reported.
Robinson told the president that Christians who are “turning in on themselves – and, God knows, arming themselves” do not take their faith seriously when the target is an “imagined other.”
The president also said, “Sometimes Christian interpretation [of scripture] seems to posit an ‘us versus them [mentality].'”
“Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive,” said Robinson. “‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ – which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”
Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea have collaborated to create “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” which confirms that groups like Pew Research, Newsweek and The Economist also identify Christians as “the world’s most widely persecuted religious group.”
The president also talked to Robinson about the politics of pessimism, her time growing up in Idaho, values of “hard work and honesty” he witnessed in places like Kansas, and the problem of “dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics.”
Obama awarded Robinson the 2012 National Humanities Medal, which honors individuals or groups whose work expands citizens’ understanding of history, literature, languages, philosophy and other humanities subjects.