For the second time in a week, President Barack Obama's religious beliefs have been called into question, this time by N.C. evangelist Franklin Graham.
Appearing on MSNBC Tuesday morning, Graham said he is not sure the president is a Christian. Neither is he certain that Obama is not a Muslim.
"All I know is under Obama, President Obama, the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned about them than the Christians that are being murdered in the Muslim countries," Graham said.
"Islam sees him as a son of Islam ... I can't say categorically that (the president is not Muslim) because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama."
Over the weekend in Ohio, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum criticized Obama's environmental policies, saying they are based on "some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology."
Santorum later said he did not doubt the president's Christianity, but his comments come during a whirlwind of political and policy debates with an explicitly spiritual bent.
The Catholic Church remains locked with the president over the federal requirement that Catholic hospitals and universities provide free coverage for contraceptive services. Belmont Abbey College in Gaston County has sued to block the rule.
Churches statewide are bolstering both sides of the campaign surrounding a proposed amendment to the N.C. constitution to legally limit marriage to a man and a woman.
Monday night, hundreds of people, many waving Bibles, turned out in Salisbury to protest a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold a ban on largely Christian prayer before government meetings.
Meanwhile, Santorum has surged to the front of GOP presidential hopefuls on a campaign built prominently around his spiritual beliefs. The latest polls show a tight race in Michigan, the birthplace of top rival Mitt Romney.
Santorum, a Catholic, has long intermingled his religious tenets with his public commentary in opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.
During a 2008 speech at a Florida college, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania said the devil had taken dead aim on America.
"Satan has his sights on the United States of America," he said in a 2009 speech to Florida college students.
"This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country."
Graham on the candidates
Graham, who now heads his father's Billy Graham Evangelical Association, has not endorsed a presidential candidate. But he said in the days before the South Carolina primary that many of the Republicans would "move the country forward."
On the "Morning Joe" program Tuesday, he gave a much firmer answer when asked if Santorum is a Christian.
"I think so," Graham said. "His values are so clear on moral issues. No question about it ... I think he's a man of faith."
Graham didn't stop there.
On Mitt Romney: "...Most Christians would not recognize Mormonism as part of the Christian faith." (Before the S.C. vote, Graham said Romney's faith was not an issue with him but was for other Christians.)
On Newt Gingrich: "Newt's been married several times ... but he could make a good candidate. I think Newt is a Christian. At least he told me he is."
On Obama: He "has said he's a Christian, so I just have to assume that he is."
Aping the culture
In response to Graham's comments, Melissa Rogers, director for the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School, said it's "deeply regrettable" when civic and religious leaders challenge an elected official's faith.
"Christians should feel free to disagree politically and on policy issues," she said, "but to suggest that people who see things differently are not Christian ...
"A person's relationship with God is something that's personal, that's sacred. Others should have a certain humility before commenting on that relationship."
Tom Currie, dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte and a professor of religion and ethics, said election year efforts to differentiate "real Christians from non-Christians" runs counter to the church's real work.
"I do get concerned when Christians on the left or the right or wherever put more effort to divide than they do to unify," Currie said.
The church's role, he said, "is not to ape the culture and reflect its division, but to be generous in its efforts to bring disparate voices together. And that's hard."
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Charlotte's Muslim community took exception with Graham's comments.
"Franklin Graham's latest comments continue to feed into the conspiracy theory that President Obama is a Muslim and/or his allegiances lie with Islam," said Jibril Hough.
Hough said U.S. drone strikes and military actions have killed innocent Muslim women and children.
"I would venture to say that this number is much more than the number of Christians who have been killed in predominantly Muslim areas of the world."
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