LOS ANGELES — President Barack Obama has taken plenty of heat in conservative Christian circles for a remark he made in 2006 in which he said that that United States was no longer "just" a Christian nation, but was religiously diverse. Now, it turns out, he has allies for that view: evangelical Christian leaders.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the National Association of Evangelicals said that when it surveyed selected evangelical leaders about whether the United States was a Christian nation, 68 percent said no.
"Much of the world refers to America as a Christian nation, but most of our Christian leaders don't think so," said Leith Anderson, the association's president. "The Bible only uses the word 'Christian' to describe people and not countries. Even those who say America is a Christian nation admit that there are lots of non-Christians and even anti-Christian beliefs and behaviors."
The association said that some respondents to its June survey said, in essence, that "perhaps the United States was a Christian nation, but it is no longer." Others rejected the idea of that a nation can be "Christian" altogether.
In his 2006 speech to a liberal Christian group, then-Sen. Barack Obama said: "Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation — at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."
Variations of those remarks have circulated endlessly on the Internet, and were injected into the presidential campaign in February, when Mitt Romney was interviewed by Fox News host Sean Hannity. Hannity played a shortened clip of Obama's remarks during a discussion that also featured the president's relationship with his former pastor, the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"I'm not sure which is worse," Romney said at the time, "him listening to Reverend Wright or him saying that we must be a less Christian nation."
The National Association of Evangelicals did say that, while a majority of evangelical leaders did not view the U.S. as a Christian country, many expressed a hope that missionaries could make it more Christian. "America is one of the world's great mission fields that the Church has been called to reach in this generation," said George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God denomination.
NAE spokeswoman Sarah Kropp said the survey was conducted among the organization's 101-member board of directors, which includes prominent pastors, denominational leaders, Christian university presidents and editors of Christian publications. "You have to keep in mind that it's just 100 people," she said, when asked about the validity of the survey. Still, she said, it was enough to "give you a look into evangelical thought."
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