While on the presidential campaign trail 30 years ago, someone asked Jimmy Carter a rather indelicate public question:
Are you born again?
Carter said he was. And the next thing he knew, various media creatures were accusing the Southern Baptist peanut farmer of implying that his political aspirations had a divine imprimatur.
"I truthfully answered, 'Yes,' assuming all devout Christians were born again, of the Holy Spirit," Carter wrote in his 2005 book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis.
In 1976, most reporters didn't know born-again from over-easy. But times have changed and so has the public conversation about politics and religion. Terms such as "fundamentalist," "evangelical" and "born-again" are part of the media vernacular.
That doesn't mean, however, that such terms are particularly helpful by themselves in describing, much less defining, anyone -- be they politicians, presidential candidates or private citizens.
Perhaps that's why, back when I interviewed Barack Obama about his faith in spring 2004 a few days after he'd won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, I didn't ask him something I've remained curious about since:
Does he consider himself an evangelical?
He didn't hesitate. No one coached him. He didn't choose his words carefully or tailor his responses. He shot from the hip, giving me candid and complicated answers to my inquiries about his religious history, beliefs and doubts.
At the time, Obama said he was a Christian, that he has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, that he reads the Bible regularly and prays constantly. He described his conversion experience in his mid-20s, how he walked the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ one Sunday in a public affirmation of his private change of heart. But we didn't talk labels, I didn't ask him for one, and he didn't offer.
A few weeks ago, during a visit to the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, I had a chance to ask Obama that lingering question:
"Are you an evangelical?"
"Gosh, I'm not sure if labels are helpful here because the definition of an evangelical is so loose and subject to so many different interpretations. I came to Christianity through the black church tradition where the line between evangelical and non-evangelical is completely blurred. Nobody knows exactly what it means.
"Does it mean that you feel you've got a personal relationship with Christ the savior? Then that's directly part of the black church experience. Does it mean you're born-again in a classic sense, with all the accoutrements that go along with that, as it's understood by some other tradition? I'm not sure."
He continued his answer: "My faith is complicated by the fact that I didn't grow up in a particular religious tradition. And so what that means is when you come at it as an adult, your brain mediates a lot, and you ask a lot of questions.
"There are aspects of Christian tradition that I'm comfortable with and aspects that I'm not. There are passages of the Bible that make perfect sense to me and others that I go, 'Ya know, I'm not sure about that,'" he said, shrugging and stammering slightly.
But for Obama, as for many of us, faith is complicated, messy, a work in progress.
And, if we're honest about it, the standard labels just don't fit.