The faith of Barack Obama

It may be worthwhile checking Matt Malone’s post on religion’s role in the election  against the 2004 interview President-elect Obama gave to the Chicago-Sun Times in which he talks of his religious faith. Beliefnet has posted, uncut, the transcript of the hour Obama spent with Cathleen Falsani in a cafe following his selection as Democratic nominee to the Senate. 

Obama describes going up for an altar call in Trinity United Church of Christ some 17 years before, a "powerful moment" which at the end of the interview he describes as a "symbol" of a growing acceptance of his faith rather than an epiphany -- "because there is a certain self-consciousness that I possess as somebody with probably too much book learning, and also a very polyglot background."

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He was led to the church through his work as a community organizer. "There was a group of churches out on the South Side of Chicago that had come together to form an organization to try to deal with the devastation of steel plants that had closed. And didn’t have much money, but felt that if they formed an organization and hired somebody to organize them to work on issues that affected their community, that it would strengthen the church and also strengthen the community."

As an organizer he spent "an enormous amount of time with church ladies", and learned the importance of black churches in the lives of people -- "the power of that culture to give people strength in very difficult circumstances, and the power of that church to give people courage against great odds. And it moved me deeply."

Obama is bold and expressive on this public dimension of the Church, but much more reluctant to make strong statements about his own religious belief.

"I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.

"I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty."

In answer to the question, "Do you pray often?" he says: "It’s not formal, me getting on my knees. I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. I think throughout the day, I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why am I doing it." This he describes as the challenge of "maintaining your moral compass".

He seems to have a well-developed conscience (or is it a superego?) that he is constantly checking against. "Those are the conversations I’m having internally. I’m measuring my actions against that inner voice that for me at least is audible, is active, it tells me where I think I’m on track and where I think I’m off track."

He senses the Holy Spirit in his own addresses --

"When I’m talking to a group and I’m saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I’m just being glib or clever"

-- as in sermons he hears:

"There are moments that happen within a sermon where the minister gets out of his ego and is speaking from a deeper source. And it’s powerful.There are also times when you can see the ego getting in the way. Where the minister is performing and clearly straining for applause or an Amen. And those are distinct moments. I think those former moments are sacred."

He gives a less than orthodox view of the Incarnation: Jesus, he says, is "a bridge between God and man". And few catechists would be satisfied with his definition of sin as being "out of alignment with my values".

On the other hand, it’s hard to know how he could give a more dogmatic assertion about either without offending or alienating one part of the Christian Church -- even if it pleased another. And given that, according to the recent poll, religious belief per se played a very small role in the election, one could argue that a certain presidential vagueness on religious doctrine is both wise and in keeping with people’s priorities.  

Just how much a president should talk about his religious faith is a question endlessly debated. Bush, in the view of many, has weakened the constitutional wall separating Church and State by his frequent recourse to prayer and God as justifications for his actions.

Obama seems to want to shore up that wall. "I am a great admirer of our founding charter, and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming, and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root in this country," he says.  

But while he is suspicious of "religious certainty expressing itself in politics", he also believes that religiously-informed values should shape public policy. 

"I think sometimes Democrats have made the mistake of shying away from a conversation about values for fear that they sacrifice the important value of tolerance. And I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive."

For Obama, religious epiphany does not describe his own ’yes’ to Jesus in Trinity Church but what happened when Martin Luther King led his people into freedom from unjust laws.

The Civil Rights movement is "a point in time where I think heaven and earth meet," he says. "Because it’s a moment in which a collective faith transforms everything."

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years ago
For a man of faith, how does he reconcile his extremist attacks against God's children who have not been born yet and are still in their mother's womb with this faith he professes? It doesn't sound like a Christian faith that loves all God's children--born and unborn.
9 years ago
We're gonna talk about teh abortion issue under every entry, huh? This is not witness, but myopia and obsession. This new president and administration are going to need all the support possible to work out our ecomic crisis, protect our nation, and restore our world standing. Let us look for areas of common good and convergence. Ther will be a time and place for opposition.

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