The Obama We Met

Time magazine’s Richard Wolffe, author of the new biography of Barack Obama, Renegade, in an interview last week with Charlie Rose, described the president as a self-made man. With respect to his religion, in particular, Wolffe noted, Mr. Obma is the son and step-son of a Muslim and a hippie, New Age mother, he chose to be a Christian, just as he chose to be a family man, though steady models had been lacking to him on both fronts. Though there are influences, his is a self-made identity, though he shows none of the excessive concern to impress or to convince himself that he is the man he has become.
 
When we Catholic journalists prepared to meet with the president last Thursday morning, NCR publisher Joe Feuerhard reported that his son had told him to ask the president, “How is it to be the coolest guy in the world?” I can’t say we saw that well-known cool Thursday morning, except perhaps in his interchange with Fr. Owen Kearns, but Barack Obama appeared, as he so often does, to be utterly comfortable in his own skin. He wore his self-assembled identity, if that is what it is, quite naturally.       
 
Asked by Mr. Feurhard he would “write off” Catholic leaders if they continued to hammer him, the president responded, “[E]very one is free to express their political opinions, and I take people’s opinion seriously.” He went on, “I’m the president of all American, not just the ones who happen to agree with me.” His concern to find consensus and build on it, the metier of a true community organizer in the Catholic mode, was repeatedly evident, especially as he sketched out the work of the study group on common ground on abortion.
 
Interestingly, Mr. Obama identified Pope Benedict as another leader who knows the burdens of trying to bring people together from different political and religious perspectives. With a reference to the disruption of the pope’s interfaith dialogue in Jerusalem, he said, “I suspect he has alrady experienced some of the difficulties and dangers of engaging in–trying to bring groups together, right, when he traveled to the Middle East and somebody gets up on the stage and starts saying things. . . And yet you have to have faith the process of talking these things through over time admits greater understanding between people who have been at odds in the past.”
 
The president’s aspiration for consensus may have its down sides, but it is genuine and deeply part of his person. If there is any model for this in his past, it is clearly Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the man who gave us the “Common Ground” initiative and is well remembered as a conciliator and consensus builder among the bishops. (See my earlier blog on Obama and Catholic social teaching.)
 
Self-reflectiveness was another virtue Obama exhibits and which he thinks others, Christians especially, ought to have. Completing his interchange with Father Kearns he said, “[T]hose of us who are people of faith also have to examine our own beliefs and wrestle with them and assure ourselves that we are not causing pain to others.” Perhaps letting what Michael Sean Winters calls his liberal Protestantism show a bit, he said, “And it’s incumbent upon us . . . to engage in some deep reflection and entertain a willingness to question whether we are acting in a way that’s consistent with not just church teachings but also what Jesus our Lord called on us to do: treat others as we would treat ourselves. Be our brothers’ keepers.”
 
It is helpful for Catholics who honor the church’s magisterium to be reminded that Jesus himself is the norma normans, the living Word of God. Still, Obama repeatedly indicated the debt he owed to Catholic social teaching in bringing him to self-awareness and reform of life. “[T]hat other tradition (that is, the whole tradition of Catholic social teaching or the Seamless Garment) has made me, a non-Catholic, I think reflect on how I can be a better person and has had a powerful influence on my life. And that tells me that it might be a powerful way to move a broader set of values forward in American life.”

Advertisement

Drew Christiansen, S.J.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 10 months ago
The religious leaders who have the most experience with community organizers and Obama like-social views are Catholics with Lutherans & UCC tied for  second place. This is what drives right -side Catholics dizzy.. The next 31/2  -71/2 years will continue to be strident ...

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A woman religious casts her ballot May 25 in Dublin as Ireland holds a referendum on its law on abortion. Voters went to the polls May 25 to decide whether to liberalize the country's abortion laws. (CNS photo/Alex Fraser, Reuters)
The repeal of Ireland's Eighth Amendment, which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, is passing by a 2-1 margin with most of the votes counted.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018
The coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII is seen during a ceremony in Vittorio Veneto Square after its arrival in Bergamo, Italy, May 24. The body of the late pope left the Vatican on May 24 to be displayed in his home region until June 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) — Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early on May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.