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.”
Drew Christiansen, S.J.