One would be hard pressed to find a contemporary politician whose discussion of religion is less forced than the one delivered in Obama’s recent memoir. It is candid and questioning, at ease as much with the challenges of the Creed as with its consolations. It would likely not pass muster as a theological tract in a Catholic seminary (though it might get an A+ in homiletics), but Obama is not presenting himself as a theologian.
By contrast, it was almost painful to watch Senator John Kerry discuss religion. He trotted out the familiar, and by now unpersuasive, position that however much he believed the church’s teachings on difficult matters like abortion, he could not foist his personal beliefs on a pluralistic society. Never mind that the civil rights movement was precisely such a moral struggle to foist one set of beliefs upon those who held starkly different beliefs, or that the opposition to the Vietnam War was cast in explicitly moral terms.
Obama does not begin his discussion by reciting the typical liberal cant about how religion only serves to inflame politics, turning the art of the possible into a 21st-century version of the Thirty Years War. (If you want that rendition, consult Ray Suarez’s The Holy Vote, in which every stereotype of religious people is on full display.) Obama recounts instead the story of a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School who wrote him to complain about a sentence on his campaign Web site that denounced right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose. Obama removed the offending line and writes that he felt a pang of shame and prayed that he would always extend the presumption of good faith to others, as the doctor had done in writing to him.
Unlike the traditional liberal stance of claiming that religion is essentially a private affair, Obama admits that religion is rarely practiced in isolation; organized religion, at least, is a very public affair. He argues that while those of us in public office may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether...over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and so avoid a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy. He even allows that faith-based programs for ex-offenders and drug abusers, if carefully tailored, should warrant liberal support.
Obama’s Christianity is undoubtedly a liberal Christianity. He relates an encounter with a lesbian who took offense at his reference to religious faith in explaining his opposition to same-sex marriage. He cites my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society, but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguidedthat I may have been infected with society’s prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God. He writes that When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must be continually open to new revelationswhether they come from a lesbian or a doctor opposed to abortion. This method of biblical interpretation will not ring true with fundamentalists.
Obama was not raised in a Christian home. The hostility his mother felt directed toward her by the church, especially after her interracial marriage, instilled in her a deep skepticism about claims of orthodoxy. She approached the world of religion as an anthropologist, not as a pilgrim. Only in adulthood, after working as a community organizer alongside devoted Christians, was Obama baptized in the United Church of Christ, one of the most socially engaged and arguably the most liberal mainstream Protestant church.
If Obama’s interest in religion ended with the Social Gospel, it would not be as interesting, but he delves deeper. He recounts visiting the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four children were murdered in a bombing carried out by white supremacists in 1963. Obama writes:
Friends and strangers alike would have assured [their parents] that their daughters had not died in vainthat they had awakened the conscience of a nation and helped liberate a people; that the bomb had burst a dam to let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. And yet would even that knowledge be enough to console your grief, to keep you from madness and eternal rageunless you also knew that your child had gone on to a better place?
This is the insight of faith, the insight that perceives the limits of grief counseling or pious niceties in the face of death. This faith understands the reality of human nature that our culture most seeks to deny, except in a voyeuristic waytragedy. In its way, the insight also demonstrates the limits of certain varieties of liberation theology and of the Social Gospel movement before it, both of which thought that sociopolitical redemption was enough. It isn’t. The church must always concern itself with eternity.
Obama relates his feelings about his own mother’s death, especially her fears: More than the fear of pain or fear of the unknown, it was the sheer loneliness of death that frightened her, I think.
I once listened, at a memorial Mass in the chapel at Theological College in Washington, D.C., to the theologian Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete speak of the abysmal loneliness of death. The phrase and the brutal honesty behind it have stayed with me ever since. When I read its echo in Obama’s book, I thought to myself, He gets it. Anyone who perceives the reality of death with such brutal candor cannot but be moved by the Easter Gospel: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here (Luke 24: 5-6).
In other ways, Obama’s sense of faith reveals the Reformation roots of mainstream Protestantism. He draws a facile distinction between faith and reason: Almost by definition, faith and reason operate in different domains and involve different paths to discerning truth. No Veritatis Splendor there. And if Pope Benedict XVI is correct, the separation of faith and reason lies at the root of the cultural identity crisis of contemporary civilization. It is remarkable that a mind as subtle and interesting as Obama’s shies away from making the simple claim that faith is reasonable. The shadow of Luther’s warning to beware the whore reason for she will go with any man is long indeed.
Obama’s position on abortion will not satisfy some voters. He may not be willing to dismiss all pro-life advocates as right-wing demagogues, but neither is he willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. Still, one can imagine Obama being the kind of president who would seek middle ground on the issue, focusing on preventing the number of unwanted pregnancies and helping women in dire financial and social circumstances who find themselves faced with an unexpected pregnancy but wish to carry their child to term to get the help they really need.
Faith Talk and Swing Voters
At the moment, Obama is not running against anyone with equal facility with religious language. If ever there was a time to invoke religious themes passionately, it was the funeral of Coretta Scott King. Senator Hillary Clinton followed her husband to the pulpit; the comparison was not flattering. U.S. News reported, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is getting generally tepid reviews from all sides. Her comments didn’t match her husband’s in eloquence or powera dynamic that could be a growing problem if she runs for president in 2008. That judgment is generous. Clinton’s remarks were wooden and sounded canned, yet they were of a piece with her valedictory speech at Wellesley College back in 1969. Therein, she did not mention God or faith but spoke about leadership and power and offered that part of the problem with empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do us anything. It still doesn’t, evidently. At the pulpit in Atlanta for King’s funeral, as on other occasions, Hillary Clinton’s lack of empathy is transparent.
No one is questioning Senator Clinton’s belief. She says her faith is important to her, and no one has warrant to doubt that. But she lacks the ability to discuss comfortably her faith and how it has informed her political persona.
Senator John Edwards, another Democratic candidate for president, evokes a more folksy Southern charm, but his speeches about poverty are filled with sloganeering, not genuine pathos. If President Bush’s political success rests on his oft-repeated statement that you may not always agree with me, but you know where I stand, one has the suspicion that Edwards will stand wherever his pollster tells him to. He lacks genuineness. A trial lawyer, he is accustomed to playing to the jury, but voters are tired of being played.
If the 2006 midterm elections showed anything, it is that religious voters, and especially Catholic voters, remain the swing voters in most elections. According to exit polls, the Democrats won the Catholic vote 55 percent to 44 percent in 2006, a 6 point swing from the 52-to-47 vote Catholics gave to Bush over Kerry in 2004. In swing states like Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, Catholics were decisive. In perennial battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Catholic voters helped throw out incumbent Republican senators.
One of the legacies of Karl Rove’s divide the electorate strategy has been the mistaken perception that the middle of the American electorate is essentially 3 percent of the whole. The 2006 elections disproved that claim. The swing vote is more like 20 percent to 30 percent of the electorate. Like most Americans, many of the swing voters are more concerned with the life of their local church than with their party affiliation. And to win among religiously motivated voters, Democrats need to nominate a candidate who can speak their language and do so with ease.
How does this play out in the hurly-burly of an election? A recent article in The Washington Post wondered what political opponents would make of the confessions contained in Obama’s earlier memoir (Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance), in which he describes in detail a troubled youth that included experimental drug use. An attack fueled by such admissions would be aimed at swaying a religiously conservative voter. Yet Obama could answer: One of my favorite passages in Scripture is from First Corinthians: For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.’ That, too, might sway the religiously motivated voter.
Beyond the charisma and the hype, Obama’s facility with the language of faith is one reason to think he can achieve the one thing Democrats want more than anything else in 2008: a victory.