Since he began his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President, I’ve been tracking Barack Obama’s pronouncements about his faith particularly and religion generally. When he was elected, I declared him the most integrally religious president since Woodrow Wilson—even more so than Jimmy Carter.
This declaration reveals my bias about “deep religion,” that it first be a well-reasoned choice, thereafter monitored, and appropriately adjusted relative to accumulating experiences and a growing wisdom.
To an unprecedented extent, Mr. Obama has spoken of his faith as well as the role of religion in a pluralistic society. In part, this has been reactive. The climate of the 1990s, when he rose to prominence and first won elective office, was characterized by the so-called culture-wars and the ascendency of evangelical Christianity.
Over that past two decades, Mr. Obama adroitly positioned himself as a man of strong Christian faith yet holding liberal values, such as being pro-choice. (You might remember that when in 2004 he ran for US Senator from our state, his opponent Alan Keyes opined, in reference to Mr. Obama’s pro-choice position, “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama, because Barack Obama has voted to behave in a way that is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved.” He has also consistently supported gay rights, yet he has religiously opposed same-sex marriage, but not civil unions, a position he now says is evolving.)
We well know that Mr. Obama’s Christianity, his chosen faith, was shaped in one of Chicago’s large black churches, Trinity United, a UCC congregation of more than 10,000 members. His spiritual mentor was the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., whose fiery and unapologetic black liberation theology caused one of the great controversies of the 2008 Presidential campaign, leading Mr. Obama and his family to resign their membership.
Because of this association, Mr. Obama’s Christianity became the focus of an angry animus that was hard to pin down, but to me seemed a vestige of our culture’s long standing racism. Since his election, he’s further endured an irrational accusation by a group known as “birthers,” who assert that he was not born in the US, but in Kenya; and more, that he is even a stealth Muslim planted to undermine the Jewish Christian tradition in favor of Islam.
Although it’s beneath him and his office, so to speak, Mr. Obama has had to assert his Christian faith in the face of an ongoing, inchoate animus against him.
So, his motives in speaking of his faith and faith generally so often, and so intimately, have political ends. But I maintain he does so because faith has made such a difference in his life and because he steadfastly maintains that faith matters in the larger life of the Republic and its society.
Here’s something of an aside, an opinion of mine. The traditional Christian church—including the myriad Roman Catholics as well as the Evangelicals—have missed an unprecedented opportunity to assert their shared values into the larger culture by not jumping on Mr. Obama’s faith bandwagon. In some degree, they let the inchoate but palpable animus against him get in the way of accepting what he has offered. In his autobiography Audacity of Hope, he declared, “we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and so avoid joining a serious debate how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.” Though he said something similar many times since, as well consistently testifying of the role of faith in his life, it’s fallen on so many deaf Christian ears. From my disinterested perspective outside the Christian community, for Christians this is an opportunity lost.
My working hypothesis is, in regards to religion and faith, Barack Obama continues to be misunderstood, underappreciated, maligned, and yes, feared.
Influence of Mother, Stanley Ann Dunham
Let me talk a little about his faith:
He credits his mother as a major influence, positively and negatively. As a single mother, working her way to becoming an anthropologist working in the field, she inculcated her young son with the notion that religion was a phenomenon of human culture, not its wellspring. It was a way, but not the best way, for humankind to control the unknowable and find the meaning of our lives. She introduced him, somewhat casually, to a variety of faith traditions, their practices and holy books, but made no particular demands on him.
But, she made an abiding impression on him with her spirituality. (That’s a contemporary mantra, isn’t it, she’s not religious, but she’s spiritual.
In The Audacity of Hope he wrote:
And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice.
Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves. She loved to take children—any child—and sit them in her lap and tickle them or play games with them or examine their hands, tracing out the miracle of bone and tendon and skin and delighting at the truths to be found there. She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life.
Conversion and the Black Church
It was during his years as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side that Mr. Obama chose, and I underscore chose, to commit himself to Christianity. Here’s his testimony about the decision, again from The Audacity of Hope.
It is only in retrospect, of course, that I fully understand how deeply this spirit of hers guided me on the path I would ultimately take. It was in search of confirmation of her values that I studied political philosophy, looking for both a language and systems of action that could help build community and make justice real. And it was in search of some practical application of those values that I accepted work after college as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago that were trying to cope with joblessness, drugs, and hopelessness in their midst.
My work with the pastors and laypeople there deepened my resolve to lead a public life, but it also forced me to confront a dilemma that my mother never fully resolved in her own life: the fact that I had no community or shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs. The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me; they saw that I knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, an observer among them. I came to realize that without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone.
In such a life I, too, might have contented myself had it not been for the particular attributes of the historically black church, attributes that helped me shed some of my skepticism and embrace the Christian faith.
For one thing, I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change. Out of necessity, the black church had to minister to the whole person. Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation. It had to serve as the center of the community's political, economic, and social as well as spiritual life; it understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities. In the history of these struggles, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active, palpable agent in the world.
And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship, the grounding of faith in struggle, that the historically black church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on this world. Long before it became fashionable among television evangelists, the typical black sermon freely acknowledged that all Christians (including the pastors) could expect to still experience the same greed, resentment, lust, and anger that everyone else experienced. The gospel songs, the happy feet, and the tears and shouts all spoke of a release, an acknowledgment, and finally a channeling of those emotions. In the black community, the lines between sinner and saved were more fluid; the sins of those who came to church were not so different from the sins of those who didn't, and so were as likely to be talked about with humor as with condemnation. You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it; rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away—because you were human and needed an ally in your difficult journey, to make the peaks and valleys smooth and render all those crooked paths straight.
It was because of these newfound understandings—that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved—that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.
Further Thoughts on Community
Before the church year ends, I intend to continue these remarks, giving continuing substance to how Mr. Obama has pronounced his faith. What I’ve brought to you today is the foundation, self-articulated, of Barack Obama’s melding of personal values with a social vision, including his personal yearning and fulfillment for a religious community. In my estimation, it’s a powerful narrative of contemporary significance, most importantly dealing with the quest of taking traditional Jewish Christian values and using them to inform and transform a pluralistic society.
There’s a number of possible takeaways from these remarks. I lift up this, regarding one of the dilemmas of your life. There is value in investing yourself in a community of shared values. Recall Mr. Obama’s words, regarding his own faith choice, that it “confronted a dilemma that my mother never fully resolved in her own life: the fact that I had no community or shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs.”
On a Sunday when we welcome new Members who have freely and thoughtfully chosen to join this congregation and become part of this Church-Home, it is good to acknowledge the significance of a faith community of a rich tradition and shared values in each our lives, a place where we ground our most deeply held beliefs, and yes, where we seek to make a more perfect, that is, a just society.