Sunday, July 13, 2008


Finding His Faith

So much has been made about Barack Obama's religion. But what does he believe, and how did he arrive at those beliefs?

Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe

Jul 12, 2008

In 1981 Barack Obama was 20 years old, a Columbia University student in search of the meaning of life. He was torn a million different ways: between youth and maturity, black and white, coasts and continents, wonder and tragedy. He enrolled at Columbia in part to get far away from his past; he'd gone to high school in Hawaii and had just spent two years "enjoying myself," as he puts it, at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In New York City, "I lived an ascetic existence," Obama told NEWSWEEK in an interview on his campaign plane last week. "I did a lot of spiritual exploration. I withdrew from the world in a fairly deliberate way." He fasted. Often, he'd go days without speaking to another person.

For company, he had books. There was Saint Augustine, the fourth-century North African bishop who wrote the West's first spiritual memoir and built the theological foundations of the Christian Church. There was Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher and father of existentialism. There was Graham Greene, the Roman Catholic Englishman whose short novels are full of compromise, ambivalence and pain. Obama meditated on these men and argued with them in his mind.

When he felt restless on a Sunday morning, he would wander into an African-American congregation such as Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "I'd just sit in the back and I'd listen to the choir and I'd listen to the sermon," he says, smiling a little as he remembers those early days in the wilderness. "There were times that I would just start tearing up listening to the choir and share that sense of release."

Obama has spoken often and eloquently about the importance of religion in public life. But like many political leaders wary of offending potential backers, he has been less revealing about what he believes—about God, about prayer, about the connection between salvation and personal responsibility. In some respects, his reticence is understandable. Obama's religious biography is unconventional and politically problematic. Born to a Christian-turned-secular mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist African father, Obama grew up living all across the world with plenty of spiritual influences, but without any particular religion. He is now a Christian, having been baptized in the early 1990s.
Obama calls his mother "an agnostic." "I think she believed in a higher power," he says. "She believed in the fundamental order and goodness of the universe. She would have been very comfortable with Einstein's idea that God doesn't play dice. But I think she was very suspicious of the notion that one particular organized religion offered one truth."
Obama's father, raised Muslim in Kenya, was, by the time he met Ann, "a confirmed atheist" who considered religion "mumbo jumbo," writes Obama in "The Audacity of Hope."

Though Obama was a serious student in Hawaii—and, even then, a seeker—"Dreams" describes an adolescence there of predictable teenage drinking and smoking (and basketball). During his first two years of college at Occidental, he says, he was "not taking anything particularly seriously, or at least, on the surface, not taking anything particularly seriously." After transferring to Columbia, though, the spiritual quest began in earnest.

Obama's organizing days helped clarify his sense of faith and social action as intertwined. "It's hard for me to imagine being true to my faith—and not thinking beyond myself, and not thinking about what's good for other people, and not acting in a moral and ethical way," he says. When these ideas merged with his more emotional search for belonging, he was able to arrive at the foot of the cross. He "felt God's spirit beckoning me," he writes in "Audacity." "I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

Was it a conversion in the sense that he heard Jesus speaking to him in a moment after which nothing was the same? No. "It wasn't an epiphany," he says. "A bolt of lightning didn't strike me and suddenly I said, 'Aha!' It was a more gradual process that traced back to those times that I had spent in New York wandering the streets or reading books, where I decided that the meaning I found in my life, the values that were most important to me, the sense of wonder that I had, the sense of tragedy that I had—all these things were captured in the Christian story." And how much of the decision was pragmatic, motivated by Obama's desire, as he says in "Dreams," to get closer to the people he was trying to help? "I thought being part of a community and affirming my faith in a public fashion was important," Obama says.

[ Obama's] spiritual life on the campaign trail survives. He says he prays every day, typically for "forgiveness for my sins and flaws, which are many, the protection of my family, and that I'm carrying out God's will, not in a grandiose way, but simply that there is an alignment between my actions and what he would want." He sometimes reads his Bible in the evenings, a ritual that "takes me out of the immediacy of my day and gives me a point of reflection." Thanks to the efforts of his religious outreach team, he has an army of clerics and friends praying for him and e-mailing him snippets of Scripture or Midrash to think about during the day.

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell—who gave the invocations at both of George W. Bush's inaugurals and presided over the wedding of the president's daughter Jenna—is among those on Obama's prayer team. When Caldwell talks about Obama, he can barely keep the emotion out of his voice. The thing that impresses him most, he says, is that when he asks Obama, "What can I pray for?" Obama always says, "Michelle and the girls." "He never says, 'Pray for me, pray for my campaign, pray that folks will quit bashing me.' He always says, 'Pray for Michelle and my girls'."
Last month Dr. James Dobson accused Obama of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology." The campaign responded that Obama was reaching out to people of faith and standing up for families.
When Franklin Graham asked Obama recently how, as a Christian, he could reconcile New Testament claims that salvation was attainable only through Christ with a campaign that embraces pluralism and diversity, Obama tells NEWSWEEK he said: "It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I've said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know … I do not believe she went to hell." Graham, he said, was very gracious in reply.
Last March, when video clips of Wright damning America blitzed the airwaves, Obama wrote a speech about race that he hoped would save his campaign. But it was, to some, also a speech about faith. Obama tried to explain his relationship with his pastor, to appeal to Americans' sense of the best in themselves. He spoke of racial divides in America as "a part of ourselves we have yet to perfect," and of his pastor as a flawed, human creature. "That speech," says Paul Elie, the Catholic author of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "is steeped in Christianity. We have relationships, they're all flawed, we're all broken. You can't renounce your history with a person at a stroke, we have to fare forward with other imperfect people and resist the claims to perfection coming from both sides." After Wright's performance a month later at the National Press Club, Elie says, Obama was right—and Christian—to repudiate him.


Joan said...

I am excited about having a president who prays. Barack Obama has a inspiring faith story.

Rustler45 said...

"Last month Dr. James Dobson accused Obama of 'deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology.'"

It's hard for me to find fault with Dr. Dobson on this point.

"After Wright's performance a month later at the National Press Club, Elie says, Obama was right—and Christian—to repudiate him."

It was also expedient. Ya know? Kinda like the Mormons who change their beliefs to match the situation and make it more comfortable.

Hey Joan, President Bush prays. Why aren't you excited about that?

Steve said...

OH OH OH Let me answer that one.

Because Bush is moron and has nearly destroyed everything he has touched and we will spend decades undoing the damage he has done to this country and our place in the world socially, economically and morally???

(Sometimes you make it way too easy! But it was good amusement for a Monday morning.)


The Lone Ranger said...

Yeah, I suppose you're right he just undid everything Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had accomplished. They were such great guys.

Sarcasm intended.

Clem Cadiddlehopper said...

And I suppose the Bush's leftist agenda wasn't left enough for you?

Anonymous said...

With his stand on abortion and his support of Planned Parenthood I don't think Barack has found HIM yet!!

Katherine said...

Maybe. But is seems the Pope does nto agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Katherine, I didn't realize that the Pope has endorsed Obama??

Rustler45 said...

Katherine said: "Maybe. But is seems the Pope does nto agree with you."

He doesn't agree with me about a lot of things. Just the other day I said, "Katherine isn't fit to live with the pigs."

The Pope replied, "Oh yes she is."


Rustler45 said...

Joan said...
"I am excited about having a president who prays. Barack Obama has a inspiring faith story."

I am soooooooooooo inspired.