The Faith of Barack Obama
By Stephen Mansfield
(Thomas Nelson, 192 pages, $19.99)
Stephen Mansfield wants to believe that Barack Obama can lead this nation to a religious revival. He wants to believe it so badly in fact that he is willing to disregard his own reporting. Now that’s faith.
Mansfield is the author of The Faith of Barack Obama, a book-length essay on the Democratic nominee’s religious beliefs. In many ways it’s a good book and, certainly, the subject is worthwhile.
It’s just that Mansfield seems to be willing to give Obama every benefit of the doubt, no matter what the Democratic candidate actually says. How else to explain passages such as this one?
“The uncertainty that Obama’s words inspire seems to be intentional,” writes Mansfield. “Though it does not appear that he means to confuse, he does speak with a thoughtful lack of clarity.”
EVER SINCE HIS star-making turn at the 2004 Democratic Convention when he said, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states!” it has been widely presumed that Obama is a deeply religious Christian.
The truth is a bit more complicated as Mansfield recounts, drawing on interviews, speeches and Obama’s two memoirs. In fact it is not precisely clear what Obama believes.
Obama is, after all, the same man who, as child living in Indonesia, occasionally “accompanied [his Muslim stepfather] to a nearby mosque of Fridays and prayed at his side for the blessings of Allah,” Mansfield notes.
That was just one part of Obama’s polyglot religious upbringing. He also attended a Catholic school in Indonesia that included Bible studies. His mother and the maternal grandparents who helped raised him, one the other hand, were devout secularists.
His mother was also multiculturalist long before that was cool. She would go so far as to take young Barack to Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and Hawaiian burial sites to expand his education — though not his spiritual awareness.
“Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring,” Obama wrote in his memoir, The Audacity of Hope.
“In sum my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would later become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well.”
THE CONSEQUENCE of exposing young Barack to so many religions was that he came away with no faith of his own. After all, if all faiths were equally an “expression of human culture” then how could any one be the true path to salvation?
Only later as a young lawyer in Chicago did Obama join Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church and become a Christian. Yet even after that Obama is careful to say, again and again, that he did not give up his religious skepticism.
“It came as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions that 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.”
But wait. If there wasn’t an epiphany, then how could he truly submit himself to God’s will? Obama doesn’t explain.
As John K. Wilson put it in Barack Obama: This Impossible Quest, “For Obama, Jesus isn’t a magical creature to be worshiped blindly; he’s a real person to be imitated for his moral example. What’s important to Obama about Jesus is not the Night of the Living Dead aspects of a Christian belief in resurrection, but the moral lessons about self-sacrifice for a larger cause.”
Personally I never made the connection between Jesus and George Romero’s flesh-eating zombies before (If there is a Second Coming, should we shoot Zombie Jesus in the head?) but Mansfield passes over the passage with little comment.
MANSFIELD’S CRISPLY WRITTEN essay does do a solid job sorting through the various contradictory strands of Obama’s singular religious journey. For people looking for a good one-volume summary of Obama’s religious beliefs, this is about as good as you’ll find.
(I came away with no idea what Mansfield’s politics are, by the way. He is also the author of The Faith of George W. Bush. Make of that what you will.)
Where it falters badly is in the analysis. What is one to make of the candidate who confesses that when tucking his daughter into bed he responds to her questions about what happens after we die by saying he doesn’t know if there is heaven?
Why not just tell the kid there is a heaven and let her get a good night’s sleep? “Obama’s own church lists heaven among the benefits of salvation in the altar calls that close its services,” Mansfield notes.
Mansfield concedes that Obama is “the product of a new, postmodern generation that picks and chooses its truth from traditional, much as a man customizes his meal at a buffet.” That this doesn’t say much for Obama (or his generation) does not seem to bother the author.
He argues that “Obama had found the answer to his soul’s need and only a cynical heart would refuse the possibility of a lonely black man in his twenties finding faith through the preaching of God’s word.”
Perhaps, but only the gullible would ignore that the fact that Obama was also an ambitious young politician and Rev. Wright was a well-connected and charismatic Chicago leader.
THE BOOK’S WEAKEST chapter deals with Obama and his relationship with Wright. One gets the distinct impression that the bulk of the book was written before their falling out and sections had to be hastily rewritten.
Mansfield cites as proof of Obama’s dedication to Trinity and its message that “he initially stayed.” Obama “initially” weathered the political storm because “he had found a faith, a people, the vessel for belief that he had longed for.”
Trinity, you see, “had become the font of his political vision” and helped to frame his “sense of professional calling.”
Maybe. But it wasn’t so fundamental that Obama couldn’t drop Trinity like a bad habit after Wright’s infamous National Press Club appearance. Mansfield simply blames it all on Wright and assures us that the decision “came with sadness, with grief for the loss of years and the pain that politics presses into private life.”
Despite all of this Mansfield concludes with a glimpse into the brighter future that awaits us: “One can imagine, in an Obama presidency, White House conferences on Faith and Poverty or Religion’s Responses to Racism that are more than time-wasting mockeries of national ills.”
Yes, that is a hopeful vision. One might even call it… audacious.