Is Sen. Barack Obama an agnostic? In light of the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright it may seem like a strange question to ask. Agnostics tend not to get into public spats with their pastors for the simple reason that they typically don’t have pastors. One doesn’t expect a nudist to argue with his tailor.
Indeed, Obama has been identified with the black church and its exuberant worship tradition ever since his starmaking turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states!” he famously exclaimed.
Yet after Wright’s recent appearance at Washington’s National Press Club, I re-read the chapter on faith in Obama’s memoir, The Audacity of Hope. I was trying to figure out how the senator could have sat in Wright’s pews for two decades without being aware of the pastor’s radical views (as he claims). After all, the title of the book was taken from one of Wright’s sermons.
The chapter candidly recounts Obama’s transformation from religious skeptic to Christian churchgoer under Wright’s tutelage. What is striking about the story it tells, though, is what isn’t there: any sort of claim to a truly religious epiphany.
That’s a key part of most conversion narratives. The skeptic casts aside doubt and takes the proverbial leap of faith, embracing the religion in all of its doctrines — even the more peculiar ones.
Obama pretty clearly indicates that wasn’t the case with him. At the end of the chapter Obama describes tucking his daughter into bed and trying to answer her question about what happens when we die.
“I wondered whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn’t sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure of where the soul resides,” he writes.
No happy bedtime talk about heaven for this father.
OBAMA’S DOUBTS COME from his rather unique upbringing. A mixed-race child who lived abroad for prolonged periods in his youth, he came to the church late in life.
“I was not raised in a religious household,” he says. His caucasian mother and the maternal grandparents who partially raised him were only nominally Christian. The grandparents were skeptics and they passed their secularism onto their daughter. And she in turn passed it on to her son.
“Her own experiences as a bookish, sensitive child growing up in small towns…only reinforced this skepticism. Her memories of the Christians who populated her youth were not fond ones. Occasionally, for my benefit, she would recall the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three quarters of the world’s people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation — and who in the same breath would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary,” Obama writes.
He hastens to add that his mother did give him some religious instruction, viewing it as “a necessary part of any well-rounded education.” The Bible was placed on a shelf next to the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and books on Greek and Norse mythology.
His mother sometimes took him to church for Christmas. She also took him to Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and Hawaiian burial sites. As she held young Barack’s hand she explained that these religious samplings required “no sustained commitment on my part.” She was just broadening the young man’s mind by exposing him to these superstitious rituals.
“Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring,” Obama writes.
“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.”
THUS OBAMA GREW UP understanding most religions but not believing in any particular one. He was taught to see all faiths as an expression of the same phenomenon: humanity’s need to believe in some divinely guided rules to live their lives by.
That being the case, how could any one religion be true?
Obama’s change began when he started a career as a social activist in Chicago. The black community’s existing activist network was heavily religious. It welcomed him but also noticed that he was “removed, detached, an observer among them.”
For a time he felt he was consigned “to always remain apart.” But over time he was drawn to join the congregation at Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ because he so admired the many services the community provided to the poor and the struggling.
Obama says that he was “drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change…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.”
He continues, “it was out of this intimate knowledge of the hardship, of 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 the world.”
And so he was baptized in the church, with some reservations: “It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear.”
THAT PROVED TO BE a problem for Obama when he ran for the Senate in 2004. His Republican opponent was the bombastic, erratic and quite possibly insane black conservative Alan Keyes. Obama crushed him in the general election, but says it was harder than it looked.
“[A]s the campaign progressed, I found him getting under my skin in a way that very few people have. When our paths crossed during the campaign, I often had to suppress the rather uncharitable urge to either taunt him or wring his neck,” Obama writes.
How did Keyes do this? By questioning Obama’s Christian faith.
“Christ could not vote for Barack Obama,” Mr. Keyes once said, “because Barack Obama has voted…in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved.”
It touched a nerve in Obama and he was by his own account tongued-tied, irritable and tense during their debates. Keyes prodded Obama on the question of biblical literalism.
How could Obama believe the Bible’s proclamation that life was sacred and yet support abortion rights, Keyes would ask? Obama gave “the usual liberal response” about separation of church and state.
“[Y]et even as I answered, I was mindful of Mr. Keyes’s implicit accusation — that I remained steeped in doubt, that my faith was adulterated, that I was not a true Christian,” Obama complains.
Well, it wouldn’t have annoyed him that much if Keyes wasn’t onto something.