Simply Sharing






Copyright 2006



I have an ongoing conversation with God. 

I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures
to rationalize or justify their actions by claiming God’s mandate.”




Barack Obama is alone on this Saturday afternoon in the city, his press secretary nowhere in sight.  He’s not carrying anything with him.  Not even notes.


Yet he appears perfectly confident as he answers questions about his spiritual life, a subject that would make many politicians – on or off the campaign trail – more skittish than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.


It’s a few weeks after Obama has won the Democratic primary in Illinois for the open Unites States Senate seat he will eventually win in a landslide against the Republican candidate, Alan Keyes.  And while it’s months before his debut at the Democratic National Convention, where Obama will become a household name in the rest of the nation, here at home, people for months have been whispering that he's sure to be the first black president of the United States.  It's just a matter of time, they say.  He shrugs coolly at such suggestions, striking a balance between self-deprecation and the calm assuredness of someone who is wise enough to realize his own place in history.


So if a public conversation about his faith unnerves him, the lanky senator-to-be with the boyish good looks is not letting on.  He fields without hesitation the first question:  What does he believe?  “I am a Christian,” Obama says, as one of the nearby customers interrupts to congratulate him on winning the primary.  Obama shakes the man’s hand and says, “Thank you very much.  I appreciate that,” before turning his attention directly back to the question.  “So, I have a deep faith.  I’m rooted in the Christian tradition.  I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people, that there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and that there’s an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.  I probably spent the first forty years of my life figuring out what I did believe, and it’s not that I have it all completely worked out, but I’m spending a lot of time now trying to apply what I believe and trying to live up to those values.”


He is saying, essentially, that all people of faith – Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, everyone – know the same God.  It is, perhaps, an unlikely theological position for someone who places his faith squarely at the feet of Jesus to take.  But that depends on how you hear a verse from the Gospel of St. John, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by me,” Obama says.


His theological point of view was shaped by his uniquely multicultural upbringing.  Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii to a white mother who came from Protestant midwestern stock and a black African father who hailed from the Luo tribe of Kenya.  The future senator describes his father, after whom he is named, as “agnostic.”  His paternal grandfather was a Muslim.  His mother, he says, was a Christian.  “My mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody, was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve,” he says.  “We’d go to church for Easter, but she wasn’t a ‘church lady.’”


What she really was, as he put it in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, was “a lonely witness for secular humanism.”  He says now, “My mother’s confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn’t possess, a faith that she would refuse to describe as religious; that, in fact, her experience told her was sacrilegious: a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny.”


When he was six years old, after his parents divorced, Obama moved with his mother and her new husband – a non-practicing Muslim – to Indonesia, where he attended a Roman Catholic school and lived until he was ten.  “I went to a Catholic school in a Muslim country, so I was studying the Bible and catechisms by day, and, at night, I’d hear the {Muslim} prayer call,” Obama recalls.  “My mother was a deeply spiritual person and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions and talk to me about them.  Her view always was that underlying these religions was a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good."


Obama earned a degree in political science from Columbia University in 1983 and in 1991 graduated magna cum laude with a law degree from Harvard University.  Since 1993, he has been a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.  Those intellectual experiences, as much as his multireligious childhood, affect how he expresses his faith.  “Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion,” he says.  “I am a big believer in the separation of church and state.  I am a big believer in our constitutional structure.  I mean, I’m a law professor at the University of Chicago teaching constitutional law.  I am a great admirer of our founding charter and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root in this country.  I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalize or justify their actions by claiming God’s mandate.  I don’t think it’s healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or avoid dialogue with people who disagree with them.”


Even so, Obama is not shy about saying he has a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”  As a sign of that relationship, he says, he walked down the aisle of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ in response to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s altar call one Sunday morning in 1988.


The politician could have ended his spiritual tale right there, at the point where some people might assume his life changed, when he got “saved,” transformed, washed in the blood.  But Obama wants to clarify what truly happened.  “It wasn’t an epiphany,” he says of that public profession of faith.  “It was much more of a gradual process for me.  I know there are some people who fall out.  Which is wonderful.  God bless them.  For me, I think it was just a moment to certify or publicly affirm a growing faith in me.


“I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma, and I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others,” he continues.  “I’m a big believer in tolerance.  I think that religion at its best comes with a big dose of doubt.  I’m suspicious, too, of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding.  I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.”


When he is in Chicago, he attends the 11:00 a.m. Sunday service at Trinity in the working-class Brainerd neighborhood every week – or at least as many weeks as he is able.  But how exactly did he become a churchgoer?  It began in 1985, when he arrived in Chicago as a $13,000-a-year community organizer, working with a number of African-American churches in the struggling Roseland, West Pullman, and Altgeld Gardens neighborhoods, which were dealing with the devastation caused by shuttered steel plants.


“I started working with both the ministers and the laypeople in these churches on issues like creating job-training programs, or after-school programs for youth, or making sure that city services were fairly allocated to underserved communities,” Obama explains.  “And it was in those places where I think what had been more of an intellectual view of religion deepened because I was spending an enormous amount of time with church ladies, sort of surrogate mothers and fathers.  Everybody I was working with was fifty or fifty-five or sixty, and here I was, a twenty-three-year-old kid, kicking around.  I became much more familiar with the ongoing tradition of the historic black church and its importance in the community.  And the power of that culture to give people strength in very difficult circumstances, and the power of that church to give people courage against great odds.  And it moved me deeply.”


Obama reads the Bible, though not as regularly as he’d like given the ever-increasing demands on his time that political life has brought.  But he does find time to pray.  “It’s not formal, me getting on my knees,” he says.  “I think I have an ongoing conversation with God.  Throughout the day I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why I am doing it.  One of the interesting things about being in public life is that there are constantly these pressures being placed on you from different sides.  To be effective, you have to be able to listen to a variety of points of view, to synthesize the viewpoints.  You also have to know when to be a strong advocate and to push back against certain people or views that you think aren't right or that don't serve your constituents.  And so the biggest challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass.  Those are the conversations I'm having with God internally.  I'm measuring my actions against that inner voice that, for me at least, is audible, is active.  It tells me where I think I'm on track and where I'm off track.


“This election comes with a lot of celebrity.  I always think of politics as having two sides:  There’s a vanity aspect to politics, and a substantive aspect to politics.  Now, you need some sizzle with the steak to be effective, but I think it’s very easy to get swept up in the vanity side of it, the desire to be liked and recognized and important.  It’s important for me to take stock throughout the day, to say, Now, am I doing this because I think it’s advantageous to me politically or because I think it’s the right thing to do?  Am I doing this to get in the papers, or am I doing this because it’s necessary to accomplish my motives?”


He uses prayer as a litmus test for altruism?  “Yeah, something like that,” he says, smiling sheepishly.  “The most powerful political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a certain truth.  I can feel it.  When I’m talking to a group and I’m saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I’m just being glib or clever.”


Is that power the Holy Spirit?  “I think it’s the power of the recognition of God, or the recognition of a larger truth that is being shared between me and the audience.  That’s something you learn watching ministers – what they call the Holy Spirit.  They want the Holy Spirit to come down while they’re preaching, right?  Not to try to intellectualize it, but what I see there are moments that happen within a sermon where the minister gets out of his ego and is speaking from a different source.  And it’s powerful.  There are also times when you can see the ego getting in the way, where the minister is performing and clearly straining for applause or an amen.  And those are distinct moments.  But I think those former moments are sacred.”


Obama has many friends in the clergy who help keep his moral compass set, such as the Reverend Michael Pfleger, a white Roman Catholic priest and pastor of St. Sabina Church, a mostly black activist congregation in the rough Auburn-Gresham community on Chicago’s South Side.  “I always have felt in him this consciousness that, at the end of the day, with all of us, you’ve got to face God,” says Pfleger, who has known Obama for almost twenty years.  “Faith is key to his life, no question about it.  It is central to who he is, and not just in his work in the political field but as a man, as a black man, as a husband, as a father.  I don’t think he could easily divorce his faith from who he is.”


Another person Obama seeks out for spiritual counsel is Illinois State Senator James Meeks, who is also the pastor of Chicago’s Salem Baptist Church and heir apparent to the helm of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.  The day after Obama won the primary in March 2004, he stopped by Salem for Wednesday-night Bible study.  “I know that he’s a person of prayer,” Meeks says.  “The night after the election, he was the hottest thing going from Galesburg to Rockford.  He did all the TV shows, and all the morning news, but his last stop at night was for church.  He came by to say thank you, and he came by for prayer.”


Obama recognizes that it’s not easy for most politicians to talk about faith, at least not in any real, genuine way.


“The nature of politics is that you want to have everybody like you and project the best possible traits onto you,” he says.  “Oftentimes, that’s by being as vague as possible, or appealing to the lowest common denominators.  The more specific and detailed you are on issues as personal and fundamental as your faith, the more potentially dangerous it is.  The difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize.  There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that if people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior, they’re going to hell.


Obama doesn’t believe he, or anyone else, will go to hell.  But he’s not sure if he’ll be going to heaven either.


“I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.  I can't imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity.  That's just not part of my religious makeup," he says.  "What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded.  I don't presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die.  But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, aligning myself to my faith and values is a good thing.”


“When I tuck my daughters in at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people and that they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.”

April 2004

Barack Obama


Index of Simply Sharing

Links to Share

Share YOUR Thoughts