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Obama's faith journey

Christopher Jackson

Barack Obama would make a good theologian, according to novelist Marilynne Robinson - while Richard Dawkins is sure he's a closet atheist and conspiracy theorists insist he's a secret Muslim. CHRISTOPHER JACKSON tracks the true beliefs of the 44th President at the start of his final year in office.


On March 18th 2008, the then Senator Barack Obama went to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The goal was clear: to steady his Presidential bid. That week the US media had been replaying - on what must have been a worrying loop - claims made by Obama's pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Hectic sermon extracts delivered by Wright had shown him seem to suggest that the September 11th attacks had been deserved: 'America's chickens are coming home to roost'.

Obama's reaction in Philadelphia - in a speech now known as 'A More Perfect Union' - was to tackle the scandal by seeking out nuance. In a 45-minute speech, the future President reiterated his disagreement with Wright's remarks. But he also walked the country through the complexity of the black church, defending it from stereotype. Obama quoted the passage from his memoir Dreams From My Father where he describes first experiencing the heady atmosphere of a Trinity sermon:

People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up to the rafters.

And in that single note -- hope -- I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones.1

In the coming months, Obama would eventually disown Reverend Wright, when his former friend made a series of anti-Semitic remarks. But the speech would do more than any other to secure Obama the presidency.

But it was also an important point in Obama's dialogue with the electorate about faith. In one sense this has been a developing story. The disowning of Wright was a painful case in point. The fatherless Obama appears to have thought of him in quasipaternal terms. And from the Newtown shooting to the emergence of ISIS, and against an ever noisier backdrop of Republican obstructionism, his presidency has provided numerous moments where his underlying beliefs have been tested, and perhaps strained.



Yet at the same time, it can also be demonstrated that the President's beliefs have remained remarkably stable throughout the flux of the presidency.

What are his beliefs? To start with, from the passage in Dreams quoted above, it is possible to see how for Obama, the idea of religion is bound up with the notion of narrative. Obama seems to suggest that it is only by acknowledging ourselves as inheritors of large stories - of Moses and David - that we can begin to guess our own potential. The gigantic figures of scripture are made to walk among us. There is something almost Renaissance-like about it. Just as Michelangelo summoned David to Florence, so Obama doesn't see the past as remote, but as something ongoing, which we might mould to our own advantage. Story-telling is always inclusive, and it is this side of religion, more than its precepts, which attracts Obama.

This openness was no doubt helped, even caused, by Obama's eclectic background. Born in Hawaii in 1961 as the child of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother, Barack Hussein Obama grew up not so much with a lack of roots, as under a superabundance of influence.



As he explained in an important 2004 interview with Patheos: 'My grandmother was Methodist. My grandfather was Baptist. I draw from the Christian faith. On the other hand, in Hawaii there are a lot of Eastern influences. I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, between the ages of six and 10. My father was from Kenya, and although he was probably most accurately labelled an agnostic, his father was Muslim. And I'd say intellectually I've drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith.'2

If inclusiveness was foisted on Obama by his upbringing, he also displays a rare willingness to embrace the constituents of his makeup, a trait which has also made him likely to note the heterogeneity of the country around him. The pre-presidency Obama is impossible to distinguish from the man who observed in his First Inaugural Address: 'For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.'3

He was looking inward as much as outward when he said this. But part of the difficulty of his presidency has been the electorate's tendency to look through him towards their own preoccupations. In his second book The Audacity of Hope, Obama predicts that he will be a screen on which people will project what they want to see. It has proven to be the case.



For instance those last words 'and non-believers' are a typical Obama touch. With his ascendancy to popularity, this wide-ranging set of sympathies has sometimes allowed people to cast him in their own image. 'Like many people, I'm sure Obama is an atheist,' Richard Dawkins told Bill Maher in a 2013 interview.4 Obama's open-mindedness, as well as his evidently literary nature, has sometimes misled intellectuals, who cannot believe that anyone literate might take religion seriously, into assuming the President secretly shares their views.

Likewise, the Republican right has hijacked the President's open-mindedness to other cultures as confirmation of their fears about him. Obama's attempts to understand others have sometimes led to him being misunderstood himself.

Yet to describe Obama as having a pick-and-mix approach to the transcendent doesn't quite fit either. Obama's youth was certainly eclectic, and with his mother's influence - Obama refers in Dreams to her 'professed secularism' - perhaps even in some sense agnostic. But all would change in Chicago when Obama moved there in 1985, two years after graduating from Occidental College, Los Angeles.



In Chicago - 'that sombre city' as Augie March has it - Obama was hired as director of the Developing Communities Project. This was a church-based community organization comprising eight Catholic parishes in Roseland, West Pullman, and Riverdale on Chicago's South Side. He would hold down the job until May 1988.

The future President soon discovered that if he wanted anything done on the south side of Chicago, the church had to be involved. He would later tell Patheos: 'I think what had been more of an intellectual view of religion deepened because I'd be spending an enormous amount of time with church ladies, sort of surrogate mothers and fathers and everybody I was working with was 50 or 55 or 60, and here I was a 23-year-old kid running around.'5

In Obama, we always find the particular straining for a more general application. When you find him thinking in detail - about the complexities of healthcare reform or the financial sector - he is usually concerned at the same time with larger patterns, and the sweep of history. That was also the case in Chicago. As Simon Schama put it in a Newsweek essay which is still the best thing on Obama: 'Once inside [Trinity], Obama made the instinctive, historical connection with the entire history of black self-determination, from the secret slave churches in the south through to the great temple establishments that ran schools and cared for the sick.'6



So religion fitted with both his story-telling and his political side. But there is also paradox here. On the one hand, Obama came into himself through the forging of deeper ties with the church network in Chicago - by an exposure to Christianity. On the other, his whole life up until that point had been infused with an eclecticism that it was against his temperament to disown. Obama would sum it up years later: 'I believe that there are many paths to the same place'.7 But in saying that, he was in no way disowning his own path.

It seems then that what led Obama into faith, was the experience finally, after a life of travel and flitting, of being exposed to a community. It is the one point in his life when you can see him laying down sincere roots, and it was clearly transformative. Infuture he would be mocked by the Republican right as a mere community organiser. But these years were of fundamental importance. They taught him about communities, and they brought out a dormant pragmatism in the 44th President.

This pragmatism would become a big part of the promise of the Obama presidency. The years following his stint in Chicago appear in retrospect more important personally than intellectually. It was a time of writing and family, and political advancement, but not of deep change in the same way Chicago had been.



By 2008, America had elected someone who had, time again on the campaign trail, emphasised his ability to bring people together. Candidate Obama also cast his experience in Chicago as the cause of an earned wisdom he wished to deploy in the Presidency.

Domestically, this had famously expressed itself in his famous trope, in his 2004 convention speech: 'We are not red states and blue states; we are the United States of America'.8 For Obama, fact must ultimately trump partisanship, and rationalism should be front and centre of political discourse. If such a state of affairs could be brought about, he has always argued, a lot of pointless difficulty might be removed.

But on the foreign stage, Obama's 2008 pitch to the electorate was all to do with being a man of the world, a man of religious tolerance.



At a point in history where civilisations had clashed so worryingly in Iraq, and with European allies troublingly alienated as a result, only someone with insight into other cultures like Obama, the argument ran, could hope to make progress. In 2004, Obama had said: 'I'm a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at its best comes with a big dose of doubt. I'm suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.' 9

Attitudes like this were not expected to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bring peace to Iraq in themselves, but Obama felt that they were the best place to start: and he hasn't necessarily been proven wrong in the years since simply because others have taken a different view. For Obama the Enlightenment co-exists alongside the church, the one feeding the other and vice versa.

Which brings us to Cairo. Obama's whole life might be told along stepping-stones of big speeches. The speech in 2009, called 'A New Beginning', delivered at Cairo University, was the moment when Obama fulfilled his campaign promise to reach out to the Islamic world.



It is a deeply educational speech, acknowledging the Islamic contribution not just to world history, but to the American story. It began with evoking the importance of the place he stood in: 'For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt's advancement.'10

This again is the Obama who believes that enlightenment and religion tend to sustain one another. The transcendent experience of a Christian is not only not so different to the transcendent experience of a Muslim but perhaps even necessarily the same. Throughout the speech, Obama emphasises similarity ('So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace') and frequently seeks that common ground of reasonableness which for him has always been linked to any plausible relationship with the divine. He quotes the Koran: 'Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.'

The speech shows that Obama emphasises the value of the Enlightenment when he sees the possibility to broker unity. But he is more likely to draw on the mystery of faith at times of national crisis, as has been the case when responding to America's frequent gun massacres during his Presidency.



Cairo marks the intention of the Obama presidency. But at the start of 2016, the year in which his successor will be elected, is it now possibleto ask how much the presidency changed Obama's relationship with faith?

Surveying foreign policy one can see an instinctive pacifism - as expressed in the attempt to draw down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan - vying with an Old Testament readiness to use force against implacable enemies (drones, the bin Laden operation). Domestically, he has tended to exhibit an appetite for compromise, an attitude he abandons - as with healthcare, or with Republican obstructionism of the debt ceiling - only as a last resort.

But the predominant impression is of a man largely unchanged in his essence. He has grown within a set of beliefs, rather than surrendering or tweaking those beliefs. This capacity for what must be called spiritual growth was most evident in his response to last year's Charleston massacre.



On the evening of June 17, 2015, a mass shooting took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. During a Bible study class, nine people were killed by a gunman, including the senior pastor, state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. The alleged killer, Dylan Roof, was found to have posted Facebook videos of himself wearing a jacket decorated with two emblems popular among American white supremacists: the flags of the former Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa. All the evidence pointed to an act of racist mass murder.

On June 19, when the alleged assassin appeared at court the families of the victims stood up one by one to issue the killer forgiveness. The daughter of 70-year-old victim Ethel Lane said: '"You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you. It hurts me. You hurt a lot of people, but may God forgive you."11 Then on June 22 Governor Nikki Haley, called for the Confederate flag to be removed by the state legislature.

This wasn't all. On June 26, President Barack Obama gave his eulogy. Speeches responding to gun violence had become commonplace for Obama throughout his presidency - and at the time of writing it is hard to imagine that he will not have to give more before he leaves office.



But what followed - now known as the Amazing Grace speech - was one of the great modern orations. It was also one of the bravest. Obama chose as his theme the way in which grace might enter our lives at any moment. He said:

This whole week, I've been reflecting on this idea of graceā€¦ As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind.

In churchy cadences, and with his usual timing, Obama went on to talk of the good that can arise out of unspeakable tragedy. He spoke of the need for equality and fairness; he spoke of the deepest aspirations of the country. Then astonishingly, at the end of the eulogy, he sang. The official transcript reads:

If we can find that grace, anything is possible. (Applause.) If we can tap that grace, everything can change. (Applause.)

Amazing grace. Amazing grace.

(Begins to sing) -- Amazing grace -- (applause) -- how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind but now I see. (Applause.)12



On July 6, the South Carolina Senate voted to remove the Confederate flag from display outside the South Carolina State House. It was the same week that the US Supreme Court in a landmark decision upheld same sex marriage.

The speech still has an epochal feel to it, and that is in part because we can imagine a younger Obama agreeing with every word of it: it has the timelessness of great intellectual resource. And yet it also unmistakably shows a man rising to meet a moment - who is changed while somehow remaining himself. It was his deepest statement about the nature of his faith, and it belongs as much to art as it does to politics. It also shows how Obama is able to find and generate calm amid the noise of the presidency. Obama's reflective temperament has been regularly remarked upon - it is probably the most noticeable thing about him. But again there is a paradox here, and it lies in his very decision to seek the Presidency at all. This decision makes Obama the opposite of the Desert Father or the rapt saint - the quiet monk he might otherwise resemble. Instead it makes him the involved man. He has, by public admission, sacrificed the repose and solitude which seems to be a significant part of his make-up in exchange for the hardship of deeds. It is difficult to imagine him restless when writing his memoirs in the summer of 2017.



Those memoirs will be an interesting read. But there is something so complete about Obama, that I can already guess the man they will reveal. It seems to me that Obama, more than any of his predecessors since Lincoln, brought a complete philosophy to the White House and that this has sustained him through many dark periods. More than any other President, Obama has made his journey known to us in his books and speeches. It is often said that he is a complex and aloof character. But in another sense he is a remarkably open one.

Who else, faced with the Reverend Wright scandal, would have told us so much of what he thinks about it? Which other President has such a trusting tendency to confide in his audiences? Far from being the secret atheist which some have posited, Obama has been unusually open about his religious journey and beliefs.

It is the openness of self-confidence. With his Kenyan father absent, Obama was necessarily thrust back on his own wits to make sense of things. There has therefore been nothing handed down or received about Obama's notions of the transcendent. He exudes the steeliness of someone who has wrestled with difficulty, and over time, made his own mind up. His presidency still has this year to run but my guess is when he's gone, we'll notice the lack of that in his successor.


Christopher Jackson is a journalist and poet based in London. His most recent book The Gallery was published by the University of Salzburg in 2013, and received critical acclaim. His journalism appears regularly in Slate, Politics and The Hill, and he has also trained as a lawyer. His next book on Roger Federer is due to be published by Eyewear in 2016.



1 Union