Obama’s Faith

Domestic politics and religion are things I discuss more indirectly than directly, with some exceptions, but this week’s events demand some contrarian analysis of the sort I like to offer. Faith is a topic of interest to me, as it is to many people, as well as a subject that’s best handled delicately given the third-rail aspects it can present.

President Obama waded into a controversy about faith this week, continuing in his pattern of stirring up pots, for no apparent reason, that most politicians would leave covered. The rise of the Islamic State, which has proved to be the worrying strategic shift I predicted months ago, has brought the issue of Islamic radicalism, a term this White House steadfastly refuses to employ or even recognize, into the public eye in a horrible way, between beheadings and related barbarism. This is probably why, in September, for the first time, fifty percent of Americans said Islam as a religion “is more likely than others to encourage violence among its believers.”

In marked contrast, Obama has continued with the line that the Islamic State is “not Islamic,” which is puzzling to many. It certainly adds grist to the right-wing mill that Obama, the son of an impious Muslim, seems oddly deferential towards the faith of his Kenyan father. It doesn’t help that Obama has recently hosted leaders of known Muslim Brotherhood front organizations in the White House, despite the fact that previous presidential parleys with MB-linked figures have ended embarrassingly.

Obama made all this worse on Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he noted that, however barbaric the Islamic State is right now, Christianity’s track record is less than perfect too:

And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Historically speaking, these are relatively unexceptional comments, though they reflect Obama’s worldview, which many Americans disagree with, rather well. All the same, it’s proper to ask why anybody thought telegraphing such historical equivalence at the National Prayer Breakfast was a good idea, particularly in light of Obama’s record of tossed-off insults at Americans of faith, most famously his 2008 zinger about small-minded people clinging to guns or religion. At best, the National Prayer Breakfast was a thoughtless error; at worst, it was an intentional public slap at political enemies, in the double-down fashion that Obama seems to be embracing in his last two years in office, after the midterm election Democratic bloodbath.

Predictably, some on the Right have seized on Obama’s comments with gusto. Rudy Giuliani lambasted Obama, “as weak a historian as he is a president, and as weak a theologian,” while some conservative commentators have stated that Obama really isn’t a Christian at all, at least “not in any meaningful way.”

Just as predictably, some on the Left have fired back that, yes, Obama is a Christian, and the Right are a bunch of bigots anyway. On cue, Ta-Nehisi Coates attacked the “foolish, historically illiterate, incredible” right-wing response to Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast comments, notwithstanding the fact that Coates has no degree in history, nor anything for that matter.

It would be wise to get past this partisan food-fight and address some questions, dispassionately, that Obama’s professorial take on Christian history has raised. Just what exactly Barack Obama believes is a legitimate question, albeit one that most media have dodged, despite the fact that the president over the years has said and written a great deal about what he believes, and what role that faith plays in his life.

The most important single source is a 2004 interview that is wide-ranging and detailed. In it, Obama comes across as the thoughtful progressive intellectual that he is. It’s worth examining in some detail, since in the interview Obama lays out his faith-based worldview with a degree of precision.

Out of the gate, Obama said, “I am a Christian. So, I have a deep faith. So I draw from the Christian faith,” going on to explain that his childhood in religiously diverse Hawaii and Muslim Indonesia marked him, then adding the statement, “I’d say, probably, intellectually I’ve drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith,” followed quickly with the wrap-up: “I’m rooted in the Christian tradition.” This is the professorial Obama, always ready with an “on the other hand,” that his admirers find fascinating and his opponents find vacillating.

Obama made clear that his Christianity is unconventional and his religious worldview is universalist: “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.”

Obama explained that his religious upbringing was liberally Protestant, but not strongly so, and that his first real encounter with faith came at the age of twenty-three, when he was working as a community organizer. He came across the black church and it changed his life. He witnessed “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.”

Specifically, Obama met the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Given the subsequent controversy surrounding Obama’s relationship with Wright — more on that later — this merits discussion, but the interview leaves no doubt that meeting Wright, the longtime pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC), was the turning point of Obama life, at least in terms of faith. As Obama recounted, the pastor there, Jeremiah Wright, became “a good friend. So I joined that church and committed myself to Christ in that church,” leading to an altar call “in 1987 or 1988” and Obama joining TUCC as a full member, as he would remain until his presidential run in 2008.

In the interview, Obama waffled on the issue of being “born again” at TUCC:

Yeah, although I don’t, 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. I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt.

Obama then noted that his first memoir, Dreams from My Father, includes a whole chapter on his faith encounter and membership at TUCC, including the large role of the Rev. Wright in his growth as a believer and as a person. (Obama’s second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006, took its title from one of Wright’s sermons).

“Yep. Every week. Eleven o’clock service,” was Obama’s reply when asked in 2004 if he still attended TUCC. He was more evasive on the issue of prayer: “Uh, yeah, I guess I do,” adding that he did not pray in any formal, on-your-knees sense. Direct questions about Jesus Christ were partly dodged. “Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith…And he’s also a wonderful teacher.” — which seems to deny Christ’s divinity, much less any resurrection, but as so often with Obama it’s difficult to be exactly certain what he means.

Obama was quite certain, however, about the importance of not getting carried away with religion of any sort: “Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion. I am a big believer in the separation of church and state…I’m very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.”

Obama’s ideal faith seems to be one that is deep yet not too deep, and certainly not something leading to fanaticism. The line between faith and “religious certainty” is far from clear, based on Obama’s statements. Certainly his definition of sin as “being out of alignment with my values” does not seem conventional to any orthodox Christian, while Obama’s choice of spiritual role models — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln — is curious, since only one of them was Christian in any conventional sense.

The importance of the black church cannot be overstated in Obama’s faith and worldview, including this description: “the Civil Rights movement has a powerful hold on me. It’s a point in time where I think heaven and earth meet.” On this issue, Obama seemed to possess an abundance of faith-based certainty and endorsed “religious certainty expressing itself in politics” anything but suspiciously.

What can we make of all this? By and large, Obama in the 2004 interview, and many times since, comes across as a standard-issue liberal, post-modern Protestant, which is not surprising, since the United Church of Christ, which TUCC is part of, is long on tolerance and short on orthodox beliefs. Theologically liberal, the UCC places strong emphasis on social activism and less on traditional tenets of the Christian faith.

The only thing that separates Obama’s stated beliefs from the progressive Christian norm is the large role played by the Rev. Wright and TUCC. This merits some analysis, given their importance to shaping Obama’s worldview, as well as Obama’s walking away from Wright in 2008 when scandal erupted over certain statements made by Obama’s “good friend.”

That controversy stemmed from political comments made by Wright, who had recently retired from the helm of TUCC, that reflected strong criticism of America as well as negative comments about Jews and Israel. Eager to win the presidency, Obama threw his spiritual mentor of two decades under the bus, leaving Wright displeased to the present day.

Let me say that, his angry comments notwithstanding, I find Wright to be an interesting and thoughtful man — he seems vastly preferable to his replacement as Obama’s spiritual consigliere, Al Sharpton, who is a rabble-rouser and fraudster — and I can understand his resentment at Candidate Obama’s defenestration of him when the media noticed what was going on at TUCC.

Wright is a prominent advocate of black liberation theology, which emerged in the 1960’s as an offshoot of the Black Power movement. Given the importance of Wright and TUCC to Obama’s faith and beliefs, some analysis is helpful. Right-wing pundits took notice of these matters back in 2008, but the mainstream media largely ignored questions that merited attention. It did not help that most on the Right portrayed Wright as a Marxist, when really Leftism is secondary to his worldview, his regular incantation of left-wing platitudes on a host of issues notwithstanding.

Wright and TUCC are deeply immersed, instead, in black nationalism. TUCC embodies not the “black church” so highly praised by Barack Obama, but the hardline nationalist fringe of it. Black liberation theology is in large part the brainchild of James Cone, a prominent academic theologian of 1960’s vintage. While Cone was influenced by Marxism, his essential point was nationalism, namely that, confronted by intractable racism, blacks must reinvent Christianity along racial lines to achieve spiritual and political liberation.

Cone emphasizes this-worldly struggles for justice against America’s white power structure, amidst portrayals of black Jesus and saints. The anti-white flavor of black liberation theology is significant, and Cone has at times engaged in extreme rhetoric such as declaring “white-devil oppressor” Christianity to be “false.” “Theologically,” Cone stated, “Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil’.”

It should be noted that Cone’s radical, race-based theology has been sharply criticized by many mainstream black church notables. It should also be noted that Jeremiah Wright has never been one of those critics. Instead, Wright considers Cone a friend and mentor, praising him as a spiritual guide, while Cone has hailed TUCC as the foremost example of his theology in practice.

To be clear, Christianity and ethno-racial identity go hand in hand, and always have. In some countries, faith and national identity are so closely intertwined as to be difficult to untangle, with sometimes spiritually negative consequences. I’ve explained how Putin’s Russia has tried to erase the line between religion and national identity, an Orthodox temptation known as phyletism.

But the theology of Cone and Wright is something stronger, representing an effort to fundamentally re-write Christianity on a racial basis, with different races cast as evil, even Satanic, while blacks take the place of “chosen people,” harking back to the Old Testament role of the Israelites. In this conception, “real” Christianity, which is associated with your tribe, must be changed to “save” it from evildoers, who happen to be your racial enemies.

There’s nothing new about this temptation and it’s not difficult to find similar examples. The most recent case that comes to mind — I’m afraid this is going to be controversial — is Nazi Germany, where Hitler’s followers tried to comprehensively re-write Christianity on an “Aryan” basis. There’s a lot of myth-making about the Nazis and Christianity — if you’d like a solid debunking I recommend this book — and Hitler’s views on religion were complex, even ambiguous. While he looked upon the Roman Catholic Church of his childhood with distaste, even that was conditional, and Hitler was not anti-Christian per se. He wanted Germany to have a united, national Protestant church, which it lacked. Hitler mocked the neo-pagan tendencies of some leading Nazis, such as SS leader Heinrich Himmler, a severely lapsed Catholic.

From the beginnings of the Nazi movement, there was a theological tendency known as Positive Christianity which aimed to Aryanize German Protestantism by ridding it of Jews, past and present. In this view, Christianity had been corrupted by Jews — St. Paul was their particular bugbear — and needed to be purified of Semitic tendencies that had accumulated over the centuries. Needless to add, Jesus was not Jewish, rather Aryan, in this revised take on the faith.

After the Nazi takeover in 1933, this movement coalesced into the German Christians, which aimed to unify Germany’s Protestant churches around a race-based theology that was deeply anti-Semitic and espoused a historically fanciful take on Christianity. While this was outwardly Christian, its inner, race-based theology was a substantial break with any historical faith. While this cause ultimately failed, the German Christians delivered loyalty to the Nazis down to the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, leaving a black mark on Christianity.

Of course, Americans will answer that James Cone and Jeremiah Wright rewriting Christianity for the benefit of their race is good, or at least understandable, while the Nazis doing the same thing was bad, even evil, but we need to recognize that the underlying theological sleight of hand is the same. Recasting Christianity to benefit your race or ethnic group, while highlighting others as hate figures who need to be expunged from the “true faith,” is unhealthy — traditional Christians would say sinful too — and ought to be resisted by all people who seek harmony and peace.

As I’ve said of Vladimir Putin, I have no idea what he actually believes, since someone else’s inner faith is unknowable, but Barack Obama has said and written a great deal about what he believes. Although the media ignored most of that, just as they dodged other important questions about Candidate Obama, there are more than hints that Obama’s faith includes things that would be strange, even heretical, to many Americans.