Obama's faith

Hans Rollmann
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n contrast to recent Canadian political campaigns, American presidential candidates speak much about religion.
In the party primary elections, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has been, by far, the most interesting candidate as far as religion is concerned.
At first, his constant allusions to "change" and "hope," which were quickly echoed by his Democratic and Republican competitors, sounded like vacuous political rhetoric. As I read his speeches and some of his publications, I began to change my mind. Obama's language appears to be rooted in his personal experience and a wide and well-grounded religious worldview.
Obama's religious journey and convictions can best be studied in the chapter titled "Faith" in his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope." We see him first as a child learning to treasure humanitarian values, and moving as an adult toward an explicit commitment to Christianity as a life-affirming and community-building orientation.
Obama's faith developed as he worked after college as a community organizer for churches in the Chicago area. It blossomed into a decisive faith commitment when he realized that "without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart," just as his highly respected, independent mother had.
In retrospect, it was the importance of the black church as a means to change individuals and society that greatly influenced the formation of his faith. It is a tradition, Obama tells us, that always remains open to the world and its ambiguities, uncertainties, doubts and struggles.
In a celebrated autobiographical passage in that book, Obama writes that the religious answers he found "did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved."
When he finally walked down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ to be baptized, it had not been a sudden conversion, as often found among American evangelicals, that initiated his profound religious change.
"It came about as a choice," Obama writes, "and not an epiphany; the questions 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."

Supports pluralism
Although believing, as he expressed recently in an interview in the evangelical journal Christianity Today, "in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ," Obama affirms religious pluralism in American society and the rights of individuals to make their own personal choices, including about human reproduction.
That pluralism moves Obama to advocate continued separation of church and state, arguing that such a divide not only encourages a vibrant democracy but engages the diversity of religious faiths in a modern, global society.
Obama is keenly aware of the great variety of religious and ideological choices in today's America.
"Whatever we once were," he writes, "we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."
This does not mean, however, that Christians have to leave their religious convictions outside the "public square." In a pluralistic democracy "the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values," projects that can be argued and are open to reasoned change in the wider religious and non-religious communities.
One of the most divisive issues and the acid test for many "evangelical" voters as they assess presidential candidates is their stand on abortion.
Obama emphatically defends the court decision that made abortion legal in the U.S., Roe v. Wade, but he considers abortion to be a "wrenching and difficult" moral choice.
"Our goal," he stated in his recent interview in Christianity Today, "should be to make abortion less common, that we should be discouraging unwanted pregnancies, that we should encourage adoption wherever possible."
Whether this will be an adequate meeting ground even for moderate evangelicals remains to be seen.

Studied candidate
In preparing to write about Obama's religion, I spoke with professor Shaun Casey, who teaches theology and ethics in Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and has studied Obama's words and actions closely.
According to Casey, Obama's faith emerges from his decisions as an adult.
"It is not the inherited faith of his parents; it is truly his own," Casey said.
Obama's faith, "born in the context of working to improve the plight of the urban poor," is "anchored in a particular struggle to make the world a better place."
Obama "is a very specific kind of Christian," but he "affirms his particular faith while simultaneously reaching out to people of other faiths." He "does not seek to use religion as a political wedge, as many politicians do; instead, his faith is a bridge to build community between different points of view."
Casey observes that Obama, "contrary to conservative stereotypes, is a progressive who is not anti-God or against religion."
In his work as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama learned "that theologically motivated actors are crucial partners in establishing social justice." Obama "understands that faith communities have long played a vital role in American public life, from the civil-rights movement and peace movement in the 1960s to contemporary efforts to rebuild American cities."
Obama's conclusions about the African-American church and the separation of church and state are again grounded in his experience.
"They are part of his own story and they are part of America's story," Casey says. "The vitality of religion in America today stems from the disestablishment of church and state in the founding of the government."
Yet "centuries of struggle, led by members of the African-American Church," were required "to prod the nation to fully extend its political franchise to African-Americans."
These historical facts "continue to sustain civil society in America." Obama recognizes that "if America is going to effectively address the great social problems of the day, faith communities will still play a vital role in shaping and implementing the solutions."

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at hrollman@mun.ca

Organizations: Trinity United Church of Christ, African-American Church

Geographic location: Chicago, America, Washington, D.C.

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