On Obama and McCain’s Faith (Or Hypothesized Lack Thereof) I: Obama

In this diavlog clip Robert Wright and Ann Althouse discuss whether Obama and McCain are really Christians.

Now, the first thing to say is that neither of these individuals (the discussants not the candidates) are Christians and so there is the possibility that they miss some of the nuance or at the least the linguistic markers/clues.

Althouse says that if she had to guess she would say both are atheists.  She prefaces her comments by noting that there is of course no way anyone can ever truly know which is true.  And equally so for me.

Holding that caveat in mind, what I think can be done is deal with the public statements and actions of the individual and see whether they fit or not within patterns of recognizable Christianity (or Christianities as I will argue in a moment).  That certainly is not fool proof method, but also if it can be shown that such an individual’s life does fit within such a stream that lends a good deal of credence (again not proof positive) of genuine faith.

First Obama.

I contend contra Althouse that Obama’s descriptions and actions of his faith fits within a very common pattern known as Social Gospel-Liberal Christianity.  Now it should be said that this form of Christianity is not considered a legitimate one by a number of other Christians–undoubtedly some in the crowd or the TV audience of the Saddleback Forum.  But that is a intra-Christian discussion and I don’t think someone outside the community is positioned to make a call on that one.   (More after jump….)

To put my cards on the table, I think the movement of which Obama is part is a legitimate (if minority) tradition within Christianity; I think it also has some flaws and is open to legitimate criticism on points but I find neither the conservative Christian critique that this version of faith is not really Christianity valid nor do I buy the secular argument that liberal religious believers are really secularists in religious drag–in the worst formulation putting on the religious garb in order to gain political standing in US society.   Of course some individuals could be doing such a thing.  But not all.  And I don’t find Obama to be in that category.  I think his faith is sincerely liberal Christian, for good and for ill.

Althouse and Wright discuss the candidates responses during that Forum, particularly whether there is evil.

Here is Obama’s response to Rick Warren on whether evil exists:

“Evil does exist. I mean, we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil in parents have viciously abused their children and I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world…Now, the one thing that I think is very important for us is to have humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, but, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil…And I think one thing that’s very important is having some humility in recognizing that, you know, just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good…”

Now Althouse goes on to argue the last bit about humility and the possibility that evil is committed by those who have convinced themselves of the justness of their cause as typical left wing hate US first/anti-Americanism.  Perhaps.  Or perhaps Althouse hears too much of that kind of thing from the lefty nutters in Madison where she lives and that is influencing her interpretation of what Obama is saying.  In this case slanting it.

I think a better interpretation would point to the work of the 20th century German-American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who Obama has discussed studying (and was a big influence on Jeremiah Wright in Wright’s seminary days).

Niebuhr turned against his early pre WWII Christian socialism and embraced a Christian moral realist position.  He was aware that the US would have to be involved in the Cold War against the Soviets but he believed that the just (in this case liberal democrats) could easily fall into a trap of self-righteousness and commit their own evil.  While there was relatively better and worse, no one was perfect, no one absolutely holy or justified.  The key was to never allow oneself to become so clouded by self-superiority and to demonize absolutely the enemy (as good and evil reside in the heart of all though again not in equal amounts).  All our judgments are provisional though we have to make them and must act, we must always be willing to face that ultimately only God knows the ultimate right.

Niebuhr in other words reinterpreted the classic Augustinian definition of original sin as pride.  [Remember this when we read Obama’s prayer at the Western Wall in a sec…]

Beliefnet Blog reports:

Barack Obama also allowed that evil existed and that we had to fight against it every day. However, Obama went on to caution that we must be careful not to fall in the trap of failing to recognize that we can, if we are not vigilant, do evil in the name of doing good. This perspective is undoubtedly influenced by his familiarity with the work of the great cold war theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote: “The Christian faith ought to persuade us that political controversies are always conflicts between sinners; and not between righteous men and sinners. It ought to mitigate the self-righteousness which is an inevitable part of all human conflicts.”

Althouse and Wright also discuss Obama’s prayer at the Western Wall that was leaked (sadly).

Obama’s Prayer at the Western Wall reads (my emphasis):

“Lord—Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.”

Pure Niebuhrian.  Wanting to navigate the waters between pride and utopian delusions at the same time not succumbing to despair, relativism, or moral apathy.

The “Give Me the Wisdom” also hearkens back to Niebuhr’s famous prayer now known from AA:  “Give me the strength to change the things I can, to accept the things I can’t, and the Wisdom to know the Difference.”

And then of course the circumstances surrounding Obama’s conversion in adulthood to Christianity.  He has been accused of having joined Trinity United Church (and by extension his religious faith) for political calculations only.  This critique is laid on him by right-wing Christians, non-religious (left and right).  I think these criticisms usually say more about the person making them than Obama.

Here is how Obama describes what went on:

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well — that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

And if it weren’t for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn – not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope…

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

There are a number of points in that quotation.

1)The need for a religious community.  Obama describes the church as a vessel for his beliefs–meaning he already had some beliefs (possibly even of a spiritual nature).  The notion of the need to be a part of a community and a tradition was certainly influenced by his work as a community organizer.

2)Connecting back to the point about Social Gospel Christianity:  that the Black Church has a long history of acts of justice and mercy to the poor.  This clearly moves the guy.  Christianity is not about primarily about some after death but rather about change in this world.  Classic Social Gospel from the 19th century until today.

3)Self-consciously self-critical faith.  His conversion is a choice not an epiphany (i.e. an evangelical born again experience), he doesn’t fall out (i.e. Pentecostal speaking in tongues/slain in the Spirit experience) and his doubts are not erased (i.e. fundamentalism).

His description of submitting to God’s Will and seeking to do it reinforces his prayer at the Western Wall.  Now there are couple of ways to interpret all that language.  It tends to be quite self-focused.  On the other hand, that he prays for humility might suggest he realizes that pride/ambition is one of his biggest temptations/sins–which perhaps explains why he was so drawn to Niebuhr in the first place.

As well as his description of having his sins washed though again he’s not an evangelical as was clear from the Saddleback Forum and any study of his religious trajectory, it does clearly place him broadly within Protestantism.  He’s obviously not Catholic.  Sin, preaching, moral action.  No emphasis say on ritual, sacrament, the saints.

It’s worth pointing out that the speech from which I culled that quotation which was given in 2006 is the most important speech on the relationship between religion and politics by a Democrat since at least Clinton if not before.  Perhaps since Carter’s linking of his human rights foreign policy based in part on his religious faith.  Obama criticizes Democrats for being unwilling to employ the language of faith, being embarrassed.

He seriously considered Kaine for VP, a pro-life Democrat and one the other allies towards Democrats being comfortable with religious language.  As well Biden, a cradle sincere pious Catholic.

Now there is no doubt there were political calculations in his joining Trinity.  But the calculations people often take to choosing a church involves a number of issues.  Obama is clearly a liberal and always has been.  Trinity was essentially the only black church in Chicago that welcome gays and lesbians.  It’s theology was more liberal.  It was more Afro-centric something instilled in Barack by his (white!!!) mother as a boy.  And it was a buppie church–so it involved not just politics but young professionals, economics, and his whole world outlook.  Politics was only I think a part of it, but no doubt it was part of the calculus. Again notice, if you can trust his words at all, the movement to Christianity was largely a conversion to church and religious community.  So I think there is a sincere non-cynical reading to suggest he was genuinely looking for a community or at least some part of him was without it being a total political maneuver.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] McCain/Obama’s Faith II: McCain For Part I, see here. […]

  2. […] has elements of it left with his classic Black American Christian background as well as his Niebuhrian 50s/60s liberal theology, but he is an adult convert.  Palin was baptized Roman Catholic but really grew up as an Assembly […]


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