Upon hearing that I was reading and reviewing The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield, one friend asked, “Faith? What faith?”
I admit that that question was exactly why I chose to participate in Michael Hyatt’s offer to review the book. I wanted to know what made the man and how he would respond to religious issues if he becomes the next president.
I haven’t listened to much of the political debate going on this summer, and sadly, I missed the Saddleback Forum with Rick Warren last weekend. So, essentially, I started reading with an unclouded perspective of Obama’s faith.
Overall I found Mansfield’s treatment of the subject to be objective, seemingly unbiased, and clearly written. The book is easy to read and surprisingly short with 144 pages of text accompanied by substantial notes and a bibliography of additional sources. Mansfield relies heavily on Obama’s own writings about his faith as well as what has been said publicly in order to piece together the history of Obama’s faith.
Mansfield begins the book by explaining the religious atmosphere Obama was reared in – the fuel of many rumors since the beginning of the presidential campaign. “His life was a religious swirl. He lived in a largely Muslim country [Indonesia; 1967-1971; age six when he moved there]. He prayed at the feet of a Catholic Jesus. He attended a mosque with his stepfather and learned Islam in his public school. At home, his mother taught him her atheistic optimism” (p. 14). His mother also “taught him to view religion as ‘a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well’” (p. 16).
That “religious swirl” led to times of searching later in life, times of trying to figure out who Barack Obama really was deep down inside. I was surprised to feel pity as I read. Pity for the young man who desperately wanted to fit in, but was neither white nor black, neither Muslim nor Catholic nor atheist nor Christian. As he entered adulthood, he tried to fit in through doing civic duty but still found himself floundering in life.
As a result of his soul-searching, Obama attended Trinity United Church of Christ and listened to messages by the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Through his attendance at Trinity UCC, Obama found his faith.
Obama describes his faith as “a decision to enter a faith by joining a people of faith, to come home to a community and so come home to God…I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will and dedicated myself to discovering His truth” (p. 26-27). In his “faith” Obama found a place where he felt at home. He no longer searched to belong, and instead found his purpose among the people at Trinity UCC. Is finding a place to belong truly a soul-saving faith?
Later he states that he “was relieved that a ‘religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking.’ Rather than ‘renounce the world and its ways’…he was pleased that his faith would not require ‘retreat from the world that I knew and loved’…in conversion he ‘dedicated [himself] to discovering [God’s] truth’” (p. 53).
Mansfield’s dedication of an entire chapter to Trinity UCC and Rev. Wright seemed odd to me at first. Was it important to know the life history of Rev. Wright? As I continued reading, I realized that it is essential for one to understand who Rev. Wright is and what he preached in order to understand the faith of Obama.
Mansfield then raises areas of concern in Obama’s faith including a conversation between Obama and his daughter about the existence of heaven or lack thereof, his denial of the Christian tenement that there is only one way to God, and his doubts about other Christian doctrines (p. 56-58). However, Mansfield concludes that Obama’s views are inline with the majority of young Americans, those who are Obama’s strongest supporters. These are young Americans who either grew up with no church at all or grew up in an overly legalistic atmosphere that upon exiting began to question the foundations and legalism. They believe in a God but question whether all of the doctrines of Christianity are true.
My favorite part of the book is chapter 5 entitled “Four Faces of Faith.” While the obvious focus of the book is Obama’s faith, Mansfield branches out and recaps the faith of the three other major political players in 2008 – John McCain, Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. Each player has publicly admitted having a faith in God and Mansfield explores how they came to that faith, what their faith means to them, and how the four contrast with each other. The current political atmosphere regarding religion and exactly where the candidates are trying to place themselves in that atmosphere is clearly explained.
If I could recommend this book for no other reason, I would recommend it for chapter 5. Every person considering placing a vote in November needs to read this chapter. As individuals in today’s society, it is our duty to be informed about not only the candidates’ position on political issues but also their inner beliefs as those beliefs are the ones that will shape our nation for the next four years.
Following my favorite part of the book is chapter 6, “A Time to Heal,” and my least favorite part. I felt like this final chapter was a defense or justification of Rev. Wright and his positions. In fact this chapter made me wonder if the book was really about Obama or about Wright.
However, Mansfield’s overall point in the chapter and for the conclusion of the book is valid: Obama, whose faith began to bloom as a result of Wright’s teaching, will be on the political scene for years to come and he potentially offers what this country needs to heal. He is willing to side with those who hold a different faith and offer resolution to long term problems, something many Democrats are unwilling to do (p. 143-144). He appeals to the younger generations because he has been where they are – searching – and is not afraid to tell his story.
So, in answer to the question, “Faith? What faith?” My response has to be “a religious faith.” He is “Christian” in the sense that he follows a religion, attends church, speaks of God, tries to help society and is pursuing God’s truth. But he also believes in other ways to God besides salvation.
In conclusion, I definitely recommend reading The Faith of Barack Obama if you have any interest in the 2008 elections and whether or not you support Obama.