The religion of Barack Obama has become a matter at the forefront of the 2008 American presidential race, from the media storm surrounding his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to assertions that the democratic nominee harbors a closeted Islamic faith. In his latest volume, The Faith of Barack Obama, Stephen Mansfield attempts to trace the arc of the Illinois senator’s spiritual development, casting it as a paradigm of contemporary faith with potentially profound political resonance.

Beginning with the admission that the book is "written in the belief that if a man’s faith is sincere, it is the most important thing about him, and that it is impossible to understand who he is and how he will lead without first understanding the religious vision that informs his life," Mansfield frames his work with an exceptionally honest recognition of the writer’s worldview. He regards spirituality as the imminent force of one’s life, identity, and behavior.

With an atheist mother, a stepfather practicing folk Islam, and educations at Catholic and Congregational schools, Barack Obama was not raised with unified religious influence. His faith today is one that he selected as an adult, not one that he received osmotically through his rearing. Mansfield implies Obama to be a man fortunate to have risen from the spiritual mishmash which his mother, Anne Soetoro, allowed. Mansfield somewhat disparages her as he writes, "She paid the price for her [religious] detachment by ultimately having no belonging, no tribe, no people to claim for her own," and, "Only through a steely shielding of the heart, only through a determined detachment, could a child of Barack’s age be exposed to so much incongruous religious influence and emerge undamaged."

Yet Obama’s early introduction to diverse forms of spirituality informs his belief that various religions may act as vehicles to the same objective Faith. Though later he chose to worship via the United Church of Christ, he refuses to view it as a denomination holding a monopoly over religious truth. He can appreciate pluralism despite his particular affiliation with the sect, saying in 2006, "Whatever we once were, 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."

Obama did not commit to a particular church until adulthood, when he began attending the Trinity United Church headed by Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Chicago’s South Side. Seeking what he called a "vessel" for his beliefs, Obama chose it as his own. It was a church that permitted close intellectual examination of the spiritual, a method not unlike the textual deconstruction he practiced as a student of political science as an undergraduate at Harvard. It was a church in which sermons often conflated religious life with fighting oppression, much as Obama did in his job as a community organizer. It was indeed a vessel for him to enter as himself without needing to excessively remold himself. Mansfield infers that Obama did not immediately abandon the Trinity United Church after incendiary remarks, such as "God damns America," were made by Wright because of this newfound sense of belonging.

Still, Obama did not leave everything of the Trinity United Church behind, retaining a conviction in that religion and civic life need not be always divorced. In 2006 in a speech at a conference called "From Poverty to Opportunity: A Covenant for a New America," he deviated from the norm of secular liberalism by saying, "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square…to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality."

Mansfield depicts Obama as the ultimate example of this generation’s spirituality, one not of rigid dogma but one of plasticity permitting interfaith fluidity, integration with civil life, and most of all, doubt. Though the senator has expressed belief that faith will lead him to eternal life, he has also confessed that when asked by his daughter what happens upon death, he vacillated between telling her he was uncertain or simply providing a comforting answer. Obama has professed his belief that Christ is the Lord’s son but does not believe Christianity is the sole path to God. He has attended church regularly for twenty years and staunchly supports women’s rights in Congress, yet has admitted that someday he may realize error in his pro-choice sentiments. To Mansfield, Obama is a model of this generation’s believer, that is, a believer who does not always adhere to dogma, does not always sever church and state, does not always insist that he knows but permits doubt into his faith.

This new religion is one that Mansfield compares to three other kinds of faith typified by Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and George W. Bush. The difference to Mansfield is not so much the doctrinal as narrative. While Clinton has experienced faith as the exercise of social decency, McCain has kept a quietly personal religiosity separate from his position as a senator, and Bush has felt an evangelical call which provided a sense of destiny to his foray into politics. Mansfield asserts that Obama, by choosing his religion yet tolerating the religion of others, by refusing to allow faith become the sole possession of Republicans, and by allowing morality a place in public life, may heal recent wounds of partisanship, class stratification, and racial or religious rivalry to move towards an improved nation. His is a faith that today could change America.

Though certainly Mansfield often makes overly broad statements without providing evidence of their veracity, proclaiming that we live in a "faith-fixated age" and that "brilliant dresses, hats, and fashionable suits [are what] one expects of a black church in America," he offers a detailed study of Barack Obama’s spiritual development. At times it is evident that he must fight his own prejudices of what religion is, such as when he rather dismissively writes that Obama epitomizes "a new, postmodern generation that picks and chooses its own truth from traditional faith, much as a man customizes his meal at a buffet." Yet Mansfield is not so myopic as to miss that a man such as Barack Obama, who has defied so many preconceptions of what it means to have belief, may indeed help Americans have the faith to change.

Next month: A review of Free Ride: John McCain and the Media by
David Brock and Paul Waldman

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