Obama on Faith

I read the chapter on faith in Obama’s Audacity of Hope. It moved me to tears at some points, as when he talked about the time he reached out to peaceful pro-life demonstrators at one of his rallies, or the lesbian woman who took offense at his opposition to gay marriage. (She thought he was calling her a bad person!) I had to chuckle at his descriptions of Alan Keyes, the flamboyant, Harvard-educated, Christian conservative orator who ran against Obama for the Senate in 2004. While Obama knew that Keyes stood no chance, there was something about Keyes that got to him and made him think about the role of faith in politics. And Obama gave me food for thought as he discussed the relationship between religion and public life. He supports the separation of church and state, yet he believes that religion belongs in the public sphere, as long as Christians also come up with secular arguments for their policy proposals. That sounds convoluted, I know, but it’s a tough issue!

Perhaps what really got me thinking was Obama’s description of his own faith journey. His family was not that religious, but his mom encouraged him to study numerous religions as different ways to approach life. She herself did not identify with a specific faith, but she instilled in her son a love for life and a passion for social justice. As Obama worked on social justice causes within the African-American community, he felt rather rootless, since he did not belong to any religion. He felt like a detached observer, who had all these inner convictions floating around without much grounding in story, tradition, or community. He gravitated towards the African-American church because there were things about it that appealed to him, particularly its passion for social justice and its notion that church was a hospital for sinners, not a gathering of saints. And so he was baptized in the Trinity United Church of Christ!

As far as his current faith life goes, he identifies with Jesus’ command to love others, even as he struggles with parts of the Bible that give many of us pause (e.g., food laws, death penalty for children, etc.). He tries to be humble on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, for he realizes that he doesn’t have all of the answers. At the end of the chapter, he says he’s not even sure what happens when we die or what existed before the Big Bang. But he recounts that he “grasped a little bit of heaven” as he tucked his daughters in one night. He has committed himself to a faith (Christianity), yet faith, for him, does not preclude doubt.

I can identify with much of what Obama says, for it overlaps with my own faith life, on some level. Over the course of my 31 years, I’ve encountered all sorts of belief systems: atheist, Jewish, Muslim, New Age, and a host of Christian denominations, some of them mainstream, and some of them not. Which one is right? I really don’t know. There are Christian apologists who claim they can prove Christianity, and, while their arguments deserve thoughtful consideration, I don’t see them as a silver bullet. As I’ve said before, there are a variety of ways to read and interpret evidence. There are also Christians who say that they experience God directly (as in God speaking to them and guiding them), but that doesn’t happen to me. Plus, I don’t know enough about people in other religions to say that it doesn’t happen to them.

But I feel a need to belong somewhere, within some story, tradition, and community. I can’t live with a bunch of free-floating convictions. For me, right and wrong need to be grounded in an objective source, namely, God. And this God needs some definable attributes. He can’t just be the nebulous “higher power” of Alcoholics Anonymous: I want a God with a clear personality and goals. And I believe that I must take all of a tradition, not pick-and-choose from it, since picking-and-choosing means I’m creating my own God. So, in some way, shape, or form, I’m a fundamentalist.

I read my Bible and talk to God every day, for that is how I feel I encounter him. The stories of the biblical tradition frame and embody my morality, and they can relate to numerous events of life! I participate in regular rituals, such as the Sabbath and the holy days. As I led the Lord’s supper this year, I reflected on rituals: On that occasion, I was grounding myself in the Christian story. What Jesus Christ has done for me is the basis of my identity, security, and morality. Do I believe that everything in the Bible actually happened? Do I dismiss Jewish interpretations of the biblical prophecies that Christians apply to Jesus? Do I embrace a literal reading of Genesis 1 as opposed to evolution? What happens to those who don’t believe in the Gospel? These are still issues with which I struggle, and I don’t have all of the answers. But I still place myself in the Christian story, as I embrace what Jesus Christ has done for me.

Others may have other stories that embody and ground their own sense of identity and morality. I can’t really say that mine is better than theirs. I can’t prove that mine is true and theirs is false. And, as far as better and worse goes, better and worse depends on one’s perspective. As I’ve said before, there are things about the biblical tradition that are attractive, and there are things that are repulsive. Christian fundamentalists tell us to “just have faith” on the repulsive parts. But, if we open the door to that, how can we say that any religion is better than another? People can say “just have faith” to explain away the unattractive parts!

I admit that there are problems with my approach. It sounds like I’m saying Christianity is not objectively true, or that it’s right for me and not necessarily everyone else. And I accept such criticism. How can being part of the Christian story help me if I don’t see it as objectively true–as an accurate description of a real God who acts in the real world? And so, yes, I do see Christianity as objectively true. I have to for it to do anything for me!

But perhaps that beneficent being called God can interact with all sorts of people, in a variety of belief systems. Sure, I have to believe that Christians have an insight and a relationship with God that others lack, since why else would I be a Christian? But can I still say that God reaches out to all of humanity, in some way, shape, or form? Obama may not always be sure about faith, but he sensed something transcendent when he tucked his girls into bed. And, as John Hick says, even people in non-Christian religions have a sense of morality and the transcendent. Do they encounter God? Who knows? I hope God is that big!

But I myself can’t embrace a nebulous sense of the transcendent. I’m not a Unitarian Universalist! That’s why I ground myself in a specific tradition: Christianity. But, even then, I maintain an academic sense of detachment. I don’t assume that the interpretation of Scripture I grew up with is the only way to see the text. (That would be boring!) There are all sorts of interpretations! But, in the midst of this cacophony of interpretations and denominations, I cling to some basic truths: that there is a loving God, and that he is working to make me a better person. I’m God’s project, but I’m also his child!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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