Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Faith of Barack Obama

Thomas Nelson recently published a great little book called The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. Mansfield is a NY Times best seller and has written several faith biographies over the years (most notably one on G-dub a few years back). This book is well-written and informative--but most importantly it is balanced. When I heard Mansfield was a conservative writing about Obama's faith I expected the normal doctrine bashing and short-sighted criticism that failed to take an adequate look at his life and motivation. I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. Mansfield deftly outlined and concisely summarized the key events in Obama's life that have led him to where he is and helped to mold his theology. But a true theology it is. Barack is not another secularized liberal attempting to squeeze religion out of the public sphere; rather, he is an individual whose faith in Christ has led him to the positions and decisions that he has taken and made. Below is a quick synopsis of the 6 short chapters.

1. To Walk Between Worlds

In this chapter, Mansfield speaks of Barack's troubles in his early life with finding his identity. Born of an African father and white mother he never quite felt at home with either race. It is enlightening for those who want to see where it is that Barack's motivations come from. He identifies, and fits right in with the current postmodern scene because of the diversity he has come from and ways he is able to embrace a certain amount of contradiction.

2. My House, Too

Not only does Obama resonant with postmodern philosophical currents, but also with theological ones as well. It's not just an ideology for Barack, it is a way of life. In the Democratic National Convention speech of 2004--which pushed Barack to national prominence--Obama noted that those in the Blue states "worship an awesome God." In this way he was quick to show the impact that his faith had not only on his life but also on his policy decisions. The famed Rev. Wright is also discussed in this chapter and it becomes apparent that this man has bought into a form of theology (black liberation theology) that comes more from bitterness and resentment than from the Word of God. Clearly, there are past wrongs that have influenced these theologians to develop this theology, but things are still a bit messed up within it.

3. Faith Fit for the Age

This chapter is the only one that really deals with the brand of theology that Obama adheres to. It is fit for the age because, for the most part, it rejects the exclusivist claims of Christianity in order to make it more fitting for a postmodern, pluralist society. This liberal Christianity, though flawed in many respects, still influences Obama at his core. It impacts the decisions he makes so that his life direction has always been flavored by the need to conform to what he conceives of as his Christian duty. Moreover, in an age of full disclosure, Barack is ready to bare his soul and speak on matters of faith that past leaders (and current older ones) have been won't to do. This enabled the public to get a unique few of how he thinks and the tenets of orthodox Christianity that he accepts as well as those that he does not (among those he questions are the exclusivity of Christ, the idea of eternal damnation and the inspiration of scripture).

4. The Altars of State

This chapter deals with Obama's road to the Senate and the campaigns that got him there. Specifically, it is interesting to note how often Obama entreats the liberal democrats to engage with religious citizens of America and to claim their own religiosity. However, it also becomes clear that Obama's religious system (though possibly not his own personal faith) is just a watered-down version of civic religion. Liberal Christianity cannot motivate individuals to sufficiently impact the world for Christ because He is not at the heart of LC. Mansfield takes the issue of abortion to illustrate this clearly. He notes that Obama is farther left than even the National Abortion Rights Action League.

5. Four Faces of Faith

The four faces of faith that are outlined here are Obama, Hilary, McCain and Bush. Obama's is the public faith that is open and genuine. Hilary's is the faith that struggled to make sense of the things happening in the world and the experimentation of the baby boomer generation. She struggled to find a connection to the spiritual life that was meaningful and impactful--and it isn't clear if she ever found it. McCain's is the quiet Stoic Christianity that is so characteristic of older generations. It is a faith that sees Christianity as a duty and the Christian life as consisting of fulfilling these duties--not on transformation and renewal that impacts all of life. Bush's faith, for being so famous, is relatively new. He didn't become devout until well after his college years when he found that his alcoholism was out of control. It is clear that his faith, if young, is sincere.

6. A Time to Heal

Finally, Mansfield exhorts his readers to take Obama seriously. Even if he doesn't win the election, he still speaks for a large portion of society. It isn't just the democratic portion but the portion who are Christian and liberal, followers of Christ and sympathetic to the worries of a postmodern world. Obama's is not a faith that has no effect on his policy (as Dean so arrogantly bragged in the 04 elections); it is faith that is active, and activist. It is a faith that is tired of a Christianity that is socially irrelevant and doing nothing for the ills of society. We must first understand Obama because of what he represents, only then can we comment on his fitness for office.

In the end, I think Mansfield did an excellent job in his book. He outlined Obama's faith in an easily accessible and immensely fair way. Though I am still undecided on the vote, I know understand just how important a factor Obama's faith is to him. It is not just a political ploy to win more voters. Even if the theology is misguided, it is genuine. And it is in development.