God and Barack Obama
By: Dr. Paul Kengor
Let me begin with what I hope is a credibility enhancer: For daring to write a book on the faith of Hillary Clinton, I was questioned by fellow conservatives, especially for calling Mrs. Clinton a "lifelong, committed Christian." In the final chapter of that book, I included a brief section on the faith of Barack Obama, where, taking him at his word—based on a major June 2006 speech on his faith—I felt confident in reporting, "Obama is a Christian."
I'm not disputing that here. Since then, however, I've taken a careful look at Obama's faith, and there are quite a few things that stand out as historically extremely unusual, and in some cases unprecedented for a potential president. They are worth knowing, especially given the secular media's adoration of the man.
Indeed, journalists are so worshipful of Obama that they are unfazed by his two decades of membership in the church of a ranting, blasphemous preacher who mocked everything from Bill Clinton to America itself—and who married Obama, baptized his children, and whom Obama considers a mentor and the inspiration for the title of his best-selling book. That double standard has struck even the likes of atheist Christopher Hitchens. After eight years of wailing and gnashing of teeth over a Christian Republican president, secular liberals have undergone a Saul-like conversion.
On rare occasions, however, the press has offered constructive analysis of Obama's faith. The most revealing look remains a glowing profile in Newsweek a couple of months ago. The Newsweek offering was remarkably one-sided, even venturing into evangelical phraseology, the shared-language-of-believers style characteristic of Religious Right publications. I counted ten examples of phrases like, "He found Christ," "accept Christ," "Obama went to Jesus."
Nonetheless, even in this unusually un-critical article, much can be mined about Obama's faith. Most salient is this inescapable conclusion: More than any presidential nominee this close to the White House, Barack Obama's faith is a patchwork of divergent beliefs, philosophies, and influences, from what Newsweek called a "Christian-turned-secular mother"—her own views a product of "two lapsed Christian" parents and a Bill Moyers book—to a "Muslim-turned-atheist African father" to a stepfather with a "unique brand of Islam."
As for Obama's personal path, Newsweek noted how Obama, in his younger years, enjoyed, on one hand, Augustine, and then Nietzsche and Graham Greene. Obama hopped and groped his way through Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, asceticism, and eventually settled at the political church of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Most interesting is what Newsweek revealed about Obama and his current family: His wife, Michelle, "also didn't go to church regularly as a child." Neither really began regular attendance until they were married. And only then, their choice was Reverend Wright. On that, Newsweek reported approvingly: "The cross under which Obama went to Jesus was at the controversial Trinity United Church of Christ. It was a good fit."
The couple, writes Newsweek, attended "fairly often—two or three times a month." That changed, becoming less frequent, with the birth of their first child. Normally, the arrival of children is the blessed event that drags young couples to church—the Bushes, the Clintons. For the Obamas, however, the hassle of getting the baby out of the house for a packed service was an obstacle. "So," explained Barack, "that would cut back our involvement."
The Obama girls have never attended Sunday school—a definite contrast with most White House children. Even wayward president's kids like Ron Reagan, a proud atheist, was taken to church every Sunday. Obama explains of his daughters' religious education: "I'm a big believer in a faith that is not imposed but taps into what's already there, their curiosity of spirit."
Once Obama ran for the U.S. Senate, he skipped church for months at a time. Now that he publicly parted ways with Reverend Wright, reports Newsweek with a gentle wink, "Obama is a little spiritually rootless again." Newsweek neglected to mention that Obama often appeared in churches in 2007 for strictly political purposes—i.e., to campaign in houses of worship, a practice that launches liberals into fits of screaming rage when done by Republicans.
On the plus side, there are some discernible spiritual practices in Obama's life: family grace at mealtime, daily prayer, Obama "sometimes" reading the Bible in evenings, and inspirational emails zapped to the senator by his "religious outreach team." Yet, even with that nod to something of a religious routine, one senses that Obama is still trying to reconcile, as Newsweek described his early life, "his rational side with his yearning for transcendence."
After demonstrating at length that Obama's belief system is an amalgam, unorthodox, and undisciplined, Newsweek wrapped up with a shot at his detractors: "Some on the right say his particular brand of Christianity is a modern amalgam—unorthodox, undisciplined...."
No, Newsweek, that's what you say.
One can see here another reason the secular left embraces Obama: His entire religious life, including the spiritual development of his family, is relativistic—an ever-probing quest, a realization of no single truth. The left likes this Democrat more than, say, a lifelong Baptist like Bill Clinton, a lifelong Roman Catholic like John Kerry, a lifelong Methodist like Hillary Clinton, a "born-again" southerner like Jimmy Carter. Here's a believer secular liberals can accept: a relativist in the most expansive form.
A President Obama would bring to the office the most unconventional religious portfolio of any president in a long time, arguably the history of the American presidency.
But to get there, the freshman senator hopes to win just enough of those moral-religious "values voters" who twice made the difference for George W. Bush. Can Barack Obama do that?
Can Obama win the 'values voter'?In 2000 and 2004, it was the churchgoing moral-religious "values voters" that made the difference for George W. Bush. Barack Obama hopes to peel off just enough of those voters. What are his chances? From my vantage, Obama faces five primary obstacles:
First, Reverend Jeremiah Wright remains an albatross, even given the media's best efforts to avoid him. The ranting, raving, blaspheming political sermons by an uncorked, unhinged Wright—with the congregation loving every minute—remains a cruise missile at Obama's bid for moderate to conservative churchgoers. Obama was way too close to Wright to politically extricate himself.
Second—brace yourselves, liberals—a sizable number of Americans suspect Obama is lying about Islamic roots. A Newsweek poll in June found that 12 percent of voters are convinced Obama is a Muslim, and one-in-four believe he was raised a Muslim. Such thinking has intensified with Jerome Corsi's bestselling book and with research by Islam observers like Daniel Pipes—who, though he accepts that Obama is today a Christian, says Obama is "lying" when he denies he was never a Muslim. Additional oddities continue to surface, such as a YouTube video in which Moammar Kaddafi is said to describe Obama as a fellow Muslim.
When I recently shared this factor with some liberals, their faces visibly contorted and they began yelling at me. Nonetheless, perceptions matter. This issue might become statistically important in a close election.
Third, conservative Christians are offended by how the secular left has greeted Obama as a messianic figure. The hosannas during Obama's Europe trip were so over-the-top that London Times columnist Gerard Baker ridiculed the senator's visit as akin to Christ's entrance into Jerusalem. The BBC interviewed a worshipful German who described Obama as his "redeemer." Fox found another who exalted his "new messiah." To the question, "Who do you say that I am?" some Europeans made their choice as Obama swept into their presence.
Given the agnostic left's search for salvation in politics, this is not a surprise, especially in post-modern, de-Christianized Europe.
This has only gotten worse. No less than a U.S. congressman, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), said on the House floor on September 10 that, "Barack Obama was a 'community organizer' like Jesus." (He then added, in reference to Governor Sarah Palin, that "Pontius Pilate was a governor.") And now there's YouTube video of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan calling Obama "the Messiah."
This is backfiring on Obama among the values voters he is seeking. To them, this reverence by the secular left is intolerably hypocritical. Liberals went bonkers when a presidential candidate named George W. Bush merely cited Christ as his favorite philosopher. And now they can compare Obama to Christ?
Fourth, "values voters" are skeptical of this appeal to faith by the Democratic nominee. There has been a well-orchestrated, openly admitted campaign, begun just days after the 2004 vote, especially by Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, to get Democrats talking faith as much as possible. Actual Democratic Party working groups and colloquia have been established, employing the Christian left's language of "social justice."
Obama himself picked this up early on. In a June 2006 address to the Call to Renewal convention, Obama appealed to religious voters. He recalled how in his 2004 Senate race, his support of abortion rankled his opponent. Obama protested, arguing there were policy issues that proved his Christianity—issues like supporting daycare subsidies and the estate tax.
Obama can protest all he wants, but values voters consider legislation mandating medical care for abortion survivors more important than legislation mandating estate taxes for the wealthy.
Speaking of which, and fifth, abortion is beyond doubt the overwhelming obstacle for Obama. He is the most extremist pro-choicer ever to get this close to the presidency. His stand-alone votes against bills protecting newborn babies who survive abortions were horrible. He calls abortion a "safety net" and vowed to Planned Parenthood in July 2007 that the "first thing" he would do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would nationalize abortion policy and overturn all the perfectly reasonable state-level restrictions on abortion by bipartisan legislatures throughout America. Then there are Obama's revealing statements on the stump—such as how he would hate to see his daughters get pregnant out-of-wedlock and "punished with a baby."
Secular liberals cannot begin to imagine the opposition to Obama strictly on abortion. I've received an email several times, titled, "10 Reasons Christians Shouldn't Vote for Obama." Among the ten, seven are on abortion.
The unprecedented outcry from the religious community is further evidence. The reaction of the Catholic bishops is extraordinary. I've never witnessed them so exercised and committed to leading the flock, and doing so carefully and eloquently, especially among traditional Catholics who still think their party is run by Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy, and literally don't even know Obama is pro-choice. A poll last week by Investor's Business Daily showed a swing of 20 points for John McCain among Catholics, from an 11-point deficit to a 9-point lead. If McCain wins Catholics, he wins the election.
It all adds up to the reality that Barack Obama will have difficulty picking up values voters. His hope that they are not energized by McCain has dissipated with the Sarah Palin pick and the steady emergence of information on his abortion fanaticism.
A summer Pew poll showed McCain leading Obama among evangelicals by 61 to 25 percent, comparable to the margin enjoyed by Bush over Al Gore in 2000. More recently, the respected scholar Dr. John Green released a study finding that evangelicals favor McCain 57.2 percent to 19.9 percent, very similar to Bush's 60.4 percent to 19.6 percent over John Kerry at the same point in 2004.
It remains to be seen where, exactly, this will finish next Tuesday. As in 2000 and 2004, however, the values voters could make the difference.
Paul Kengor's books include "God and Ronald Reagan" (HarperCollins, 2004), "God and George W. Bush" (HarperCollins, 2004), and "God and Hillary Clinton" (HarperCollins, 2007). He is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
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