The Faith of Barack Obama, a review

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Faith of Barack Obama
By Stephen Mansfield
192 pages
Thomas Nelson (August 5, 2008)
ISBN-10: 1595552502
List Price $19.99

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“And you know something is happening
but you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?” Bob Dylan (1965)

When Bob Dylan first sang “Ballad of a Thin Man,” I was fourteen and attending a Methodist church in California, not unlike the Methodist church sixteen-year-old Hillary Rodham was attending in Chicago. Barack Obama was four, growing up with an atheist single-mother in Hawaii. During the years I spent at UCLA and Hillary divided between Wellesley and Yale, Obama lived in Indonesia, attending the mosque with his folk-Muslim step-father. So, by all odds, which of the three should be the Democratic nominee for president tonight?

Win or lose in November, Barack Obama has already become the most interesting biography of 2008, and (more-so than for the great majority of politicians) it is a faith-centered biography. I will admit, Obama’s faith provides me with a Mr. Jones moment, but though I may not like it, I want very much to understand it. When publisher Thomas Nelson offered free copies to bloggers who would read and review the book, I jumped at the opportunity.

With The Faith of Barack Obama, Stephen Mansfield has given us a quick introduction to the man, his faith, and the religious contexts of American politics in 2008. It is 30 pages shorter than the similar book he wrote about the faith of George W. Bush, but that book came after Bush had already served one term as president. This book made it into print during the short interval between the end of the primary season and this month’s convention. For that reason it sometimes reads like a long magazine article. Mansfield bases his study on Obama’s books and speeches; interviews with Obama staff, associates, and academics who have studied the senator; and published articles about Obama. But apparently Mansfield never had an opportunity to sit down with the candidate. As such, the book complements but does not replace such events as the interview at Saddleback Church, which occurred too late to be included in the book.

A look at Mansfield’s other work suggests he was much more at home writing about Bush than Obama, but he does a remarkable job of setting aside his personal preferences and doing justice to the Democratic candidate. He takes the time to address blogosphere myths and deflate them. The faith of Barack Obama is Christian, not Muslim. Mansfield argues it was never even sufficiently Muslim that any Muslim could now argue that Obama was an apostate. While I accept his argument on that, it is worth noting that in most of the Muslim world, having once been registered as a Muslim, it is illegal to change a registration and become Christian in the eyes of the law. In the unlikely event that Obama returned to take up residence in Indonesia, he would not be able to reregister as a Christian. However, what is more disturbing to an Evangelical like myself (and Mansfield simply lays out the facts, without making any judgment) is that Obama’s faith journey has brought him to universalism, a belief that while he has chosen Christianity for himself, other paths work just as well for other people. What did not come out of the Saddleback interview, where (to a Christian audience) Obama gave an Evangelical explanation of his personal salvation, is that he is just as comfortable with a Muslim or Buddhist explanation for someone else.

Mansfield gives considerable attention to Obama’s relationship to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and to the larger currents of Afro-American theology as they’ve developed over the last forty years. Again, Mansfield lays out the facts without judgment, and that theology is no more twisted than an equivalent slice of White God-and-County Evangelicalism, but there is much to make me grimace there, as well. If this is God’s corrective, then my reaction is not unlike the prophet Habakkuk, who when he complained that God was standing idle in the face of egregious Hebrew sin was sent reeling by God’s answer that He was preparing to bring the Babylonians against Israel. The ways of God are not the ways of man.

A shorter section of the book attempts to define the currents in contemporary American Christianity by identifying one each with Obama, Hillary, John McCain, and George Bush (I would have thought to use Mike Huckabee). This section is interesting, but less convincing. For Obama, the salient point it develops is that the Democratic candidate sees government as an agent of God, capable of implementing God’s righteous on earth. For the Democratic Party—which for thirty years has seemed to consider God an enemy—this may be a major innovation. In a previous post, I noted how Obama reminds me of Woodrow Wilson, who likewise saw government as a civil Christianity. I believe much good came out of Wilson’s administration, but also much that we would live to regret. Perhaps that can be said of any administration, short of Christ’s millennial reign.

I sensed Mansfield’s concluding chapter drifting. I suspect I would have done the same. For one thing, we are still so much in the thick of the moment. For another, any Evangelical trying to look at Obama without being judgmental must expend enormous energy sitting on his own hands.

America has made a cottage industry of dissecting the religious faiths of Dead White Presidents. Mansfield is breaking welcome ground with an attempt to describe the living faith of an American who might be our next leader. I will not vote for Obama, but I now understand him better. There is much about him to respect, as well as much to make me think he is the oncoming Babylonian judgment of God. Only a small portion of that feeling comes from reading Mansfield’s book, but it’s a portion I’m glad I have.

Previous Post: Ruminations of Ingrid, Berlin, and Obama

Ruminations on Ingrid, Berlin, and Obama

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

For me, a frantic August is approaching its close (after a thirteen year hiatus I am back to teaching 8th grade U.S. History), but I am still chewing over two sets of images from July.

The first set grew out of the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and for a glimmer of hope that Colombia’s forty-year civil war might soon come to a peaceful end. By coincidence, at the moment news hit the streets of the Colombian Army’s audacious scam on Betancourt’s FARC captors, my Colombian-born son was back in Bogotá, the first visit there by any member of my family for the same thirteen-years mentioned above. My son had taken his girlfriend to Colombia, and to a mountaintop overlooking Bogotá, to propose marriage. (She accepted!)

On the night my son was born, just as the obstetrician made the decision to deliver the baby by cesarean, an ambulance rushed in with a senator who had lost much of his face to an assassination attempt. While medical personnel turned their attention to the senator*, my wife waited on a gurney somewhere in the inner sanctum of the hospital and I roamed halls full of live TV reporting. An angry crowd filled the parking lot, shouting imprecations against the perpetrators. I spent the wee hours of the morning pondering what the future might hold for my son, for Colombia, and for a world polarized (at that time) into free democracies and Marxist totalitarian regimes. That the wounded senator was also a leader of the Colombian Communist Party did not override the human bond. I wrote a note of sympathy and handed it to the senator’s wife. In my mind, we were all in this together.

The second set of images centers around Barack Obama’s speech in front of Berlin’s Tiergarten Siegessäule, and the 200,000 Berliners who turned out to provide him with rock star adulation.

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The Siegessäule, or “Victory Column,”
surrounded by scaffolding during my
second trip to Berlin, in 1976.

All by themselves, Berlin and the Tiergarten bring back powerful personal memories. In 1972, I made my first trip to Berlin, then a divided city. On a foggy October night, I walked several miles along the western side of the Wall, suddenly coming upon the burnt-out hull of the Reichstag building, still boarded up from the 1933 fire that Adolf Hitler used as an excuse to shut down Germany’s parliament and place the blame on the Communists. The next day I climbed a tower near where, nine years before my visit, John F. Kennedy declared Berlin to be the definitive case study of the differences between Communism and the Free World. Ecstatic crowds showered Kennedy's entourage with flowers, rice and torn paper. Almost like adulation for a rock star.


From the tower, I spent several hours studying No-Man’s Land and pondering the nature of the world in which we lived. Then I snuck into a Tiergarten thicket and rolled out my sleeping bag for the night.

Fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan would come to the same spot to challenge Mikhail Gorbachev to tear the wall down. Of course, on the eve of Reagan’s visit 25,000 Germans rioted in anger.

It seems to me Berliners have a very poor record for recognizing the U.S. presidents who served even Germany's best interests. The Wall had gone up thirty-nine days after the newly inaugurated JFK’s first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. In Vienna, the Soviet dictator gave JFK a tongue-lashing for which he had no comeback, leading Khrushchev to size-up Kennedy as inexperienced and naïve. Khrushchev decided he could get away with both building the Wall and planting missiles in Cuba. Kennedy performed well in answering those challenges, but a better job in Vienna might have preempted them altogether. Ultimately, the Wall only came down some two years after Reagan gave his challenge, and it fell due to conditions Reagan was one of the few to foresee.

In 2000, I went back to Berlin. I wanted to show my children where the Wall had once stood. I happened to be standing near the Brandenburg Gate at the moment French President Jacques Chirac arrived to visit German Chancelor Gerhard Schröder, to join him in walking under the Brandenburg Gate, and into the Reichstag building, where he addressed Germany's parliament. Symbolically, it not only brought the Cold War to its final punctuation, but it completed a normalization of French-German relations that erased Hitler and all the memories that his name brings to mind.

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Others have pointed out the parallels between Kennedy’s eagerness to meet with Khrushchev and Obama’s offer to meet with leaders like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s true, I don’t see John McCain making the same mistake. However, the parallels I see match Obama more with President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, a progressive and a university president, leapt to the presidency after two years as governor of New Jersey. As an academic, he’d written the standard college text on the workings of Congress. As war broke out in Europe, he ran for reelection as a peace candidate, even as he understood there would be war. He led us into that war, calling it “The War to End All Wars.” Then, with the war won, he toured Europe to rock-star adulation. He carried with him a remarkable set of progressive ideals, but in the hard bargaining at Versailles, he could not sell them, even to the friends who owed us the most. He won the war and lost the peace. With all that European adulation, he could not draw the European leadership into decisions for their own best interests, and for all his knowledge of Congress, he could not talk them into buying the meager treaty he could bring home. One has to admire his attempt, but his failure guaranteed the outbreak of World War II. At Versailles, he may also have set the stage for my generation’s war in Vietnam by snubbing Ho Chi Minh and that nation’s aspirations for independence.

There is a fascinating moment in Ingrid Betancourt’s interview with Al Jazeera in which she describes the campaign for the Colombian presidency that she was waging at the time she was kidnapped. She believed as president she could negotiate with the FARC. Betancourt stops and asks the Al Jazeera interviewer for the English equivalent of the French word ingénue. “Naïve,” she is told. “Yes, I was naïve,” she answers. In fact, she was glad hard-liner Alvaro Uribe was elected. He had served the country well in standing up to FARC. In a different interview right after her release, she reported that FARC had counted on the Colombian electorate alternating between hard-line and “Peace” presidents. FARC's leadership assumed they could hunker down during the hard-line administrations and recover and thrive while stringing along the presidents who were willing to negotiate. What they had not counted on, and could not recover from, was the constitutional change that allowed Uribe a second term.

This is my worry about Barack Obama: Momentum has shifted in our favor in Iraq, but we have paid too high a price to win the war and then lose the peace. We have also forced Al Qaida to hunker down, but it is naïve to think that like the FARC, they haven’t planned a rebound as soon as the U.S. elects a “Peace” president. On Colombia, Obama and congressional Democrats seem even more eager to let the FARC enjoy enough of a breather to get up from the mat.

I will have more thoughts on Barack Obama in my next post.

*(The Colombian senator was Hernando Hurtado, targeted by a dissident member of FARC. Mrs. Hurtado could not risk a paper trail leading back to a North American serving with an Evangelical mission, but somewhere I still have an oblique and unsigned telegram of appreciation.)

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Lao Papa

Saturday, August 23, 2008

At our grandsons’ ages, six weeks of development equals a full year of coursework at a major university. Sometime since our last visit, Nilo (now three months) learned to return a smile, and Natu (at twenty-three months) had both picked up names for all the other members of the family and begun to group words into phrases. As fast as I offered him new words, he took them, repeated them a dozen times, and made them his own. On a walk together, we studied the web of a Metepiera sp. in a rosemary bush and watched the spider hide under her protective tent. Then we continued on and played with Agelenids, Uloborids, and a Holocnemus in their webs. We saw a line of ants on the sidewalk and he got down on his stomach to watch them closely, repeating, “Ants, ants, ants, ants.” Then on our return trip, he ran to the rosemary bush, calling out, “Spider house! Spider house!”

This visit, for the first time, he called us Grandma and Papa.

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Of course, this means I am now labeled. When Natu was born, my wife asked me what I wanted my grandchildren to call me. I wasn’t sure. It isn’t often in our culture that we get to choose a name for ourselves. I had a Grandpa Lynn and a Grandpa Howard, but somehow Grandpa Brian never seemed right. My mother’s grandfathers were Gramp (yeah, I could be a Gramp) and Grandfather (well, that might be a little too formal). I had second cousins whose grandfathers were Pa’s Pa and Ma’s Pa, which tickled me but didn’t fit me. When I spoke to infant Natu in the third person, I found myself using Papa, the same name my children called my father-in-law (though I’m not sure whether it came from Spanish or Italian, each an influence in my wife’s family). In Natu’s bilingualism, the first vowel has elongated to be a more Portuguese PAA-pa. (In contrast, Natu’s father is Pa-PA-i.). His grandfather in Brazil will have a name altogether different.

However, as my family grows, we are about to leap beyond our European linguistic influences. Early next year I expect to add a Mandarin-speaking daughter-in-law. I am very pleased with that thought. It was an early personal goal that all of my children would grow up as polylinguals and world citizens, and by the grace of God, they have. So at a new stage in life, as I have the opportunity to pick a new name, that aspect of my life could be part of the mix. I asked Middle Son how to say grandfather in Mandarin. The choices seem to be YeYe, or Lao Ye. Lao by itself is an honorific that might be used as a means of address between two longtime friends, such as “Lao Wang” and “Lao Chang,” to be translated as “Old Wang” and “Old Chang.” That kind of appealed to me. I began to think about Lao Papa.

But it may be too late. Natu already has me labeled, and the pattern he sets will be followed by all the grandchildren I hope are yet to come. And you know what? In my grandson’s voice, it sounds pretty good.

1000 Visitor! (& 1001st through 1004th)

Friday, August 01, 2008

Well, we powered it up this morning to find that while we slept, five visitors stopped by to put Capers over the one thousand mark, but none of them left the required comment to make them eligible for the big prize. Fortunately, all those who entered our contest are closely enough related to the author that they are already on the short list for autographed copies of Friday 10:03 when it is finally published.

However, if this may seem a disappointing conclusion to our big contest, our disappointment probably pales compared to that of googlers who come to Capers hoping to find the music video Itsy Bitsy Spider and instead found this. We have managed to frustrate 14 such searchers in the last three weeks alone. So, our next contest: an autographed copy of my novel (when it finally gets into print) to the one thousandth person who visits The Ittsy Bittsy Spider, thinking they'll see EliZe (with thanks to arachnomusicologist Mataikhan for identifying this artist) singing Itsy Bitsy Spider (and leaves a comment).