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.

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