A few facts about Obama's faith

obama prayer pose3 editedThe big news about the recent Newsweek "Finding His Faith" cover story about Sen. Barack Obama is that it was not written by Jon Meacham, the news magazine's theologian in chief. So if you are in the mood for more theological reflection and speculation, click here and head right over to the editor's essay entitled "More a Matter of Mystery than Magic -- It seems that, for Obama, faith is about enduring questions." The operative word, as in most of Meacham's writing, is "seems."

However, if you are interested in some solid quotes, a few symbolic facts and quite a bit of on-the-record expert analysis, then you'll want to focus on the main article by Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe. It offers quite a bit of information about why Obama believes what he believes. It also offers a few hints about why he does not believe some of things that he clearly does not believe.

For example, remember that exchange between Obama and the Rev. Franklin Graham, during that famous closed-door chat and prayer meeting with religious leaders in Chicago? Here's a piece of the Scripps Howard column I wrote about that:

After the Chicago meeting, online reports ... said the leaders discussed a wide variety of issues, from the Iraq war to same-sex marriage, from genocide in Darfur to religious liberty issues here at home. A spokesman for the Rev. Franklin Graham said that the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association asked if Obama "thought Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way" -- but did not report the response. There were conflicting reports about whether Graham and Obama exchanged a hug or a handshake.

Newsweek followup up on that and the "OK, here's what I said" quote from Obama is sure to be quoted often in many news. GetReligion readers will note that this exchange -- which Obama links to the life and death of his "spiritual seeker" mother -- focuses on one of those "tmatt trio" questions:

When Franklin Graham asked Obama recently how, as a Christian, he could reconcile New Testament claims that salvation was attainable only through Christ with a campaign that embraces pluralism and diversity, Obama tells NEWSWEEK he said: "It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I've said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know ... I do not believe she went to hell." Graham, he said, was very gracious in reply. Should Obama beat John McCain, he has history on his side. Presidents such as Lincoln and Jefferson were unorthodox Christians; and, according to a Pew Forum survey, 70 percent of Americans agree with the statement that "many religions can lead to eternal life." "My particular set of beliefs," Obama says, "may not be perfectly consistent with the beliefs of other Christians."

One of the challenges facing the writers was this: How do you capture such a complex man in a few paragraphs? The answer is blunt, but not easy -- with symbolic facts.

Here are two prime examples, I think, from this cover package. The first concerns his years as a spiritually motivated, but unconventional, student at Columbia University:

For company, he had books. There was Saint Augustine, the fourth-century North African bishop who wrote the West's first spiritual memoir and built the theological foundations of the Christian Church. There was Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher and father of existentialism. There was Graham Greene, the Roman Catholic Englishman whose short novels are full of compromise, ambivalence and pain. Obama meditated on these men and argued with them in his mind.

obama prayerAnd consider this collection of facts and influences:

Obama's religious biography is unconventional and politically problematic. Born to a Christian-turned-secular mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist African father, Obama grew up living all across the world with plenty of spiritual influences, but without any particular religion. He is now a Christian, having been baptized in the early 1990s at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. ...

The story of Obama's faith begins with his mother, Ann. Raised in the Midwest by two lapsed Christians, she lived and traveled throughout the world appreciating all religions but confessing to none. One of Ann's favorite spiritual texts was "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth," a set of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers that traces the common themes of religion and mythology, Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, tells NEWSWEEK. When the family lived in Indonesia, Ann, on occasion, would take the children to Catholic mass; after returning to Hawaii, they would celebrate Easter and Christmas at United Church of Christ congregations. Ann later went back to Indonesia with Maya, and when Obama visited, they would take him to Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Later, while working in India, Ann lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery.

The story also contains a few facts about the role of faith in his marriage (wife Michelle also grew up outside the church) and in his home (no Sunday school for the daughters).

Over in the Q&A, we learn that Obama's use of evangelical-friendly language extends all the way over to another touchy issue in the Nicene Creed and in biblical prophecy:

What do you think about the Kingdom of God? Is it attainable on Earth by humans?

I am a big believer in not just words, but deeds and works. I don't believe that the Kingdom of God is achievable on Earth without God's intervention, and without God's return through Jesus Christ, but I do believe in improvement.

This is a solid piece, although anyone who takes these subjects seriously would want to know more. As I said the other day, Obama is literally trying to reach out to believers in traditional, conservative Christian pews while also being honest (careful, but honest) about his own liberal beliefs.

So, that's my major criticism of this cover story. Try to forget Obama's former church home, in terms of the congregation itself and its controversial former pastor who must not be named. Instead, focus on its leadership role in the United Church of Christ -- the most openly and proudly left-wing oldline Christian denomination in American life. That's the negative way of stating the issue. Frankly, Obama's church deserves even more press attention because of its courage in openly stating and defending its unique take on Christian doctrines.

So try to forget, for a moment, the pews and pulpit of the local church he once called home. I think that Newsweek should have given us more concrete information that explains Obama's choice of his national church -- meaning his denomination.

But we all know that there's lots more ink that will be poured out on all of these topics in the near future. Hang on.

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