Religion disappears from narrative

obama in PACompared to the primary election, the subject of the religion and faith of Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama's has largely been absent from the pages of Midwestern newspapers and magazines. Some of this can be justified by the fact that the Midwest is reeling in an economic slump that is seeing people threatened with the loss of their jobs and homes and the collapse of the auto industry and other manufacturing industries that make up a substantial portion of the region's economy. People want to hear the candidates talk about their economic plans more than their spiritual backgrounds. In addition, Republican Nominee John McCain has refused to make Obama's former pastor a campaign issue as opposed to the way Hillary Clinton's campaign made the issue front and center. Topics relating to religious issues have also been largely absent from the debates. As a result, reporters have not had much of a hook to write about either candidate's religion lately.

This doesn't mean that religion should be absent from the narrative though. See here this Sunday Chicago Tribune article on Obama's "improbable journey from rookie to rock." Here is a snippet:

Harsh as it was, the primary not only educated Obama, it flushed out all the tough attacks he would eventually face. The fact that he sorted them out during the fight with Clinton meant there was time left for the dust to settle before the general election.

One prominent presidential historian thinks the rate at which Obama got up to speed is evidence that he wasn't maturing under the spotlight so much as displaying what he already had.

"The notion of growth works best if you think of Obama over his entire life span," said Fred Greenstein, author and professor of politics emeritus at Princeton University. "It's not that the last four years have seen a callow youth transformed into a mature leader. ... By the time he got into a heated presidential campaign, in my view, he actually had little fundamental learning to do."

There are huge religion holes that could have been covered in this story even though the article is not primarily about religion. Religion and faith have been apart of the Obama narrative in the past. Why aren't they as much anymore? The influence of his former church on his life and his conversion to Christianity made up a reasonable portion of his personal story. But here there is nothing in the article on Obama's church life, his faith or his decision to break ties with the church that he attended for a significant portion of his life.

Instead, the article spends much of its focus on the fact that Obama's personality appears to be rather cool and collected. One could conclude that this is all mere stage management or that there an aspect of this that goes to the core of Obama's character? Would it be too much to ask whether his character was influenced by his faith?

Two days earlier, the Tribune wrote about Obama's rise in the Illinois Statehouse. The subject and focus on a specific time-frame of Obama's life provided the reporters with an excellent opportunity to analyze and report on the influence of Obama's faith and church life on his rise in Illinois state politics. Unfortunately there is not even a hint that religion played a role.

Instead the article focused mostly on how Obama worked relationships and issues to benefit his broader goals:

In fact, few in those early days -- legislators, reporters, lobbyists -- pegged Obama as a star destined to explode onto the national scene. He wasn't a party leader and he wasn't a behind-the-scenes player; he wasn't a journalist's go-to person.

Yet Obama, in retrospect, handled himself as though he expected this all along. Most lawmakers focused on the events of the day, the usual route to power in the General Assembly. Obama, in contrast, quietly nurtured relationships with power brokers and influential editors, and focused on building a record that would help him far beyond.

When Obama arrived in the Illinois Senate, he was a member of the Democratic minority, laboring under the heavy-handed rule of powerful suburban Republicans. Unable to take the lead on major issues, he worked mostly in obscurity.

The perspective of the article is unique because it was written by a Tribune reporter who covered the Illinois Statehouse during Obama's tenure there. While the article provides insight into Obama's relationship with the media, his fellow lawmakers and various stake-holders, there is nothing on his relationship with his family during this time or with his church or faith. Could readers conclude (or assume) that religion and faith were never prominent issues while he was in the state's capital (away from Chicago and his home church)? Or perhaps it was and that perspective is missing from the story. Either way, readers should never have to assume when reading a news story.

The religious narrative may return to Obama's story at some point, but before it does, determining why religion and faith has disappeared from the Obama story could produce some interesting questions and answers.

Image of Obama campaigning in Pennsylvania in October 2008 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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