Turn, turn, turn: It's time to take religious stock of the Obama Era

As journalists look back to take stock of President Obama’s legacy, religious aspects deserve some attention. The Washington Post’s “Acts of Faith” blog posted an example January 12 from  Peter Manseau, co-founder of the pleasantly skeptical KillingTheBuddha.com, who scanned America’s history of pluralism in last year’s “One Nation Under Gods.”

Pursuing his book’s theme, Manseau proposed that this president “has embraced a more inclusive approach to religion than any of his predecessors.” But in making himself “the nation’s pluralist-in-chief” Obama “seems to have had an opposite effect in much of the country.” As his presidency wanes, he “leads a nation more divided along religious lines than at any other time in recent history.”

All of Manseau’s assertions are open to debate and worth pursuing by journalists.

Biographical recap: The president’s father Barack Senior, who abandoned Barack Junior, was born Muslim in Kenya but was an atheist as an adult. (Nonetheless, under a strict interpretation of Islamic law the son is automatically a Muslim, and in certain jurisdictions would be subject to execution as an apostate for forsaking his birth religion.)

Obama Junior was raised by a freethinking mother who taught her son about various religious paths. During their years in Indonesia he attended both Muslim and Catholic schools. Later, Obama was raised by grandparents who had been sometime Unitarians.

As an adult, the president-to-be converted to the liberal wing of “mainline” Protestantism. He was baptized at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, attended regularly, was married at Trinity and had his daughters baptized there. Involvement ended when Wright’s radical liberation theology became a touchy political issue in the 2008 campaign. During the White House years the Obama family has not regularly attended any church, a subject of some interest to African-American church leaders in Washington, D.C.

Scouting for further analysis, the Religion Guy turned to Oxford’s January release, “Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and Politics,” co-edited by historians Matthew Avery Sutton (Washington State University) and Darren Dochuk (University of Notre Dame). This is an anthology of papers by 16 scholars and has the hodge-podge quality of the genre.

There are assorted points to pursue, starting with the big-picture  phenomenon of the rising “nones” who tell pollsters they have no religious identity. Such Americans came into their own during the Obama years, becoming a major camp in the structure of the modern Democratic Party. Was this coincidental? For certain, they are a pivotal and growing sector of the Democratic Party vote.

Steven P. Miller, author of “The Age of Evangelicalism,” thinks Obama’s  presidency has signaled evangelical Protestantism’s “decline as a privileged political force” and that he “was better equipped than any president before him to grasp American pluralism in all its fullness.”

His first inaugural address didn’t just celebrate pluralism but said, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture. ...” As Matthew S. Hedstrom (University of Virginia) observes, “never before had a president so publicly acknowledged, and embraced, non-religious Americans.”

Edward Blum (San Diego State) recalls that Obama had said the same in 2006 in a Christian testimony to a meeting evangelical liberals. The sponsors’ transcripthas this quote: “Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.”

Some dropped the “just” as though the then-senator had said America is “no longer a Christian nation” -- period.

Charles Irons of Elon University contends that Obama, like Mormon Romney and Catholic Kerry before him, “helped further marginalize public expressions of doctrinally specific religious belief” because all came “from outside of the white Protestant mainstream.”  Yet Obama affiliated with a predominantly white denomination and not an African American one, albeit in a black congregation.

Andrew Preston of Cambridge University thinks America has reached a foreign policy “crossroads” under Obama in which religious influence has “begun to creak, perhaps even to the point of toppling.” Among the reasons: the President’s personal ambivalence about employing religion, and the waning appeal of religious resources for “many political elites.”

One additional note: Oxford’s book is a serious disappointment in one particular: No contributor is an insider, or an outsider with sympathetic understanding, regarding the Protestant-inspired political conservatism so prominent in this generation -- and in the current campaign. For instance, the authors don’t take seriously traditionalists’ concerns about religious freedom in the Obama years and beyond. Sanders-like, any criticisms of the President are laments that he’s been too conservative.

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