A Candidate, His Minister, and His Search for Faith
This morning's New York Times includes a very interesting article about Barak Obama's faith journey. He notes that he came from a secular family of many religious backgrounds, and then describes his conversion:
This polyglot background made Mr. Obama tolerant of others’ faiths yet reluctant to join one, said Mr. Wright, the pastor. In an interview in March in his office, filled with mementos from his 35 years at Trinity, Mr. Wright recalled his first encounters with Mr. Obama in the late 1980s, when the future senator was organizing Chicago neighborhoods. Though minister after minister told Mr. Obama he would be more credible if he joined a church, he was not a believer.
“I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won,” he wrote in his first book, “Dreams From My Father.”
Still, Mr. Obama was entranced by Mr. Wright, whose sermons fused analysis of the Bible with outrage at what he saw as the racism of everything from daily life in Chicago to American foreign policy. Mr. Obama had never met a minister who made pilgrimages to Africa, welcomed women leaders and gay members and crooned Teddy Pendergrass rhythm and blues from the pulpit. Mr. Wright was making Trinity a social force, initiating day care, drug counseling, legal aid and tutoring. He was also interested in the world beyond his own; in 1984, he traveled to Cuba to teach Christians about the value of nonviolent protest and to Libya to visit Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, along with the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Wright said his visits implied no endorsement of their views.
Followers were also drawn simply by Mr. Wright’s appeal. Trinity has 8,500 members today, making it the largest American congregation in the United Church of Christ, a mostly white denomination known for the independence of its congregations and its willingness to experiment with traditional Protestant theology.
. . .
It was a 1988 sermon called “The Audacity to Hope” that turned Mr. Obama, in his late 20s, from spiritual outsider to enthusiastic churchgoer. Mr. Wright in the sermon jumped from 19th-century art to his own youthful brushes with crime and Islam to illustrate faith’s power to inspire underdogs. Mr. Obama was seeing the same thing in public housing projects where poor residents sustained themselves through sheer belief.
In “Dreams From My Father,” Mr. Obama described his teary-eyed reaction to the minister’s words. “Inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones,” Mr. Obama wrote. “Those stories — of survival, and freedom, and hope — became our story, my story.”
Mr. Obama was baptized that year, and joining Trinity helped him “embrace the African-American community in a way that was whole and profound,” said Ms. Soetoro, his half sister.
It also helped give him spiritual bona fides and a new assurance. Services at Trinity were a weekly master class in how to move an audience. When Mr. Obama arrived at Harvard Law School later that year, where he fortified himself with recordings of Mr. Wright’s sermons, he was delivering stirring speeches as a student leader in the classic oratorical style of the black church.
Read it all. I hope the New York Times does a similar article on the faith journey of the other candidates as well.
By the way, David Kou (an evangleical that was in the Bush White House and is now one of its critics) has a very interesting take on the article:
These are all huge theological questions. They are questions of God's sovereignty, God's preference (or not) for a particular people, the nature and manifestation of evil, the reality of miracles, faith's relevance across racial and cultural and economic lines, and how much faith should motivate political involvement.
As such they should be dealt with theologically. I am eager to hear the discussions about such questions. Perhaps they can appear here on Beliefnet. I'd love to be able to ask Sen. Obama and Rev. Wright some pointed questions about their faith and what they think it means. But such questions and such discussions should have nothing to do with whether anyone should or should not vote for Sen. Obama.
I fear that even now that article is being zipped around evangelical circles and being dissected for attack ads later in the campaign. I fear that some on the secular left are doing the same thing in hopes of taking him down in the primaries. Both approaches are wrong. This isn't about politics, this is about theology.