Politics and Faith: Lessons Learned by Barak Obama

I am a political junky--I have run for office three times (and won twice), have served as a political appointee in two different federal positions and now am the attorney for a state political party and several candidates and political causes. I happen to think that public life is a high calling, and have deep respect for elected officials on both sides of the aisle. And for that reason I was pleased (but not surprised) when Greg Patterson (a member of a different political party) gave this website a big boost by a post on his website.

One of the issues that most fascinates me about politics is the degree to which Americans vote their values, not merely their pocketbook. Thomas Frank made this point in his book What's the Matter With Kansas, which described how low and moderate income conservative religious voters in Kansas were voting for elected leaders who actively supported policies that hurt them economically. At the time, a reviewer suggested that Frank's next book should be What's the Matter with Connecticut, since the high income voters of Connecticut voted Democratic.

And this was my experience as well. Voters focused more on character, integrity and compassion than any specific issues. And when inspired to do so, voters are willing to go to bat for others out of a simple sense of fairness. The fact of the matter is that values matter more to many voters than pocketbook issues.

Now, let me be clear, by values, I do not mean the narrow issues of gay rights and abortion. American voters look far more broadly at values than two specific issues.

All of this came to mind while I was reading a profile of Barak Obama in the March 19, 2007 issue of The New Republic. The article is worth reading for a host of reasons, but I thought one of the most interesting aspects of the article dealt with Obama's decision to join a church. Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, using the Saul Alinsky model of community organizing, which assumes that people are motivated solely by their self-interest. Obama found that this was not the case:

From Wright and others, Obama learned that part of his problem as an organizer was that he was trying to build a confederation of churches but wasn't showing up in the pews on Sunday. When pastors asked him the inevitable questions about his own spiritual life, Obama would duck them uncomfortably. A Reverend Philips put the problem to him squarely when he learned that Obama didn't attend services. "It might help your mission if you had a church home," he told Obama. "It doesn't matter where, really. What you're asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophesy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you're getting yours from."

After many lectures like this, Obama decided to take a second look at Wright's church. Older pastors warned him that Trinity was for "Buppies"--black urban professionals--and didn't have enough street cred. But Wright was a former Muslim and black nationalist who had studied at Howard and Chicago, and Trinity's guiding principles--what the church calls the "Black Value System"--included a "Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.'"

The crosscurrents appealed to Obama. He came to believe that the church could not only compensate for the limitations of Alinsky-style organizing but could help answer the nagging identity problem he had come to Chicago to solve. "It was a powerful program, this cultural community," he wrote, "one more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than my own brand of organizing."
As a result, over the years, Wright became not only Obama's pastor, but his mentor.

The title of Obama's recent book, The Audacity of Hope, is based on a sermon by Wright. (It's worth noting, however, that, while Obama's book is a coolheaded appeal for common ground in an age of political polarization, Wright's sermon, "The Audacity to Hope," is a fiery jeremiad about persevering in a world of nuclear arms and racial inequality.) Wright is one of the first people Obama thanked after his Senate victory in 2004, and he recently name-checked Wright in his speech to civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama.

The church also helped Obama develop politically. It provided him with new insights about getting people to act, or agitating, that his organizing pals didn't always understand. "It's true that the notion of self-interest was critical," Obama told me. "But Alinsky understated the degree to which people's hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people's self-interest." He continued, "Sometimes the tendency in community organizing of the sort done by Alinsky was to downplay the power of words and of ideas when in fact ideas and words are pretty powerful. We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.' Those are just words. I have a dream.' Just words. But they help move things. And I think it was partly that understanding that probably led me to try to do something similar in different arenas."

Read it all.

Full disclosure department: while I have yet to support any of the current Presidential candidates, Barak Obama's campaign is a client of my law firm.


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