Obama: A Rare Breed of Christian Convert?

Christians expect converts to renounce, worship and witness, but Obama is reticent

BY: G. Jeffrey MacDonald


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Converts are routinely expected be passionate witnesses for the faith, as was the Apostle Paul after his Damascus Road encounter with the risen Christ. They presumably love to tell how Christ changed their lives. They’re often specific about what they left behind, in terms of lifestyle or possessions or beliefs, when they committed to a saving God. They yearn to worship regularly in the company and encouragement of fellow believers.

These might be stereotypical marks of faith, but they are nonetheless time-honored ones that resonate with a wide range of Christian communities. When Christians don’t see them, they wonder whether the convert might be backsliding, or might not have had a true conversion in the first place.

Obama has made faith a staple of his life as president. He confers with pastors as spiritual advisors, prays daily and receives Biblical meditations on his Blackberry. He attends worship services occasionally, either at St. John’s Church (Episcopal) near the White House, or in a family-only service at Camp David. He clearly hasn’t lost interest in spiritual matters.

But Obama doesn’t embrace basic practices that are thought to be second nature for converts. Church attendance marks one example.

“Churchgoing is a habit,” Holmes writes, “and Obama seems never quite to have acquired it.”

Testimony from Obama is rare, too. Despite having the world’s largest platform and a masterful way with words, he neglects to articulate exactly what he renounced, if anything, after coming to faith. If a life doesn’t change, believers wonder, then how is a conversion meaningful?

For Obama, spirituality has always had a strong social justice component, where faith fuels struggle alongside those on society’s margins. But his social justice emphasis predated his Christian faith, which makes faith ancillary to it. This leaves observers to wonder whether the president’s religious beliefs might be malleable or dispensable if they’re not essential to what he champions day in and day out.

Since his falling out with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008, Obama has readopted some of his forebears’ spiritual ways, including a willingness to wander. His maternal grandparents traded their Methodist upbringings for a non-theistic Unitarian church that at Christmas celebrated the births of Jesus, Buddha and Confucius. His mother walked away even from Unitarianism, Holmes writes, and his Muslim stepfather strayed from his faith’s codes. While Obama retains ties to Christianity writ large, he’s now unbound to any church organization that might shape him spiritually. When speaking to Christian audiences, he emphasizes universal values that transcend religious traditions – much as his mother used to do.

It’s impossible to know for sure why 19 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with Obama’s religion, according to Pew, or why a full 31 percent don’t know what religion he is. Part of it may be that Americans are sorting out what to make of an enigmatic convert in the White House. While most say they want a president with strong religious beliefs, it remains to be seen how they feel about one whose religious practices are continually evolving.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist, ordained minister and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010). Check out his website!

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