The Jazz Theologian

The Jazz Theologian


The Faith of Barack Obama

posted by Robert Gelinas

Faithofobama

Book Review of Stephen Mansfield's The Faith Of Barack Obama–written for UrbanFaith.com

I
started reading Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama mostly
out of curiosity. I knew Mansfield had previously written The Faith of George
W. Bush, a sympathetic religious biography of the 43rd president, so
I wasn’t sure what his approach would be to a political figure who lands
decidedly on the other end of the ideological spectrum. However, I must
confess, though I started the book out of curiosity, I continued with it out
of necessity. As he did with Bush, Mansfield offers a genuinely objective
overview of Obama’s faith journey and how it might give clues about the way he
will govern. But what largely drew my interest were the insights the book
reveals about embracing Christianity in today’s society. For anyone who wants
to wrestle with the issues of faith in a postmodern context, this book is
a must-read.  

Mansfield
writes:

Religiously, the majority of America’s young are
postmodern, which means they do faith like jazz—informal, eclectic, and often
without theme.


Faith
in a postmodern era is largely about belonging. It has been said that in
the past people believed before they belonged. That is, they would give their
life to Jesus at a crusade by walking down the aisle during an altar call or by
praying the Sinner’s Prayer with a friend. While the convert didn’t understand
the intricacies of Christian doctrine, it was an ascent to believe. Then the
search to belong would begin by joining a small group, attending Sunday School,
or shopping for a church. Postmodern searching follows the same path but in the
opposite direction: Belonging precedes believing.

 

The
latter was true of Obama’s faith journey as well. For him, disconnectedness was
a way of life. He grew up disconnected from his absentee father and his country
because of the gypsy wandering of his mother. Identity was a hard-fought battle
for connectedness. Was he Black or White? African or American? This produced a
desire for harmony, reconnection … belonging.  

Mansfield
does a masterful job of this phase of Obama’s spiritual biography. On that
Sunday when Barack was in tears at the end of the sermon and knelt before the
cross, he was belonging before he was believing. Mansfield writes, “[I]t was a
decision to enter a faith by joining a people of faith, to come home to a
community and so come home to God.”

If
we are going to do effective ministry today we must recognize that Obama is not
unique in this journey. 

Things
get messy when belief follows belonging in the conversion experience. Obama
appears to be “working out” what he believes as he goes. At times he gives safe
answers about issues related to religion and life that clearly do not satisfy
listeners—or Obama, for that matter. He goes away and reworks his answer, and
the next time he’s asked the question it is obvious that he has spent time in
the woodshed refining his true beliefs.

Other
times he says things that seem to deny or call into question core Christian
teaching. Like when he and his daughter, Sasha, were having a conversation
about death and he was unable to give her assurance about heaven. On another occasion he
questioned the traditional view of hell. Perhaps the most troubling of all of
his statements is when he said that, though he was “rooted in the Christian
tradition,” he believed that “there are many paths to the same place …” When
pressed about Jesus saying, “I am the way, truth and life,” he responded by
saying that was only a “particular verse.”

What
do we do with doubters in our midst? Do we say that they are not one of us
until they believe the right thing? Do we refuse to let them call themselves
Christian until they can pass an exam on basic Christian doctrine? Mansfield
points out that Obama took his step of faith toward Jesus from a “foundation of
doubt,” because of the skepticism of Unitarian Grandparents and an atheistic
mother.  

What
do we do with those who are simultaneously doubting and worshiping Christ? Perhaps
we can take our cue from Jesus …

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some
doubted….”  (Mt. 28.17)

Can you get past the
first two words of The Lord’s Prayer?
If I ever meet President Obama, that’s the
question I want to ask him. As a man who never had a daddy, I know firsthand
what it’s like to discover God as your father. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I
rarely get past the words, “Our Father” without having to pause for a moment.

On
the one hand God meets the father void of the fatherless, but He gives us a
family. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray, My
Father but Our Father. Our Father
knows that we need to belong to a family—a community of faith—so that we can
truly believe in His love, grace, and mercy.

Mansfield
says this of Obama: “Though he came to faith as a man, he carried the soul of a
boy who yearned for a father and a tribe to call his own.” 

The
father void and the identity crisis that that produced may be the crux to
understanding the faith of Barack Obama. Why did he cling to Rev. Jeremiah
Wright? Could it be as simple as the fact that Wright was his spiritual father?
I think so. Why does Obama cling to a Christianity that he questions? Could it
be that while he doesn’t understand it all, he knows in his heart that God is
calling him to belong to this community that is bigger than him?

In
his bestseller, The Audacity of Hope,
Obama writes of his conversion experience:

It
was because of these newfound understandings—that religious commitment did not
require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic
and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and
loved—that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church
of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an
epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath
that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I
submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

Mansfield
does a good job of helping us understand the roots of Obama’s pursuit of God’s
truth. If you’re interested in understanding the faith of our president-elect,
or perhaps that of your postmodern neighbor next door, The Faith of Barack
Obama is worth a read.



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Comments read comments(7)
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Greg Laughery

posted December 15, 2008 at 6:10 am


Thanks for highlighting this book. I certainly concur with Mansfield’s take on American youth, but would query his notion that jazz is often without theme. Improv, for example, one of the central charateristics of jazz and life, is never themeless.



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jazztheologian

posted December 15, 2008 at 2:07 pm


Greg,
I agree jazz has a theme, unless it’s bad jazz…at some level thats what is happening in postmodern faith, bad jazz theology.
I’m hoping to change that!



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Greg Laughery

posted December 16, 2008 at 12:29 am


Excellent. I’m with you. Bad jazz theology ends up being bad living theology. And we need to be working towards changing that!



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Nicole Clark

posted December 22, 2008 at 8:38 pm


After first hearing about this book on here, I picked up a copy and just finished reading it this weekend. Many thoughts swirl in my head as Mansfield brings up a variety of issues to consider and ponder. I am inspired by his line toward the end of the book, “a people intending to be a great society must try to understand and act.” I will try to look at these issues and do just that.
One thing I found missing from Obama’s story of faith is the impact of his wife Michelle’s faith. I would be curious to know how her beliefs align or differ from Obama’s and Mansfield’s speculation on what type of faith they will pass on to their children. Thanks for pointing out and reviewing this book!



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jazztheologian

posted December 23, 2008 at 3:55 pm


Nicole,
I too would love to hear/learn more about the faith of Michelle…I haven’t found much.
All I know is that my wife, Barbara, is the backbone of our family and her faith in God, compassion and love make us who we are!
robert



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cynthia r. nielsen

posted December 30, 2008 at 12:34 pm


Thanks for this post! I am reading Obama’s biography by Mendell and am really enjoying it. I greatly appreciate Obama’s transparency about his faith and his commitment to social justice issues.



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Carol

posted January 7, 2009 at 4:17 am


“What do we do with doubters in our midst? Do we say that they are not one of us until they believe the right thing? Do we refuse to let them call themselves Christian until they can pass an exam on basic Christian doctrine?”
I’ve thought about this every day since you posted it. In my mind, it’s more an indictment of us as believers. I wonder, who has walked alongside Obama? Who has loved him? Who has helped him to grow in his faith?
I pray that the Lord will put me in places where I rub shoulders with baby Christians every day. And I pray that our precious Heavenly Father will draw Obama to himself, and will continue to woo him, and teach him, and grow him, and make him a leader who makes wise and godly decisions for our country.



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