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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