2016-07-27
This Saturday’s South Carolina primary could make or break Barack Obama's presidential aspirations. The Illinois Senator was interviewed by phone on Monday by Beliefnet politics editor Dan Gilgoff.

Listen to Barack Obama:
'I Felt God's Spirit Beckoning Me'
Prayers and Fair Play on the Campaign Trail
Muslims 'Would View America Differently'
A Childhood of Different Religions
'I Am Proud of Reverend Wright'

You spoke at Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church this week and speak regularly at other churches. Is there a difference in speaking from a pulpit versus from behind a podium or at a political rally? Do you have a different set of responsibilities?

When I'm speaking behind a pulpit, I'm in church. And what that means is that it's during a religious service. I'm there, mindful that the primary reason for being in church is to worship. And so I'm going to constrain myself in speaking on purely political issues and am more likely to broaden the theme to address broader issues—values and our ideals, how we can come together to solve the problems that we face as a nation and in the world. But I'm very sensitive to respecting the role that the church service plays and not wanting to abuse the privilege of addressing a congregation.

In writing about your experience encountering church people as an organizer in Chicago, you said you saw “their ability to make a way out of no way, I could see the Word made manifest… I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized.” It sounds like a conversion or a born-again experience.

'I Felt God's Spirit Beckoning Me'
It wasn't an epiphany. I didn't “fall out,” as they say in the black church. It was an emotional and spiritual progression, as well as an intellectual one. And it didn't happen overnight. What happened was that I felt drawn to the message of Jesus Christ and the power of the church to fortify people in their spiritual journeys. And, you know, in my heart, at least, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. So ultimately, as I write in [“The Audacity of Hope”], I submitted myself to his will, dedicated myself to discovering his truths.

But it's an ongoing process for all of us in making sure that we are living out our faith every day. And, you know, it's something that I try to pray on at the beginning of every day and at the end of every day, whether I'm living my life in a way that's consistent with my faith.

Is it difficult in the rough and tumble of campaign politics to stick to that, to live out your faith? And can you talk about whether you have a favorite prayer or what you pray about?

Prayers and Fair Play on the Campaign Trail
The prayer that I tell myself every night is a fairly simple one: I ask in the name of Jesus Christ that my sins are forgiven, that my family is protected and that I am an instrument of God's will. I'm constantly trying to align myself to what I think he calls on me to do. And sometimes you hear it strongly and sometimes that voice is more muted.

In terms of on the political trail, I don't find it challenging to be respectful and courteous to people, including my political opponents. You know, the Golden Rule still applies in politics.

I do think that being a Christian doesn't mean that you're passive or that you aren't going to confront injustice. What I think is important, though, and is important not just for me, but also for my team—I'm trying to always reinforce this within the culture of our organization, and I'm not always perfectly successful—is to at least be scrupulous and honest in how we present our disagreements with other people.

I try to measure whether what I'm saying is fair by seeing how I would feel if I was at the receiving end of it. And, you know, there are a number of people—there have been a number of times where I've been criticized during the course of this campaign. And I say to myself, “Well, that's a fair criticism in the sense that I may disagree with the criticism, but it's substantive and there's a legitimate difference of opinion.”

There are other times where I feel as if people are just distorting what I say to score cheap political points. And that gets you frustrated or weary or occasionally angry. And so, I try not to do that to other people.

Andrew Sullivan has written about your hypothetical inauguration through the eyes of a Pakistani Muslim who sees "This man, Barack Hussein Obama, is the new face of America, a brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority Muslim school for boys, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest, but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamic ideology, Obama's face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can." Do you agree that a Muslim in the Arab street could hate America less if they saw that you were elected, because of your faith background and your brushes with Islam in your past?

Muslims 'Would View America Differently'
I don't think that it would change the minds of the hard core ideologue of the Islamic militant movement. You know, I think they would view me as a Christian and an infidel and a Westerner and they wouldn't view me any differently, I think, than any other American president.

I do think that for the average Arab or Indonesian or Nigerian or Asian Muslim on the street that my familiarity with their culture would have an impact. I think that they would view America differently if I were president. Now, that is not just symbolic. That is something that could be used in a constructive way to open greater dialogue between the West and the Islamic world and that ultimately could make us more safe.

This is a delicate subject because there's been this smear campaign against you via email, alleging that you're Muslim. But do you think the fact that you attended a majority Muslim school in Indonesia or that your biological father was raised Muslim resonate with someone in the Arab street, a Muslim there?

A Childhood of Different Religions
Let me just sort of be as clear as possible in terms of what that background is.

You know, I was raised basically by my mother, who came from a Christian background—small town, white, Midwesterner. But, she was not particularly religious. My father, who I did not know—I spent a month of my life in his presence, otherwise he was a stranger to me—was raised in a household where his father had converted to Islam. But my father, for all practical purposes, was agnostic.

My mother remarried an Indonesian and we moved to Indonesia. But for two years I went to a Catholic school in Indonesia, and then for two years went to a secular school in Indonesia. The majority of children there were Muslim. But it wasn't a religious school.

So almost all the facts that have been presented in the scurrilous emails are wrong. And I've been a member of my church now for almost 20 years and have never been a person of the Muslim faith.

Now, having said all that, I absolutely believe that having lived in a country that was majority Muslim for a time and having distant relatives in Africa who are Muslim, that I'm less likely to demonize the Muslim faith and more likely to understand that they are ordinary folks who are trying to figure out how to live their lives and raise their kids and prosper just like anybody else. And I do think that that cultural understanding is something that could be extremely valuable.

Preaching in church last Sunday, your longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, said that Bill Clinton "Did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky." And he was criticized recently for his church magazine's decision to give an award to Louis Farrakhan. Do you worry that the country is forming a certain impression of Jeremiah Wright that's a different than the man who brought you to Christianity?

'I Am Proud of Reverend Wright'
It's a tricky thing, anybody's relationship with their pastor. Reverend Wright's about to retire in a month. He’s at the end of a long and distinguished career.

People who are familiar with the black church tradition know that Reverend Wright's considered one of the greatest preachers in the country. Our church, Trinity United Church of Christ, even though it is part of a 95-, 97-percent white denomination, very much draws on the historical black church tradition and Reverend Wright's sermons do as well. And that means that sometimes he's provocative in ways that I'm not always comfortable with and in ways that I deeply disagree with occasionally.

On the other hand, there are times where when he's talking about scripture and sort of our obligations as Christians to serve the least of these, he is right on target. And so, I think, like anybody else, I am proud of Reverend Wright and what he's done in his life and the people that he has drawn to Christ and the work that he's done in prison ministries, providing housing for seniors and all kinds of wonderful work in the church. But there are going to be times where we disagree. I think that's probably not unique to me.

You wrote in “The Audacity of Hope” about the role that faith and faith-based programs could play in confronting social ills. Isn’t your view on that similar to George W. Bush’s?

No, I don't think so, because I am much more concerned with maintaining the line between church and state. And I believe that, for the most part, we can facilitate the excellent work that's done by faith-based institutions when it comes to substance abuse treatment or prison ministries…. I think much of this work can be done in a way that doesn't conflict with church and state. I think George Bush is less concerned about that.

My general criteria is that if a congregation or a church or synagogue or a mosque or a temple wants to provide social services and use government funds, then they should be able to structure it in a way that all people are able to access those services and that we're not seeing government dollars used to proselytize.

That, by the way, is a view based not just on my concern about the state or the apparatus of the state being captured by a particular religious faith, but it's also because I want the church protected from the state. And I don't think that we promote the incredible richness of our religious life and our religious institutions when the government starts getting too deeply entangled in their business. That's part of the reason why you don't have as rich a set of religious institutions and faith life in Europe. Part of that has to do with the fact that, traditionally, it was an extension of the state. And so there is less experimentation, less vitality, less responsiveness to the yearnings of people. It became a rigid institution that no longer served people's needs. Religious freedom in this country, I think, is precisely what makes religion so vital.

Your 2004 Democratic National Convention speech introduced you to the nation. And perhaps the most repeated line from that speech was, simply, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states.” Did you think that line would have as much resonance as it wound up having?

Yeah, I did. That's why I put it in there. I thought it was an important message to send to the country as a whole, but also to my fellow Democrats that nobody has a monopoly on religious belief.



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