Barack Obama's Faith Journey
It's probably impossible to understand President-elect Obama without knowing his spiritual biography. From his birth to a mixed-faith couple to his faith-based community organizing to his decision to distance himself from longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama's story speaks to the rewards and challenges of being a believer.
Born to an Interfaith Couple
Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii to a white mother from a Protestant Christian background—Obama later called her a “lonely witness for secular humanism”—and a black father from Kenya. His father was raised a Muslim, but Obama has said that “by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.” Obama’s parents divorced when he was two and his dad returned to Kenya. He saw his dad only once more, for a month-long visit when he was ten, before his death.
At age six, Obama moved with his mother and her second husband, a Muslim whom Obama and his sister have described as not religious, to Indonesia. Obama lived there for four years until 1971. He occasionally accompanied his stepfather to prayers at the local mosque, though Obama’s sister has said the family attended the mosque only for “big communal events.”
Obama spent the second and third grades in Indonesia in a Catholic school and third and fourth grades in a public school, which Obama has called a “Muslim school.” Because Obama was registered as a Muslim there—other students were apparently registered as Christians or Buddhists—he attended two hours of Qur’anic study a week. Reputable news organizations have shown that the rumor that Obama attended a radical Islamic madrassa is false.
A 'Spirituality Awakened' Mom
“[F]or all her professed secularism,” Obama has written “my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known….. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice.”
Faith-Based Community Organizing
After graduating from Columbia University, Obama took a job as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago that were grappling with economic fallout from nearby factory closures. “The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me,” Obama has written. “They saw that I knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, an observer among them. I came to realize that without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart.”
By the time he reached his late 20s, Obama wrote, “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.”
Befriending the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
At Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly black church that is the largest congregation in a mostly white denomination, Obama grew close to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a fiery proponent of black liberation theology and a liberal political activist. Wright’s controversial actions included traveling with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to meet Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, then a sworn enemy of the U.S.
When Obama left Chicago for Harvard Law School, he brought cassettes of Wright’s sermons with him. Wright officiated at Obama's marriage to his wife Michelle and baptized his two daughters, Malia and Sasha. And Obama entitled his 2006 best-seller "The Audacity of Hope" after one of Wright’s sermons.
Obama's Major 2006 Address on Faith and Politics
Troubles with Rev. Wright
In March 2008, when Senator Hillary Clinton was still challenging Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, videos of incendiary Jeremiah Wright sermons made their way onto the internet and triggered a crush of news coverage. With Wright telling blacks to sing “God Damn America” instead of “God Bless America” and calling the United States the “U.S. of KKKA,” the video clips sparked the biggest crisis of Obama’s political career. Obama responded with a televised primetime speech titled “Race in America.” “As imperfect as he may be,” Obama told the nation, “he has been like family to me…. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”
But after Wright continued making controversial public appearances, Obama did disavow him, later that same spring, saying Wright wasn't “the man I met 20 years ago.” And after Trinity United Church of Christ hosted a Catholic priest who lambasted Hillary Clinton with racially charged language, Obama announced that he and his family were leaving the church.
Closing the God Gap
From the beginning of his presidential campaign, Obama did more to reach out to religious voters than any Democratic White House hopeful in memory. He printed up pamphlets describing his life as a "Committed Christian," met with conservative evangelical leaders, and vowed to beef up the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and to forge a new Democratic approach to abortion. He also participated in a handful of televised forums on faith, including one last August with megachurch pastor Rick Warren.
Obama's faith outreach paid off. He won Protestant and Christian voters, whom John Kerry had lost in 2004, and made inroads among white evangelicals and frequent churchgoers. He later invited Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.