Illuminating an Atypical Spiritual Quest

'What He Believes': While readers were glad we shed some light on Barack Obama's religious convictions, many weren't particularly concerned. One said, "A candidate's beliefs have no bearing on his or her ability to perform the functions of the presidency." Another added, "In the current economic situation, Americans don't care about Obama's religion as long as he loves our country." And a pastor emeritus noted, "Obama's theology shouldn't be the basis for determining his fitness; how many Founding Fathers would pass a religious 'litmus' test?"

On 'A Smarter Way to Fight': "You can only change a single mind with a single bullet, but you can change a million minds with a single good idea."
Don Simon
Loveland, Colo.

Obama ' s Spiritual Identity
I generally vote Democratic, but until I read "Finding His Faith" (July 21), I hadn't really found any compelling connection to Barack Obama beyond agreement with many of his policies. I know he is a Christian, but I didn't know how he came to his Christian faith. It was not simply a continuation of his parents' beliefs. He found his religion by personal search, by intellectual and spiritual journey. He does what I want a president to do: he thinks things through. That's what we need, America.
Dana Bobek
Valencia, Calif.

My Christianity encourages kindness and forgiveness, and reminds us that Jesus loves us all. After his spiritual searches at Columbia University, Senator Obama finally arrived at the church where the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. espoused a vastly different outlook, one of anger and hate. It was there that Obama befriended Wright and accepted him as a spiritual adviser. After two decades as a member of the Reverend's flock, Obama renounced the association when it became politically expedient to do so. His is not the form of Christianity with which I am comfortable.
Peter Fowler
Oakland, Calif.

I am very concerned when seeing any article dealing with a candidate's faith or religion because it feeds into the religious right's attempts to transform this nation into one based on Christian beliefs. The Constitution clearly mandates that there will be no test for religion or belief of any candidate for public office. The Founding Fathers were deists and wanted a clear separation between church and state, with John Adams writing in 1797 that "the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion"! Thomas Jefferson refused to answer any questions about his religious beliefs when running for, and as, president. He stated that an atheist is equal to a believer for the office of president, and that religion is not required for morality. He was right, and the intent of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to keep religion out of politics should be respected by all journalists and media.
Robert Denis Holewinski
Lake Mary, Fla.

I'm fed up with all this talk about candidates' religious beliefs. What do they actually tell us? We elected a president who prays and believes God has called him. And what did we get? A President who misled the country and took us to war, authorized torture and destroyed the Justice Department. If this is what a God-fearing Christian did, why should anyone care what our next president's religion is? Why keep talking about it?
Marty Klein
Palo Alto, Calif.

I read with interest your article about Barack Obama's religious faith. I, for one, would like to see a similar piece on John McCain. I've seen very little coverage on this, though it is an important subject to many of us. Where does he stand on the social theology of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr? I understand he has converted from Episcopalian to Southern Baptist. That's quite a shift. Does it reflect a personal epiphany? How does religion inform his politics? Does he pray daily? What does he pray for?
H. W. Shaeffer
Los Angeles, Calif.

Who Speaks for Us?
"At Arm's Length" (July 21) highlights what my friends and I have discussed for months. We in the African-American community desperately need a new batch of leaders like Sen. Barack Obama who understand a more modern approach to handling the issues that affect us. Many of the so-called old-school black leaders such as "Messy Jesse" Jackson and Al Sharpton do not speak for the entire African-American community. Their style of preaching and picketing is predictable, ineffective and often more damaging. A very large number of educated black Americans do not approve of their racket, or should I say tactics!
Nicole Jackson
Bowie, Md.

What Makes an Effective Teacher?
Jonathan Alter's stance on merit pay for teachers fails to answer how we begin to determine the definition of an effective teacher ("Obama's No-Brainer on Education," July 21). If the pay is based solely on test scores, excellent teachers will lose their jobs due to circumstances beyond their control. Often labeled an excuse, this fact can be realized only when one attempts to control exactly what children think and how they test. We are not manufacturing products to be evaluated by "quality control." We are inspiring excellence and a love of knowledge, qualities not easily measured. Would it be acceptable to fire the third-grade teacher who taught a failing student for only a matter of months? Or would you go back and fire the kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers as well? Teachers are well aware of incompetence in education, and we want to assist in generating solutions to weed out those who give the rest of us a bad name. It is not the reform of teachers unions we fear, it is lack of common sense.
Rebecca Cusick
Fall River, Mass.

Lowering class size, expanding the school day/week, parental-involvement work. That's what the research says. But regular schools do not have the budget or the support to do all three. In nearly 40 years as an educator, I often saw the most needy students forgo opportunities for after-school and Saturday tutorials. Parents of failing students are often defensive about their children and resistive to working with schoolteachers and administrators. Schools like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) sometimes hurt regular schools because they attract the most-committed students and parents, and force a lack of resources elsewhere. Having spent more than half my career as an educational supervisor, I can attest to the dedication and intelligence of the vast majority of teachers and principals. Blaming them or their unions for the problems of urban education is not only unfair, but counterproductive.
Tess Conte
New York, N.Y.

Sen. Barack Obama's support of charter schools did not elicit the reaction at the National Education Association convention described by Jonathan Alter. Obama's support of public charter schools is not news, nor is the fact that NEA supports public-school choice. As for differentiated pay, many NEA affiliates have agreed to plans that include extra pay tied to a variety of factors. Obama made it clear to NEA members that educators must be involved in drafting any proposal that affects their compensation. The best thing for children as Alter advocates: professional salaries that reflect the work teachers do. However, the concept that educators are part of the solution and should be treated as allies is what Alter fails to grasp. Obama earned NEA's endorsement for president because of his genuine support for public education, and his record bears this out.
Reg Weaver, President
National Education Association
Washington, D.C.

Death in the ER Waiting Room
"The Woman Who Died in the Waiting Room" (July 21) is a tragic illustration of how our nation's troubled emergency-care system is harming some of our most vulnerable patients—persons in need of timely psychiatric care. These are patients, children included, who because of a chronic lack of psychiatric beds and resources, are routinely boarded, or held, in the emergency department, for 24 hours or longer, thus putting them, other patients and staff at unnecessary risk. As you note, the American College of Emergency Physicians' nationwide survey found nearly 80 percent of respondents said their hospitals typically "board" admitted patients in the ER instead of moving them to an inpatient bed, and nearly two thirds said their emergency department does not have a dedicated area for treating psychiatric patients, creating a dangerous situation. Moreover, while these patients are boarded, they rarely see a psychiatric specialist, and are subjected to an environment that may exacerbate their symptoms, often to the point of requiring sedation, rather than receiving the specific care they need. Finally, 85 percent of those surveyed thought wait times for all emergency patients would improve if better psychiatric services were made available, and more than 80 percent thought that instituting regional dedicated emergency psychiatric facilities nationwide would help. It's time to start implementing these much-needed recommendations—before even one more patient suffers needlessly.
Linda L. Lawrence, M.D. Pres., American College of Emergency Physicians
Washington, D.C.

On Trak to Convenient Travel
"All Eyes On Amtrak" (July 21) reminded me of some recent Amtrak trips enjoyed by me and my wife. I can't decide which part of the experiences we liked most: avoiding the drive to the airport, not having to wait at the airport or the legroom. Forgive me: I hope not too many people discover the joys of traveling by train soon. I have a suggestion for a slogan for Amtrak (I know, it didn't ask): Fly low—and you'll be flying high.
Herb Schwarz
Mill Creek, Wash.

In "Who Says Fewer Troops?" (PERISCOPE, July 21), we reported that a forthcoming Pentagon-sponsored report by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., will recommend a steep drawdown of troops in Iraq "to as few as 50,000 by the spring of 2009, down from about 150,000 now." In fact, this is the personal recommendation of only one of the three principal authors of the report, John Arquilla, a professor at the school. In addition, we quoted a defense contractor as saying that Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus "is said to oppose the recommendations." According to Col. Steven Boylan, Petraeus's spokesman, the general "was not aware of any study being written by the Naval Postgraduate School." The story also reported that the study had been discussed inside the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, but Geoff Morrell, spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, says there have been no such formal discussions. NEWSWEEK regrets the errors.

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