Understanding Barack Obama's Faith

Sen. Barack Obama's journey to finding God was paved with many religious influences, and what the patchwork of these experiences means has been debated since he stepped onto the national stage. Stephen Mansfield, best-selling author of "The Faith of George Bush," has attempted to tackle this difficult subject in his new book, "The Faith of Barack Obama," out this week. In it, he discusses what really shaped Obama's religious views, how they will inform the way he governs and why he may be a compelling leader not just to liberal Democrats but also to some conservative evangelicals. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez spoke with the conservative Republican about Obama's spiritual voyage. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: As a child, Obama's religious journey was touched by several experiences, including his mother's scholarly approach to faith and the time he spent in Muslim and Roman Catholic schools in Jakarta. You've said that during this period, he expressed a certain detachment when dealing with religion. Why did this detachment exist?
Stephen Mansfield: I think you have to begin with his experiences in Jakarta. He's living in a home with a mother best described as a secular humanist. At the same time, he's at a Catholic school where he's saying the "our father" and participating in Catholic spirituality. Then the very next year, he attends a public school where he's participating in Muslim spirituality, reading the Qur'an. And, of course, his stepfather at the time is very folk-Islam. He was not orthodox. He drank whiskey but would also pray at the mosque on Fridays. So [Obama] was taught to participate in all of these religions, but he was not to invest his heart too fully in any of them. His mother's focus on religion as being generally important but not of a vital personal concern thus began to shape him. I think that just naturally created a certain amount of detachment that then, as he himself said, began to haunt him in his later years. It made him feel detached not only from faith but also from society as a whole.

How, if at all, did that shape the Christian faith he now professes?   
I think he began his journey into his Christian faith very cautiously. He wanted to investigate what the people he was tending in Chicago had that he did not have. In [his book] "Audacity of Hope," he describes what is often taken as his conversion experience at Trinity Church in Chicago in tentative terms. He says he doesn't have all his questions answered, but he at least agreed to start the journey. I think we see that earlier skepticism, that earlier detachment, sort of flowing through his first days of Christianity. He's not making that full-throated evangelical commitment. Instead he's saying, "OK, I see some truth in this, but I'm not sure I buy it all, so let's start slowly." I think that's very much representative of the detachment we talked about.

Given his skepticism, what would you say ultimately brought him to God?
I think it's the need we all have. It's "Lord, you formed us for yourself and our hearts are restless till we find our rest in thee." I also think this is where we have to talk about something most people don't want to talk about, and that is that, although [the Rev.] Jeremiah Wright has been painted as a nutcase and Trinity Church has been painted as a cult, the fact is the Christian gospel is preached there. I really do believe that Obama's heart connected with the Christian gospel. I spent a lot of days at Trinity Church, and one of the things a lot of Americans don't know is that, even though it's steeped in black liberation theology and even though Jeremiah Wright has what would be considered extremist views in American culture, Christianity pervades the whole.

You came to the conclusion that Obama made an effort to stay after the Wright controversy because he could "listen to a sermon carefully and distinguish between the revelation of God and the personality of man." Can you talk about that?
Most people who have gone to a church have had to grit their teeth through some sermon and perhaps walk away not agreeing with everything. I think if you've been to a church, especially with this black "prophetic preaching," which is a theological perspective that says pastors ought to comment on everything from the government to the economy, then we're not just going to talk about the joy, joy, joy way down deep in our hearts the way most white churches do. This preaching comes out of the postslavery years, where a pastor is the commentator on all things in society. So I think when you have that perspective and you're used to hearing someone comment on a variety of things, you don't necessarily have to share his perspective to be involved with the church. In fact, black pastors often—and I say this as a man who's worked with and preached in black churches—say extreme things to shift the lines a little and stir people up. So I am sure Barack Obama, sitting there, said, "This is a great church, love the people, but I don't agree with everything that's said." Again, he distinguished between the revelation of God and the personality of a man.

What did the Christian faith Obama found at Trinity give him that he didn't have before?
I think that what we can take from his conversion experience was his acceptance of the reality of God. I think that's the primary thing. He comes to believe there is a God and that he's involved with human beings personally. That's where Obama begins, but what we can't miss about his faith is that it is very communally oriented. He came to God by joining a people of God. So I think he also really finds community, maybe for the first time in his life.

So, where do you think Obama fits in the spectrum of Christianity?
I think Barack Obama believes about Jesus and about conversion what your average evangelical does. He believes that Jesus is the son of God and that he died for the sins of the world and God raised him from the dead again. Where he begins to depart from orthodox evangelical Christianity probably begins with his view of scripture. He believes some of it might be of human origin, and some scriptures may be of more weight than others. So in a sense, [his is a] traditional theological liberalism that tends to treat scripture as being at least partially of human origin. But then you add that sort of young postmodern twist. Postmodernists don't really reconcile systems of thought. In fact, they're not sure systems of thought are possible. Theologically speaking, they might pick one from column A and two from column B, whether it all fits together or not. So he's a theological liberal with a postmodern emphasis.

"We worship an awesome God in the Blue States"—you've essentially dubbed that line from Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech his "trumpet call" for a rise of a religious left. What historic shifts occurred that made such a rise even possible?
First of all, the religious right has lost almost all of its national leadership. Second of all, polls are showing a pretty decided shift among some evangelicals to Democratic candidates and more left-leaning views. So you'll have a certain percent of evangelical voters who voted for Bush once or twice but will now be voting for Obama. Finally, you have these new young voters who are deeply religious in nontraditional ways and left-leaning in their politics. In[to] the middle of all of this steps Barack Obama, who is young, articulate, who's focused on social justice and who is also deeply Christian but of a nontraditional type.

Under Obama, how would this religious left redefine the relationship between politics and religion in America?
The emphasis would be different. In the years the religious right sort of held the high ground, the two moral issues were abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, even the people who are as conservative as the more traditional evangelicals are saying Christianity speaks to more than those two moral issues. There's also poverty, the moral justification for war and social justice. So what's happening is there's a bit of a shift from just those two religious right moral issues to a broader range. Now you hear evangelicals saying, "Neither party represents every moral position that I hold. So I am going to have to choose between the moral causes that I care most about." For many right now, poverty, the war and social justice are outweighing abortion and homosexual issues. This is galvanizing the young, rallying the religious left and even winning over a lot of evangelicals who were hoping for a different emphasis in their evangelical Christianity when it comes to politics.

If Obama becomes the next president of the United States, how can we expect his faith to inform his policies?
I think he'll attempt to come to each issue of policy from his foundation of faith. But because of the very nature of his postmodernism, it won't be as though he's proceeding from a clear doctrinal line, the way we might anticipate someone like George W. Bush would. You can pretty much anticipate how conservative evangelicalism is going to approach a certain issue. That won't be the case with Obama. He is as likely to advocate [for] gay rights one minute and then criticize the Supreme Court for forbidding the death penalty in child rape cases the next. He's done both. Both positions are informed by faith, but you can't really draw a straight line between them. I think it's going to be a uniquely postmodern approach to faith and policy. He'll definitely bring the values of his faith to each issue, but you won't be able to anticipate from one issue to the next what his position will be.

As a conservative evangelical, would you vote for him?
I would be willing to vote for him, except for a couple of policies that are a litmus test for me. Abortion is a primary issue for me. I like him, and I respect him. I hope there are opportunities for joining together to make a difference in this country. [I share] his focus on social justice and his views of war. So there's not as much polarity as you might think.