Jon Meacham on Obama and Faith

As first chronicles in the Hebrew Bible comes to an end, David—king and general, a favorite of the Lord's and the dominant figure of his time—is growing old. As he contemplates death, the king offers God effusive praises, but then his thoughts turn wistful, dark, fatalistic. The Lord is omnipotent, David and his people ultimately powerless. "For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers," David says. "Our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding." That is the King James version of the verse. Miqveh, the Hebrew word translated as "abiding," though, also means "hope," a textual choice that can render the passage even bleaker: "Our days on the earth are like a shadow," reads another English translation, "and there is no hope."

What makes this exegetical exercise interesting is that Barack Obama chose the passage for the epigraph of his first book, the 1995 "Dreams From My Father." He quoted only the first half (about being strangers and sojourners), but acknowledges that the complete verse, with its tragic, cold-eyed realism about the world as it is, speaks to his own religious sensibility. That Obama was drawn to the grim last words of a charismatic, flawed and dying king gives us a small glimpse into the religious, philosophical and historical imagination of a potential president.

Obama's first Sunday morning at Trinity Church in Chicago led him to connect his own life and the lives of those around him with the most epic of sagas. David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones, he says, "became our story, my story; the blood that was spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world." In Obama's experience, this transporting vision—one that invests the seemingly ordinary with extraordinary drama and meaning—is tempered by the kind of realistic view of life David expressed in First Chronicles, a perspective that was perhaps best articulated in the 20th century by the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote: "Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it." Niebuhr's understanding of politics was equally skeptical—not cynical, but skeptical: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary."

Belief and doubt, hope and fear, ambition and humility: Obama's religion is a new chapter in a long American tradition of presidents and politicians for whom faith is more a matter of mystery than magic, of enduring questions rather than pat answers. This is not to say that the religious are simplistic or simple-minded for believing, in the Christian tradition, that the world has been redeemed by the death and resurrection of the Son of God. It is to say, however, that reason and experience make it impossible for many believers to accept that any religious creed can alone make sense of the unfolding tragedy of history. The innocent suffer, and the innocent die; some are poor, and some are rich; evil can, and does, strike out of a brilliant blue sky. Where was God at Auschwitz? Where is he when a child dies? The old Sunday-school hymn—"Jesus loves me, yes I know/for the Bible tells me so"—is reassuring as far as it goes, but a lot of believers are more perplexed than enlightened the more they heed Saint Paul's injunction to "think on these things."

The tradition of which Obama is a part is best exemplified by another of his heroes: Lincoln. "Probably it is my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did," Lincoln, who belonged to no church, said. "But in my poor, maimed way, I bear with me as I go on seeking a spirit of desire for a faith that was with him of olden time, who, in his need, as I in mine, exclaimed, 'Help thou my unbelief'." He added: "I doubt the possibility, or propriety, of settling the religion of Jesus Christ in the models of man-made creeds and dogmas … I cannot without mental reservations assent to long and complicated creeds and catechisms."

Lincoln's faith evolved through the trial of the Civil War. Unlike some war presidents, he neared victory with a growing sense of humility and an awareness that, however just he believed his own cause, the conflict had clarified some things but not all things. He knew slavery would end, but he knew little else.

Speaking of North and South in his Second Inaugural, he said: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes." Commenting on these passages a century later, Niebuhr wrote that Lincoln had successfully artic-ulated a sad but real truth: that "while the drama of history is shot through with moral meaning, the meaning is never exact. Sin and punishment, virtue and reward are never precisely proportioned."

Asked about what he has learned from Lincoln's spiritual journey, Obama tells NEWSWEEK: "My religious influences extend to the Founding Fathers, and I would include Lincoln in that category. Because these were men driven by reason and were full of skepticism and doubt. So much so that some of them considered themselves deists as opposed to strict Christians as we'd call them. But look at somebody like Lincoln: [he] starts off, as far as we can tell, a deeply skeptical but powerfully moral person who, as he finds himself in the midst of history and potential cataclysm, feels it necessary to hang on to a more explicit belief in providence and faith. And so that resonates with me. I think that there's a place where, the more seriously you take the world and the more you find yourself struggling with good and evil and war and the great moral questions of the day, the more you have to fall back on some sort of north star. Or you get lost. The kinds of issues that might get confronted are so difficult that the weight you carry was so great, that the possibilities of paralysis are—Lincoln himself acknowledged are—sometimes too present. What gets him out of bed, that's powerful stuff."

Lincoln understood—as did Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy—that politics is noble but provisional. There will always be more wars to wage, more injustices to correct. To the dead Great Men, to Obama (and to John McCain), the enormity and the endlessness of the problems posed by politics should lead not to despair but to what John Adams called "the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation of which I am but an infinitesimal part." The alternative is nihilism, and a world built on mastering the temporal through the will to power. And that way madness lies.

"How far do our obligations reach?" Obama asked in his first book. "How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?" The faith that human beings can make some difference—that they can, in the words of George Eliot, make life less difficult to one another—is not innocence or naiveté. In a way, it is the essence of any faith that proposes to offer a vision of life that links the seen with the unseen, and the visible with the invisible.

For Obama, no matter how one translates David's final prayer, there is always hope, for without it life collapses into appetite. He is a Christian who believes in redemption but knows that nothing will ever be finally, fully complete on this side of paradise. We know he knows the story of David. If you read on through the death of the great king to the beginning of Second Chronicles, you will find Solomon's own prayer to God: "Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people: for who can judge this thy people, that is so great?"

Jon Meacham on Obama and Faith | News