A few facts about Obama’s faith

obama prayer pose3 editedThe big news about the recent Newsweek “Finding His Faith” cover story about Sen. Barack Obama is that it was not written by Jon Meacham, the news magazine’s theologian in chief.

So if you are in the mood for more theological reflection and speculation, click here and head right over to the editor’s essay entitled “More a Matter of Mystery than Magic — It seems that, for Obama, faith is about enduring questions.” The operative word, as in most of Meacham’s writing, is “seems.”

However, if you are interested in some solid quotes, a few symbolic facts and quite a bit of on-the-record expert analysis, then you’ll want to focus on the main article by Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe. It offers quite a bit of information about why Obama believes what he believes. It also offers a few hints about why he does not believe some of things that he clearly does not believe.

For example, remember that exchange between Obama and the Rev. Franklin Graham, during that famous closed-door chat and prayer meeting with religious leaders in Chicago? Here’s a piece of the Scripps Howard column I wrote about that:

After the Chicago meeting, online reports … said the leaders discussed a wide variety of issues, from the Iraq war to same-sex marriage, from genocide in Darfur to religious liberty issues here at home. A spokesman for the Rev. Franklin Graham said that the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association asked if Obama “thought Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way” — but did not report the response. There were conflicting reports about whether Graham and Obama exchanged a hug or a handshake.

Newsweek followup up on that and the “OK, here’s what I said” quote from Obama is sure to be quoted often in many news. GetReligion readers will note that this exchange — which Obama links to the life and death of his “spiritual seeker” mother — focuses on one of those “tmatt trio” questions:

When Franklin Graham asked Obama recently how, as a Christian, he could reconcile New Testament claims that salvation was attainable only through Christ with a campaign that embraces pluralism and diversity, Obama tells NEWSWEEK he said: “It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I’ve said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know … I do not believe she went to hell.” Graham, he said, was very gracious in reply. Should Obama beat John McCain, he has history on his side. Presidents such as Lincoln and Jefferson were unorthodox Christians; and, according to a Pew Forum survey, 70 percent of Americans agree with the statement that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” “My particular set of beliefs,” Obama says, “may not be perfectly consistent with the beliefs of other Christians.”

One of the challenges facing the writers was this: How do you capture such a complex man in a few paragraphs? The answer is blunt, but not easy — with symbolic facts.

Here are two prime examples, I think, from this cover package. The first concerns his years as a spiritually motivated, but unconventional, student at Columbia University:

For company, he had books. There was Saint Augustine, the fourth-century North African bishop who wrote the West’s first spiritual memoir and built the theological foundations of the Christian Church. There was Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher and father of existentialism. There was Graham Greene, the Roman Catholic Englishman whose short novels are full of compromise, ambivalence and pain. Obama meditated on these men and argued with them in his mind.

obama prayerAnd consider this collection of facts and influences:

Obama’s religious biography is unconventional and politically problematic. Born to a Christian-turned-secular mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist African father, Obama grew up living all across the world with plenty of spiritual influences, but without any particular religion. He is now a Christian, having been baptized in the early 1990s at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. …

The story of Obama’s faith begins with his mother, Ann. Raised in the Midwest by two lapsed Christians, she lived and traveled throughout the world appreciating all religions but confessing to none. One of Ann’s favorite spiritual texts was “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,” a set of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers that traces the common themes of religion and mythology, Obama’s half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, tells NEWSWEEK. When the family lived in Indonesia, Ann, on occasion, would take the children to Catholic mass; after returning to Hawaii, they would celebrate Easter and Christmas at United Church of Christ congregations. Ann later went back to Indonesia with Maya, and when Obama visited, they would take him to Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Later, while working in India, Ann lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery.

The story also contains a few facts about the role of faith in his marriage (wife Michelle also grew up outside the church) and in his home (no Sunday school for the daughters).

Over in the Q&A, we learn that Obama’s use of evangelical-friendly language extends all the way over to another touchy issue in the Nicene Creed and in biblical prophecy:

What do you think about the Kingdom of God? Is it attainable on Earth by humans?

I am a big believer in not just words, but deeds and works. I don’t believe that the Kingdom of God is achievable on Earth without God’s intervention, and without God’s return through Jesus Christ, but I do believe in improvement.

This is a solid piece, although anyone who takes these subjects seriously would want to know more. As I said the other day, Obama is literally trying to reach out to believers in traditional, conservative Christian pews while also being honest (careful, but honest) about his own liberal beliefs.

So, that’s my major criticism of this cover story. Try to forget Obama’s former church home, in terms of the congregation itself and its controversial former pastor who must not be named. Instead, focus on its leadership role in the United Church of Christ — the most openly and proudly left-wing oldline Christian denomination in American life. That’s the negative way of stating the issue. Frankly, Obama’s church deserves even more press attention because of its courage in openly stating and defending its unique take on Christian doctrines.

So try to forget, for a moment, the pews and pulpit of the local church he once called home. I think that Newsweek should have given us more concrete information that explains Obama’s choice of his national church — meaning his denomination.

But we all know that there’s lots more ink that will be poured out on all of these topics in the near future. Hang on.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brian

    “Born to a Christian-turned-secular mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist African father”

    I confess that I don’t have the first clue what they mean by “secular” in this sentence. Is it supposed to be another way to say “atheist” parallel to the description of his father but avoid the repetition? Is it supposed to imply that Christian and secular are opposites somehow? This is an issue I’ve become really, really confused by over the past decade or so. I always thought that I was secular since I am fully committed to a system that differentiates between government figures and religious figures, but apparently that’s not the definition anymore.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    My understanding is that a person who is “secular” – as contrasted with being “atheist” or “agnostic” – is someone for whom religious belief, or lack thereof, is simply irrelevant. Given that, from what I’ve read, I’m not sure that “secular” is the best way to describe Obama’s deceased mother.

  • Brian Walden

    “It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule…”

    It’s sometimes interesting to see how a person uses conjunctions – I think it tells a lot about their world-view. For example, I would have joined the two clauses above with “and” rather than “but” because I don’t see a contradiction between them. Apparently Mr. Obama believes that one exists – or at least he thinks his audience sees a contradiction between them.

  • Jimmy Mac

    And how will McBush hold up under such scrutiny … assuming he understands the question, of course?

    Does any voter in this country seriously think that how Obama views/practices/understands Christianity and chooses to practice it is (1) anyone’s business, and (2) in any way, shapre or form relevant to the race for the White House?

  • David Buckna

    In America, can an atheist, agnostic, or believer who chooses not to answer questions from reporters and voters about his faith be elected to public office such as the U.S. Senate or Presidency?

    From the recent interview with Jesse Ventura on Larry King Live:



    KING: You’re not going to run? VENTURA: I haven’t said that yet, Larry.

    KING: OK.

    VENTURA: Now, having said, also, I’ve looked hard at what it takes and I feel very strongly that maybe I’m not religious enough, because I don’t go to church. I don’t
    have a reverend today. And I’m from the old school, where there’s a separation of church and state, like our founding forefathers wanted.

    Today, it seems that religion is being brought into the mix. They go look at your minister. They want to hear what your congregation is and all this stuff. And, quite
    frankly, Larry, I’m not very religious and I don’t have a minister that they can go see, when it comes time for that.

    Now, having said that, maybe I’m not powerful enough because let’s remember, George Bush, our president, said he talked to God before invading Iraq.

    I remember, he was asked before the invasion, did you talk this with your father?

    And the president’s response was I spoke to a higher father. Now, that tells me he can talk to God and God talks to him, Larry.

    Well, in my 57 years, which it will be tomorrow on the planet, God’s never spoken to me once. Never.

    And so I will tell you now, I am not going to run at this moment. But if between now and 5:00 maybe God comes and speaks to me like he did the president, and tells me I
    should run, like he apparently told the president to invade Iraq, well, then maybe at 5:00 tomorrow, Larry, don’t call me a liar, just understand God sent me to file.

    How’s that?

    KING: How close did you come to going — to making the race, Jesse?

    VENTURA: Well, again, Larry, it’s — I’ve until 5:00 tomorrow. But as of right now at this minute…

    KING: But will you…

    VENTURA: …no, I’m not running.

    KING: OK. Assuming God doesn’t call…

    VENTURA: And how close?

    Very close.

    OK, assuming God doesn’t call…


  • Julia

    Born to a Christian-turned-secular mother


    his mother, Ann. Raised in the Midwest by two lapsed Christians

    If his mother’s parents were lapsed, then how did she start out as Christian?

    I’ve read Jimmy Mac’s comments on various blogs for a number of years now and this is the first time I must say – I agree with him.

  • Dave

    Brian, I think they are using “secular” here when they should have used “non-observant.” I agree with your use of the word “secular,” as it describes me, too.

  • Peggy

    I daresay in response to Jimmy Mac that Obama’s beliefs might be relevant IF he really buys into black liberation theology or IF he retains some belief or attachment to Islam (given that it was his father’s religion at one time). Black liberation theology is directly threatening to white Americans and to all taxpayers (ie, if reparations were to go through). Islamic disdain for western civilization, Jews and Christians would be harmful in a US president, it goes without saying.

    That is why it may be important to some folks in middle America. Zenophobic or not, fair or not.

  • Andrew

    I find tmatt’s post to be disturbing. First of all, his characterization of the United Church of Christ as “the most openly and proudly left-wing oldline Christian denomination in American life” is inflammatory and uncalled for. Secondly, I believe we choose which church to attend over which denomination to belong to. I myself am a member of a United Church of Christ church. However, our local church is mainline, not “unique,” in its doctrine and has a good deal of autonomousness with respect to the national organization. I would resent being judged on my denominational affiliation and find tmatt’s expressed desire to see Mr. Obama hounded on account of his ties to the United Church of Christ to be troubling.

  • Claude

    In the first place, I would think that the Unitarians (rather than the United Church of Christ) are the “the most openly and proudly left-wing oldline Christian denomination in American life.” Leaving apart the demagogic intent of phrases such as “left-wing,” there are congregations that label themselves Methodist or Baptist or Congregationalist or Episcopal that are as liberal as any particular UCC congregation. I agree with Andrew that tmatt seems to have crossed the line from reporting on the media to pretty clear advocacy against Obama.

  • http://aconservativesiteforpeace.info The young fogey

    In a constitutional, religiously neutral government Obama’s religion is irrelevant. That said if he has a faith (and I do think he joined a church to use it for political advantage) it is or approximates liberal Protestantism (hardly news) just like his fan base, upper-middle-class whites both of Protestant and RC heritage. (And there’s his lock on the black vote; Obamacons – right-wing peaceniks like me but who think he’s their only hope – are negligible.) Not diffferent from how he was brought up.

    Conservative and centrist Christians of either RC or Protestant persuasions or, if not practising, of that heritage, of a different social class from O’s fans, will decide this election.

    McCain is execrable and O was right to oppose invading Iraq but Middle America won’t vote for a liberal black with a Muslim name (yes, I know he’s not Muslim), if only to get back at the white classes who love O and despise them. (There’s still anti-black prejudice but it’s not enough to be a factor like intra-white class resentment.)

    His answer to Franklin Graham makes perfect sense; it’s not relativistic at all. The Pope could have said that.

    My main objection to O is nothing to do with his faith or his name but that although he opposed this war he is still an interventionist in principle.

  • Claude

    Sorry, I hit the submit comment button before I had made my point, which is that I think it is tmatt here who does not “get religion” rather than MSM. No one has been more open about his Christianity than Obama. He is clearly a thoughtful person whose ideas are highly nuanced. Attempting to put him into a boxes as inflammatory as “black liberation theology” or “left-wing” is painfully reductive.

  • Dave

    Brian Walden (#3), I would assume Obama extends the Golden Rule to include respecting another’s religion as he would like that party to respect his. That motivates the “but” in his sentence.

    Claude (#11), it’s been some time since Unitarian Universalists have been regarded, including by themselves, as a Christian denomination. Christians are a minority among the UUs, about on a par with “Earth Centered.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Several comments:

    * Thanks Dave. Nailed it on the UUs.

    * I have defended Obama’s Christian faith time and time again here.

    * The UCC’s own stands and ads speak for themselves. The denomination is proudly the left wing of American Protestantism. That is not a slur to note that. Their own denominational leaders take these stands with great vigor and courage. They are not hiding. That is interesting and a valid subject to cover.

    The point I was trying to make is that Obama’s UCC affiliation is — based on his own testimony through the years — much more relevant than trying to nail him with the old Trinity story again and again.

    * Claude: Please respond to what people say, not what you claim that they say. Be constructive.

  • Matt

    Quick polity lesson from a UCC minister:

    Local congregations of the United Church of Christ are fully autonomous, and our Constitution identifies the local church as the “most basic unit” of church life. (We do have congregational roots, after all). Liberal policy positions adopted by the national leadership are not binding on local congregations, and are quite often ignored. I know we enjoy (or suffer from) a reputation for being “proudly the left wing” of American Protestantism, but such formulations betray a basic ignorance of our polity. Are we a bunch of wild-eyed liberals at the national level? Sure. Does that wild-eyed liberalism have much bearing on the life of local congregations? Not so much.

    I don’t know about religion, but pretty clearly this blog does not “get” the United Church of Christ.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I am very familiar with UCC polity and have covered the church for a quarter of a century. I also grew up in a congregational polity system.

    Please read what I actually wrote. I have made no statements at all about local congregations, other than to say that it has been wrong to dwell so completely on Trinity UCC. My statements are about the national church and its proclamations .

    Again, please read what I actually wrote. My comments are about the national UCC.

    For those interested in more information on Obama and his admiration for his national church, check out his famous speech to the UCC:


    And to see the column I wrote about his testimony in that speech, and its positive impact on some evangelicals, see this:


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    One more comment, on his “secular” mother.

    That is a bizarre wording, since so much of the content of the story documents the range of her spiritual searching. I am also not sure that non-observant is the right word either. It sounds like she observed all kinds of faiths and rites.

    How about unorthodox? Unconventional?

  • Darel

    Nietzsche the “founder of existentialism”? What?? Perhaps “precursor of existentialism” or “founder of philosophical nihilism”, but come on!

    More to the point of the discussion, Obama strikes me as a quite conventional representative of the “Religious Left” in America, of which the UCC (along with the UUs and Reform Jews) is the vanguard. It is true that denominational affiliation often tells one little about the real beliefs of a particular individual, but I cannot see any gap between Obama’s beliefs and that of the contemporary Religious Left in America. Think of the National Council of Churches, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and Soujourners and Tikkun Magazines and you have a pretty good handle on Obama.

  • Stephen A.

    I found that first paragraph quoted above from the Newsweek article to be fascinating. Christians and others interested in religious dialogue could discuss that for weeks, if not years.

    Note that in Terry’s column, he wrote that Franklin Graham “asked if Obama “thought Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way” — but did not report the response.” The Newsweek article says the question was phrased, “how, as a Christian, he could reconcile New Testament claims that salvation was attainable only through Christ with a campaign that embraces pluralism and diversity.” Those are NOT the same things at all, even though Obama’s answer seems to be the answer to the question Terry reported in HIS article.

    To compare salvation being attainable through only Christ with “a campaign that embraces pluralism and diversity” is nonsense. It’s like saying “Do you believe in a strong military, or in gun control legislation?” Well, both issues are about guns, but that’s about it. Same here. “Diversity” *may* have something to do with embracing universalism in religion, but all national political campaigns must be diverse and pluralistic. So this is very imprecise. When reporting theology, more precision is needed.

    I do, however, think the article is extremely enlightening and well written. The responses from Obama seem quite candid and honest. I have to agree with Terry somewhat in that it seems like a bit of a cover-up of his association with the black racist church he has attended for 20 years, but then again we’ve A) heard a lot about that and B) if he’s a Black Panther-like anti-white bigot (as Peggy alludes to above) those views will come out in his political positions, not necessarily in a further exploration of his pastor or his church.

    The “secular” issue Brian (1) raised is a good one, and of course it means different things in different circles. In the South, Christians (who tend pronounce it “SACK-u-ler” and with a hint of bitterness in their voices) mean it almost as the ancients meant “pagan,” i.e. “THOSE people OUT THERE who aren’t Saved.” I think Obama was reaching for a slightly different meaning, but also describing how those Others might see the term.

    I actually found Terry’s characterization of the United Church of Christ as “the most openly and proudly left-wing oldline Christian denomination in American life” to be right on the mark and very descriptive. For the vast majority of congregations, the national attitudes seem to filter down to the pulpits, in my experience with the church as a pre-teen and (briefly again) as an adult.

    Claude’s nomination for most Leftie Christian denomination are the Unitarian Universalists, but I also attended those fellowships as well and frankly, they are not a Christian denomination anymore, as Dave correctly points out (13) and they haven’t been for a very long time.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Stephen A:

    Excellent point that I missed there on the “pluralism and diversity” question.

    Once again, we are seeing the press use a DOCTRINAL definition of words such as pluralism, toleration, diversity, etc. You have to hold a specific THEOLOGICAL belief about salvation in order to be consider tolerant in terms of PUBLIC life.

    Great point. That’s the same thing that happened with MSM coverage of the recent Pew Forum question on salvation.


  • Stephen A.

    I thank David Buckna for posting that Larry King interview with Ventura.

    I was kind of dumbstruck when I heard the open God-mocking tone of the interview, which King went along with by asking if he’d change his mind if God spoke to him “before 5 p.m. on Tuesday,” etc.

    Also, I find the continued mocking of Bush’s “talks” with God to be troubling in the media and by political pundits. Ummm, the man PRAYS, just like billions of other Christians, and Muslims and Jews (and apparently about a good portion of all atheists, according to that Pew Forum poll!) Why is praying and being guided by God acceptable fodder here for people in the media?

    Obama has said that HE prays, too, and that he would want to do “God’s Work” here on earth. Anyone mocking that? I wonder why? It seems more Theocratic than what Bush has EVER said.

  • Michael

    Should we also expect the press to examine McCain’s embrace of the Southern Baptist Convention and its doctrinal and ideological stances? Or is it only Obama’s faith that is put under a microscope? Is the fact that McCain seems totally ill-at-ease talking about his Baptist faith a story worth equal examination?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Additional coverage of McCain’s flock or sort-of flock is MORE THAN justified. We have kind of been crying out for that here from time to time.

    This is a case where the competing Baptist wire services, left of center and right of center, have been doing the best job of adding new information.

    That would be Associated Baptist Press: http://www.abpnews.com

    And then Baptist Press: http://www.baptistpress.com

    You can search for McCain, but also for “North Phoenix Baptist Church” or the pastor “Dan Yeary.”

    As with Obama, additional coverage would hurt McCain with some voters and help him with others. That’s the world we live in today.

  • Stephen A.

    I strongly echo and endorse Michael’s call for an examination of McCain’s faith by the print, online and broadcast media. I’ve said here before that it’s grossly one-sided and unfair to give him a “pass” while picking apart every theological nuance in religious statements and choices that Obama has made in his life.

    And while microscopic examinations of candidates’ faiths are not mandated by the Constitution or any other rule, it is a fact of life and is, in part, driven by popular demand by religious people who want to know more about a candidate’s faith before casting a ballot.

    The Baptist media may have started this examination, but the MSM must step up to the plate.

  • Dave

    Terry (#17) commented about Sen Obama’s mother:

    It sounds like she observed all kinds of faiths and rites.

    Among neoPagans a person like that would be called “eclectic.”

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