Obama’s shared morality

obama-flyerOne of the more interesting articles I’ve read on Obama’s religious views — and one that would have been welcome during the campaign — was Eli Saslow’s piece in the Washington Post on Sunday titled “Obama’s Path to Faith Was Eclectic.”

The article has far too many unsourced statements for my taste, but I sympathize with the difficulties of getting people to speak on the record or speak succinctly about the topic.

The reporter basically says that for Obama, religion’s biggest benefits are political. He also says that Obama embodies a syncretized religion that boils all doctrine down to a shared morality:

For the president-elect, religion has always been less about theology than the power God inspires in communities that worship Him, friends and advisers said. It has been more than three months since he sat through a Sunday church service and at least five years since he attended regularly, but during the transition, Obama has spoken to religious leaders almost daily. They said Obama calls to seek advice, but rarely is it spiritual. Instead, he asks how to mobilize faith-based communities behind his administration.

Obama grew up the son of an atheist, spent two formative years in a predominantly Muslim school, worked out of an office in a Catholic rectory, accepted Jesus at a traditionally black church and married the cousin of a Chicago area rabbi. His personal journey to faith is a modern amalgamation that friends expect to be reflected not just at his inauguration but in his governing: Obama will reach out to a diverse set of leaders and try to join them in unconventional ways, unconcerned about their theological and political differences. . . .

Now, as Obama prepares for the presidency, he has called on dozens of religious leaders to transcend their doctrinal or sectarian differences and focus instead on their common morality. It’s that belief in universal truths that is the basis of Obama’s faith, advisers said. He has devoted himself to what he considers God’s truth and thereby internalized the golden rule.

The ultimate civil religion president, perhaps? This story is fascinating but it would be nice to have more than just the narrative provided by the reporter.

It also has some other problems. Check out the lede:

The presidential inauguration ceremony on Tuesday will begin and end with prayers from two men whom Barack Obama considers role models, advisers and dear friends. One, Joseph Lowery, is an 87-year-old black liberal Methodist from the Deep South who spent his career fighting for civil rights. The other, Rick Warren, is a 54-year-old white conservative evangelical from Southern California who fights same-sex unions.

Um, I realize that a certain segment of the population would like to reduce Warren to a man who has done nothing other than fight same-sex unions. In fact, Rick Warren opposes the sanctioning of same-sex marriage, not same-sex unions. There’s a difference. Besides, opposition to same-sex marriage is something he shares with the president-elect. Obama’s stated position is that he opposes same-sex marriage. And most importantly, opposition to same-sex marriage is hardly the defining point of Warren’s ministry.

This isn’t a huge religion point, but there’s also a problem here:

As an undergraduate student at Columbia University, Obama read some basic theological texts and felt drawn to Sunday morning services at predominantly black churches in Harlem. When he interviewed in 1985 for a community-organizing position on the South Side of Chicago that required working with churches, it was religion that persuaded him to take the job.

“That was the one aspect that he was really drawn to and wanted to be a part of,” said Jerry Kellman, who hired Obama for a salary of less than $10,000.

It’s the incredible shrinking salary. Obama claimed it was actually $12,000 dollars plus a car (comparable to mid-$20s in current money) and, as Byron York reported in National Review last summer:

“That was a training salary,” Kellman told me when I asked about the $12,000 salary. “If someone did OK, they’d make more. After three or four months, he was up to $20,000, and after three years he was probably making $35,000 or so.”

Obama certainly wasn’t choosing a a high-paying job but there’s no reason to exaggerate the actual salary.

I also found this paragraph a bit confusing:

Obama could talk capably about some religious theory — he studied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith, Catholic novelist Graham Greene and Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He never spoke in terms of experiencing an awakening, Kellman said. But what Obama lacked in spiritual nuance he compensated for in his reverence for the church’s import in history.

interfaithIs it really lacking in nuance to not speak in one particular fashion of personal testimony? Some might say the opposite is true. Here the reporter says it again:

A few years later, Obama returned to Chicago from Harvard Law School to be baptized at Trinity United Church of Christ, with a predominantly black congregation on the South Side led by Wright. Obama had come to realize, he wrote in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” that the church “had to serve as the center of the community’s political, economic, and social as well as spiritual life.” He described his baptism not as an epiphany but as a conscious choice.

While it’s nice to see Obama’s actual words about the church as political center, and it’s something that helps substantiate the piece, I’m not sure that the options for how you describe baptism are limited to “epiphany” or “conscious choice.” As a Lutheran, we don’t refer to baptism as a thing you choose but neither would we describe it as an epiphany.

Anyway, the article’s discussion of how Obama viewed churches through a political organizing prism is something I would have liked to see during the campaign. Still, as we prepare for his presidency, it’s an interesting angle to see explored. The article is chock full of details, too. It’s clear the reporter put a lot of time and effort into the piece.

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  • R.S.Newark

    The problem is this: since the items addressed are, clearly as you observe, cloudy poorly conceived and more, misleading, then it is only marginaly possible to make sense or nonsense of them. Try writing about them is being ignorant and lacking responsibility. treating them as you do in such a charitibly christain manner does no one any real good.


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