Obama’s Faith: A Journey

This piece by Dan Gilgoff, in some ways sharpens a recent post of mine where I said the President’s theology/faith was more along the line of an African American liberation theology. Gilgoff and those he interviews are suggesting his faith is becoming more evangelical and personal.

Welcome to the intense, out-of-the-box and widely misunderstood religious life of President Barack Obama.

Though he famously left his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the year he was elected to the presidency, a handful of spiritual advisers close to Obama say that his time in office has significantly deepened his faith.

Stephen Mansfield, a former Christian pastor who wrote the book “The Faith of Barack Obama,” goes so far to say that Obama has experienced a spiritual transformation.

“I think we do have at heart a new man, so to speak,” says Mansfield, who worked closely with the White House and with some Obama religious advisers on his book. “He has undergone a pretty significant personal religious change in his first term.”

Obama’s faith advisers say Mansfield goes a step too far, though they acknowledge that when it comes to his faith, Obama has changed.

“There is a deepening development in his relationship with God,” says Joel Hunter, a Florida-based pastor who has been in touch with Obama nearly every week since he took office. “He chooses to stay faithful in daily habits of study and prayer and consistent times of interchange with spiritual leaders.”

“I am not sure he did that before he came to the presidency.”

Whether or not Obama has been spiritually “reborn” in the evangelical sense, his spiritual counselors say the president’s faith has helped shape his first term in ways that haven’t been appreciated by voters or the news media.

And they say the presidency is bringing Obama to a new place in his faith – building on a system of belief and practice that helped bring him to the White House in the first place….

But Hunter, the president’s closest spiritual counselor, says Obama has technically been a born-again Christian for more than 25 years, since accepting Jesus at Wright’s Chicago church in the 1980s.

But it’s in the last four years that the president has become more evangelical in his habits.

He now begins each morning reading Christian devotionals on his Blackberry….

Some of Obama’s spiritual counselors credit Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, with leading Obama to a more evangelical-flavored Christianity. Caldwell calls him the president’s personal pastor.

A former associate pastor at a Pentecostal church in Boston, DuBois is the one responsible for sending Obama Scriptures and scriptural meditations five days a week; Hunter does it on the other two days.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Bobby B.

    I suppose this may be true, but the evidence for it is very thin. It may true as the President getting drafted by the Chicago Bulls if he doesn’t win in November, after all he has been spending a little court time with some pro players.

  • Samuel

    I’m waiting for those who use his pro-choice stance to discredit his faith in 3….2….

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    It seems like the focus is on one’s sprituality. I am curious, does anyone know how often Obama or Romney attend church or a place ow public worship? I think this can be revealing as well.

  • Sue

    What, really, do you know about his faith, Bobby? You think you know his “fruit” from political news? Because he has a different view on abortion and gay marriage? I consider the way in which he has calmly chosen to turn the other cheek in the face of so many disgusting things said about him by people who hate him (but never met him) to be noteworthy and Christlike – for starters. While I disagree with him profoundly in the pro-choice issue, I recognize that is nit the only issue before us (and not even the most important). But even if it were, it’s not enough reason to call his salvation into question when he testifies to having put his faith in Christ as savior and Lord.

  • http://www.laleocafe.com Jan Puterbaugh

    I personally know Dr. Joel Hunter and am proud to say that as a pastor (he is also a republican, by the way), he is doing what is right. Ministering the Gospel rather than a political agenda. Bobby, the only evidence I need is for someone to profess their faith. It’s a shame that you would judge the President Obama’s faith, though he has publically professed his. I guess as far as it goes then…….your faith would be in question too as well as mine.

  • C.J.W.

    Saying you are Christian, but ignoring the entire biblical message, is not being Christian. Focusing on social justice is only part of the biblical message.

  • EricW

    I consider the way in which he has calmly chosen to turn the other cheek in the face of so many disgusting things said about him by people who hate him (but never met him)

    Unlike the always Christ-like and never hateful or disgusting or false things he himself has said about other people.

    And some of the “disgusting” things that have been said about him have been by people who have indeed met him: http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/father-slain-seal-who-made-decision-not-save-my-son_657782.html

    Glad to hear he’s praying and reading the Scriptures, though.

  • lindal

    It seems to me one’s faith is reflected in one’ s actions. I must say there appears to be a great discrepancy between the two. I do pray that God would lead our President.

  • Jordan L.

    I appreciate reading different evaluations of the President’s faith and I have personally come to an understanding that there are more issues than just gay marriage and abortion – such as care for the environment, social justice for the poor and racially abused, etc.

    I know someone is likely to slam me for bringing this up, but I am just looking for an honest answer. For someone like myself who’s understanding is that abortion is ultimately murder, how am I supposed to evaluate claims to an evangelical faith of someone like Obama? Thankfully I don’t have to judge his heart – that’s beyond my ability. But Scripture does seem to be clear that how we live and speak is an accurate reflection of our inward state.

    To state the question a different way: is there a logical and Scriptural way for me to be assured of Obama as genuinely Christian in his faith (I don’t mean in stated beliefs but in evangelical faith) while at the same time agreeing that he supports what is murder in my best comprehension?

    I know those are loaded statements, but this is the dilemma posed for those who are pro-life and I’m not sure how to state it another way. I would be very happy to receive feedback though.

  • CGC

    Hi Jordon,
    Obama may personally choose life over death when it comes to abortion but he supports a pro-choice stance because he doesn’t believe we can legislate what other people may choose to do. If we get away from the “position” of abortion and look at the practical reality, what difference has a pro-life president ever really done on this issue in any significant way? The fact is even though Romney is supposed to be pro-life and Obama pro-choice, they both will just go with the stutus quo of Roe/Wade. Even on the issue of gay marriage, Romney and Obama have both said it up to the states to decide the issue. From a practical standpoint, there is little or no real difference when it comes to how these issues work out in our society. The one place where it potentially could make a difference is the Supreme Court. But if people really look at what Supreme Court judges are nominated, it is the pro-life Presidents who are inconsistent on this issue who often put judges in who are not pro-life. It seems to me the pro-life position is more a smoke-screen to get votes than a deeply held conviction as it is for you Jordon.

  • Fish

    I feel the same way about opposition to universal health care as I do about abortion. They both kill babies, one for profit and the other for convenience. They both are indicative of deep sins within our culture. I see no moral high ground held by either party.

  • Jordan L.

    CGC,

    thanks for your response, but you didn’t answer my main question. You didn’t even address it. I think I probably agree with most of your points. I don’t consider myself a republican for many of the same reasons.

    That’s not the real issue I was trying to address though.

  • CGC

    Hi Jordon,
    Okay, I see in the second half you were asking a question of how do we know if Obama has a Christian faith or not? Well, there could be different answers on this one and different approaches (all the way to only God knows in the end). But since Obama has written a biography of his life and different things about his Christian faith, I would start there. Another is to listen to Christian ministers who work closely with the President. Do they view the President as Christian in his faith? As far as I know, by Obama’s words and what he has written and by what other Christian leaders have spoken and said, it does appear to me that Obama is a Christian. The problem is some Christians are going further and saying but “what kind of Christian” is the President? He is more a Protestest liberal kind or more of a liberation theology kind of Christian. He is not the typical conservative Evangelical kind and that is where the real rub is for many.

  • Jordan L.

    CGC,

    You are getting warmer but still cold. :-) I was asking I can reconcile my beliefs about abortion with his claims to faith. I recognize that there are all kinds of Christians, but we all draw the line somewhere.

    To put it another way, I doubt you would be willing to aknowledge the claims to faith of someone like Peter Singer who favors infanticide and euthanasia (I’m not saying he claims to be a Christian). Singer maybe hasn’t murdered anyone but we would seriously question his claims because his beliefs and commitments in life are totally at odds with the central aims of Christianity – that Christ has come and died for the weak and helpless.

    This is the hurdle I can’t get over then: that Obama openly espouses a practice which is totally contray to the core values of Christianity. It’s not that he just doesn’t want to force the issue, he has actively pushed abortion. And I’m supposed to recognize such a person as being true to Christ’s mission and the message of the cross?

    Sorry, but I am trying to listen to these other perspectives, but I just don’t get it.

  • AHH

    Joradn L. @14, while I differ with Obama on that issue (though “actively pushed abortion” isn’t accurate IMO), let’s see where that logic leads.

    Many of us would say that “pre-emptive war” is “totally contrary to the core values of Christianity”. So are we to conclude that George W. Bush is not a Christian? Was conservative Presbyterian stalwart Charles Hodge not a Christian because he defended slavery?
    Or maybe it is possible to be mistaken about some ethical issue, even a major one, and still be a Christian.

  • Kim Hampton

    I know I’m going to be the outlier here, but why is it that President Obama has to prove anything about his religious life? There is supposed to be no religious test for elective office in this country. And I am personally tired of an African American president being held to a different standard than all of the other presidents.

    That being said, President Obama falls straight in the same tradition as Howard Thurman, MLK Jr., James Cone, Delores Williams and many others; the African American liberation tradition. It looks different from white evangelicalism because it is different than white evangelicalism. And personally I’m glad that the President is not trying to convince people who are never going to be convinced that his faith is real–that he is just going about his business and letting G-d be his judge.

  • metanoia

    It all begins with life. The President has taken the most extreme position on the issue of life with his support for partial birth abortion. A disregard for life at the last stage of pregnancy would give me pause to believe that there would be a consistent ethos on a host of other “life” issues including his approach to the environment, forced redistribution a workers earnings (which is a property issue) of just about anything else. Personally I am not a one issue voter. His positions on these and several other issues would make it impossible for me to vote for him.

    As for his personal faith. The best I can say is that I’m not to judge whether he is a Christian or not, but I can judge on the basis of the fruit I see that he is not a very good one if he is.

    Fool me once . . . that one time too many.

  • Jordan L.

    AHH @15

    Thanks for the response – and I’ll admit that your argument has teeth to it. Something I’ll definitely have to think about.

    However, though examples of similar reasoning and where it would lead to (like what you provided) have been given no one has provided a RATIONALE for why I can be opposed to his views on abortion and still accept his faith claims. This is a very practical issue for me since I am a pastor. If someone held similar views on abortion but claimed to be a Christian, on what Scriptural & logical basis can I consider them to be on good grounds to be admitted to fellowship (not that I go hunting for people’s viewpoints – I don’t).

    Your examples of Bush and Hodge are good ones, but I still have to reconcile the constant theme in Scripture that ethics do matter in the Christian faith. Ben Witherington makes this very clear in his first volume on NT theology. I’m just seeking a way to be consistent.

    By the way, I do not question the a person’s ability to run a nation just because he or she doesn’t match my beliefs. I do think there is ample evidence that Obama has pushed abortion (e.g. his time in the IL senate where he pushed a bill which allows babies from botched abortions to die without receiving any care & his support of partial-birth abortion), but in other areas he probably deserves more credit than he gets.

    I am also pleased that people like Joel Hunter are engaging Obama spiritually. I agree that that should happen regardless of a person’s political or religious beliefs.

  • Meri

    I’m not sure what relevance Obama’s faith has to anything, politically speaking. From the standpoint of loving God and others, it’s encouraging to hear of a leader who appears to be growing in his faith. But I am very uncomfortable with the conversation going on here in these comments. Who are we to judge anyone, President or otherwise? Whether he is truly Christian or more specifically, truly born again, is simply not our call to make.

    I’m a firm believer in voting on the issues. I have issues with both Romney and Obama on the issues, but all this is completely separate from their faith. It’s a factor to know they both have spiritual moral guidance, but beyond that, they are just men like anyone else. They don’t answer to us, they answer to God. And we should not discriminate based on faith. God loves us when we are still sinners, so why should we not love each other?

    I fail to see why we need to know the current state of their salvation.

  • John Mark

    How do we define evangelical? I suppose emphasis on a conversion experience, maybe an emphasis on personal piety, a high view of scripture would be some markers. As for Christianity in general, we speak of faith (Abraham the model) or ‘calling upon the Lord’ or repent and be baptized, or embrace light rather than darkness, or having a faith authenticated by works are all scriptural evidences of being a Christian. Barack Obama would claim to have had some of these experiences. As I personally believe you can walk the low road and still be a Christian (the “righteous” Lot comes to mind), I can accept that President Obama really thinks his views on abortion, homosexuality, and so forth are genuinely compatible with Christian faith, even as GW Bush saw no contradiction (it would seem) between Christianity and waging war on Iraq.
    President Obama may indeed be moving towards an evangelical faith. At the same time, many evangelicals have believed the President really doesn’t like them. Would hearing Mr Obama say things to ‘make nice’ with his conservative, largely evangelical critics assuage anyone’s doubts about a growing evangelical bent to his faith?
    I am also of the opinion that though president’s need pastoral care as much as anyone, there is great danger in getting close to power. Chuck Colson’s writings point to this, as do what has been observed in the life of Billy Graham, who encountered men in the Oval Office who deeply disappointed him.

  • Bill

    May be the POTUS can comment himself. That would be refreshing. But I am not sure he could articulate it clearly.

    Having some pastor somewhere sending meditations to him is hardly a testimony of anything. How many Unitarians or Muslims or Buddhists send him meditations? How does the POTUS respond to them?

  • Bobby B.

    I am thinking that after he leaves office the President might trigger a true revival in America if he were to understand what repentance involves and then, after 5-10 years of living it, shares what he has learned. To hear such a message would certainly upset the apple cart.


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