Religion and Politics ’08: Barack Obama
United Church of Christ
Harvard Law School, J.D., 1991
Columbia University, B.A., 1983
Formally declared candidacy Feb. 10, 2007. Elected president Nov. 4, 2008
U.S. Senator from Illinois, 2005-present
Illinois State Senator, 1997-2004
Lecturer, University of Chicago Law School, 1993-2004
Attorney, Miner Barnhill & Galland, 1993-2004
Spouse: Michelle Obama
Children: Malia Ann Obama, Sasha Obama
The profile you are viewing is from the 2008 presidential race. To see profiles from the 2012 presidential race, please go to Religion & Politics 2012.
A Skeptic Embraces Faith on Chicago’s South Side
Obama Sees Religion as Spur for Progressive Social Change
Last updated Nov. 6, 2008
Although his given name means “blessed” in both Swahili and Arabic, president Barack Obama was not raised in a particularly religious household. So it was somewhat surprising when, in 1985, two years after graduating from Columbia University in New York City, Obama, then a self-described skeptic, went to work for a faith-based community organizing group in Chicago. Obama was drawn to the motivating component of faith, seeing the civil rights movement as evidence of religion’s potential to spur social change. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that in the course of his work he came to realize that “I had no community or shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs.” He decided that, despite significant doubts, he could embrace Christianity as it was presented to him in a dynamic black church on Chicago’s South Side.
“It was because of these newfound understandings — that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved — that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized,” Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope. “It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”
It was in Chicago that the U.S. senator from Illinois and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate established his spiritual roots and began to develop his unabashedly progressive philosophy of how religion can intersect with public life for the betterment of the common good. The religious turning point Obama experienced in Chicago also provides a spiritual narrative that many voters find appealing in their presidential candidates. According to an August 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, more than seven-in-ten Americans (72%) agree it is important that a president have strong religious beliefs; this is virtually unchanged from recent years. However, Democrats and independents are less likely than Republicans to say they completely agree with this view. Slightly more than one-in-four Democrats (27%) and independents (27%) completely agree it is important that a president have strong religious beliefs, compared with more than four-in-ten Republicans (45%).
During the 2008 presidential horserace, Obama was far more willing to speak publicly about his faith and the positive impact religion can have on public life than was the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who told journalists at a 2007 Pew Forum event that he could have done a better job explaining his faith. At the same time, Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, appeared less comfortable talking publicly about faith than his GOP predecessor, George W. Bush, who made religious language a hallmark of his campaigns and presidency.
A Democrat Targets ‘People of Faith’
At a 2006 Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference, Obama said that the “fear of getting ‘preachy’” may have led some on the political left “to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.” He described himself as “somebody who really has insisted that the Democratic Party reach out to people of faith.”
In the 2008 election, Obama made a concerted effort to reach out to evangelical Christians and other people of faith who tended to vote Republican in past presidential elections. Obama’s outreach may have paid off on Election Day, according to a Pew Forum analysis of early exit polls. Among nearly every religious group, Obama received equal or higher levels of support compared with support for Kerry in 2004. Still, a sizeable gap persisted between the support Obama received from white evangelical Protestants and his support among the religiously unaffiliated.
Similarly, a sizeable gap existed between those who attend religious services regularly and those who attend less often. Fully 43% of weekly churchgoers voted for Obama, as did 67% of those who never attend worship services, for an “attendance gap” of 24 points. By comparison, 39% of weekly churchgoers voted for Kerry in 2004, compared with 62% of those who never attend religious services, for a similar attendance gap of 23 points.
While Obama tried to emphasize during the campaign the positive role religion can play in public life, a controversy surrounding his longtime pastor and the man who brought him to faith, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., underscored how religion can be a double-edged sword for a candidate.
When video clips of Wright’s most controversial sermons were posted online and aired repeatedly on cable television in March 2008, Obama tried respectfully to distance himself from the man whose sermon “The Audacity to Hope” was the inspiration for both the title of Obama’s second book and his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In a March 18, 2008 speech, Obama called Wright’s comments “divisive” and “racially charged” but said he could “no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother.” He then placed the pastor’s comments in the context of the black church tradition and segued to a broader discussion of race relations in America.
However, Wright continued to speak publicly about some of his most provocative theories, including the allegation that the U.S. government may have planted AIDS in the black community and the assertion that the U.S. may have brought the 9/11 attacks on itself, saying, “You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you.” Obama then denounced Wright’s comments and ultimately resigned from his 20-year membership with the church.
At a news conference on May 31, 2008, Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, made the decision to leave the church with sadness because “Trinity was where I found Jesus Christ, where we were married, where our children were baptized.” He said his family would look for another church to join but “probably won’t make any firm decision on this until January, when we know what our lives are going to be like.” He added, “My faith is not contingent on the particular church that I belong to.”
Despite the media attention generated by the Wright controversy and Obama’s many references to his Christian faith, a June 2008 Pew Research Center survey found that only slightly more than half of voters (57%) correctly identified Obama as Christian, while about one-in-ten (12%) thought he is Muslim, virtually unchanged from 10% in March 2008. It was a misperception Obama’s campaign tried to combat. For example, Obama’s campaign website devoted a page to the issue with the headline, “Obama Has Never Been a Muslim, And Is a Committed Christian.” Prior to the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26, 2008, the Obama campaign distributed brochures titled “Committed Christian,” featuring a photograph of Obama at a pulpit in front of a large cross.
“It’s not just that I’m a Christian and some of these e-mails are misinforming people,” Obama said in April 2008. “They’re also feeding on anti-Muslim sentiment and that’s also wrong. We don’t have a religious test in this country. I want to make sure that nobody gets hoodwinked and if anybody gets that information, make sure to correct it.”
Raised Among Many Religions
Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was a prominent Kenyan farmer, a Luo tribe elder and a medicine man. Obama’s father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., was also born in a village in Kenya, where he was raised a Muslim. He was selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend the University of Hawaii as the first African student there. By the time he met and married Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, an 18-year-old university student, he was an atheist. In a chapter in The Audacity of Hope titled “Faith,” Obama wrote that his father believed “religion to be so much superstition, like the mumbo-jumbo of witch doctors that he had witnessed in the Kenyan villages of his youth.”
Obama’s father accepted a scholarship to Harvard University to pursue his doctorate without the resources to take his new family with him. Obama was 2 years old when his parents divorced. Although he and his father communicated through letters, Obama saw him only one other time, at age 10. Obama’s father died in a car accident in 1982, when Obama was 21 years old.
In a June 2007 keynote address at the annual United Church of Christ General Synod, Obama described his mother, a Kansas native who became an anthropologist, as “one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew. She had this enormous capacity for wonder, and lived by the Golden Rule. But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution.” In The Audacity of Hope, Obama added, “For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness.”
Obama’s mother married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian businessman and non-practicing Muslim, and the family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, when Obama was 6 years old. There, he attended a Catholic private school and later a predominantly Muslim public school. At an April 2008 forum for the Democratic presidential primary candidates that focused on the topic of faith and values, Obama said, “The brand of Islam that was being practiced in Indonesia at the time was a very tolerant Islam,” which “taught me … that Islam can be compatible with the modern world.”
When Obama was 10 years old, he returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, while his mother — who wanted him to receive an American education — remained in Indonesia. Obama has written that his grandmother was raised with a “straight-backed form of Methodism that valued reason over passion and temperance over both,” while his grandfather came from a family of “decent, God-fearing Baptists.” But neither grandparent continued to practice his or her childhood faith. In his 1995 book, Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote that “Gramps” briefly enrolled the family in a local Unitarian Universalist congregation because, in his grandfather’s words, ” ‘It’s like you get five religions in one.’ ” In The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that “religious faith never really took root in their [his grandparents'] hearts.”
Both grandparents were proud when Obama, then known as “Barry” Obama, was accepted to a prestigious private high school, Punahou School, founded by missionaries in 1841. Obama graduated in 1979.
Finding Faith in Chicago
It’s around this time that some pastors I was working with came up to me and asked if I was a member of a church. “If you’re organizing churches,” they said, “it might be helpful if you went to church once in a while.” And I thought, “Well, I guess that makes sense.”
So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard [the] Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
Trinity, which describes itself as “unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian,” embraces black liberation theology. Influenced by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, black liberation theology advocates a black-centered Christianity focused on eradicating racism and poverty. At the April 2008 candidates’ forum on faith and values, Obama said he was attracted to Trinity and to Wright’s sermons because they “spoke directly to the social gospel, the need to act and not just to sit in the pews.”
While at Harvard Law School (1988-1991), Obama listened to recordings of Wright’s sermons. After law school, Obama returned to Chicago and reconnected with the church. Wright was the first person Obama thanked when he won his U.S. Senate seat in 2004.
Religion and Public Life
Obama has challenged some on the political left who advocate a strict secularism in public life. At the June 2006 Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference, Obama said that “the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical — if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.”
In his 2007 address at the United Church of Christ General Synod, Obama gave an overview of how religion has been a part of American political history, reminding the audience that “men and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women’s rights — and above all, abolition.”
“So doing the Lord’s work,” Obama added later in the speech, “is a thread that’s run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life. Imagine [President] Lincoln’s Second Inaugural [Address] without its reference to ‘the judgments of the Lord.’ Or [Martin Luther] King’s ‘I Have a Dream‘ speech without its reference to ‘all of God’s children.’ Or President Kennedy’s Inaugural [Address] without the words, ‘here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.’ At each of these junctures, by summoning a higher truth and embracing a universal faith, our leaders inspired ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.”
Obama’s faith has inspired both his religious life and public life. More than once, he has told the story of the pivotal period in his life when he came to faith on Chicago’s South Side. “It was powerful for me,” he told a ChicagoSun-Times reporter in a 2004 interview, describing the experience, “because it not only confirmed my faith, it not only gave shape to my faith, but I think, also, allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.”
This religious biography was researched and written by Anne Farris, a Washington-based journalist, and Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Photo credits: AP, Getty Images
On the Issues
Obama supports abortion rights. On Jan. 23, during his first week as president, Obama signed an executive order restoring federal funding for international organizations that perform or promote abortions in foreign countries. During the October 15, 2008 presidential debate, Obama expressed a willingness to support a ban on late-term abortions “as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health and life.” During an April 2007 Democratic debate, Obama said, “I trust women to make these decisions in conjunction with their doctors and their families and their clergy.” At an April 2008 candidates’ forum on faith and compassion, Obama said that “there is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down.” To reduce abortions, Obama advocates a comprehensive sex-education program in which both abstinence and contraception are priorities. He also says, “we should make sure that adoption is an option.”Compare McCain and Obama
Church and State
Obama says he believes in the importance of the separation of church and state but has said that a “sense of proportion” should guide how it is enforced. He says that the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance and voluntary student prayer groups on school property are two examples where conflict between church and state has been alleged but should be less strictly policed. At an April 2008 candidates’ forum on faith and compassion, he described the issue as “a false debate” and challenged Democrats to “get in church, reach out to evangelicals [and] link faith with the work that we do.” He says that while both non-religious and religious people have a right to the public square, “those of us of religious faith [have to] translate our language into a universal language that can appeal to everybody.”Compare McCain and Obama
Obama has written that he thinks the death penalty “does little to deter crime.” He supports capital punishment in cases in which “the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage.” While a state senator, Obama pushed for reform of the Illinois capital punishment system and authored a bill to mandate the videotaping of interrogations and confessions. Obama disagreed with the June 25, 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing the execution of child rapists. Compare McCain and Obama
In a February 2008 interview Obama said he supports charter schools “as a way to foster competition in the public school system,” and later he said he would double federal funding for charter schools if elected president. During the third presidential debate Obama said he does not support the use of government vouchers to attend private schools “because the data doesn’t show that it actually solves the problem.” In an April forum with other Democratic candidates, Obama said he believes in both evolution and the biblical story of creation and does not “think science generally is incompatible with Christian faith.” Compare McCain and Obama
Obama opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “because it would irreversibly damage a protected national wildlife refuge without creating sufficient oil supplies to meaningfully affect the global market price,” but has said he would consider using offshore drilling as part of a “comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices.” He says that religion can encourage people to make sacrifices, and he hopes to rally other countries around the “importance of us being good stewards of the land.” In October 2007, Obama proposed an energy plan that would require polluters to pay for their emissions via a “cap and trade” system and that would implement a national carbon emissions cap. In the U.S. Senate, Obama has co-sponsored the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act to cap emissions from industrial plants and oil refineries. He supported a January 2007 meeting of a group of evangelicals and climate scientists to advocate measures to prevent global warming. Obama has also called for stricter restrictions on the amount of carbon in fuels and tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars. He plans to allocate $150 billion over the next 10 years to create a “green energy sector” that would support up to five million new jobs. Compare McCain and Obama
In a July 2008 speech, Obama announced a plan to establish a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It would expand upon President Bush’s faith-based initiative, primarily by allocating $500 million per year for summer learning camps that would aim to narrow the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students. Under Obama’s plan, groups receiving federal funding would not be allowed to take religion into account in hiring. Compare McCain and Obama
Obama says that he personally believes that “marriage is between a man and a woman” but also says that “equality is a moral imperative” for gay and lesbian Americans. He advocates the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) because “federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does.” He supports granting civil unions for gay couples, and in 2006 he opposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In March 2007, Obama initially avoided answering questions about a controversial statement by a U.S. general that “homosexual acts” are “immoral,” but Obama later told CNN’s Larry King, “I don’t think that homosexuals are immoral any more than I think heterosexuals are immoral.” Compare McCain and Obama
When he formally declared his run for the presidency, Obama said his goal was to implement universal health care, or government health insurance for all Americans, by 2012 or “the end of the first term of the next president.” He has called “belief in universal health” care one of the “core values” of the Democratic Party. Obama proposes a national health care plan, similar to that available to federal employees, that would allow individuals and businesses to buy health care. The plan would mandate coverage for children but not for adults and would be funded in part by projected revenue from allowing President Bush’s tax cuts to expire. Compare McCain and Obama
Obama says that “the time to fix our broken immigration system is now.” He supports reform that provides “stronger enforcement on the border” by adding personnel, infrastructure and technology. To remove the incentives for people to enter the country illegally, he wants to “crack down on employers that hire undocumented immigrants.” To help businesses know who they are hiring, Obama supports a congressional proposal that would create a new employment eligibility verification system so employers can verify that their employees are legally eligible to work in the U.S. He says he will “not support any bill that does not provide [an] earned path to citizenship for the undocumented population.” He has been a proponent of guest-worker programs that first offer available jobs to American workers.Compare McCain and Obama
Obama was an opponent of the war effort as an Illinois state senator, arguing that the fight in Afghanistan should be finished before the U.S. embarked on a “dumb” and “rash” war. He campaigned against the war in his 2004 U.S. Senate bid. In his presidential campaign, he made his opposition to the war a central theme, telling voters that “they should ask themselves: Who got the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War right, and who got it wrong?” During his campaign, Obama said he would remove one to two combat brigades each month and have all U.S. combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office. Compare McCain and Obama
In the Illinois Senate, Obama helped author the state earned income tax credit, which provided tax cuts for low-income families. In September 2007, Obama unveiled a plan to cut taxes for the middle class and senior citizens by eliminating corporate loopholes and tax breaks. He said that if elected president, he would aim to create 20 “Promise Neighborhoods,” choosing places that have high levels of poverty and crime and low levels of academic achievement. In those neighborhoods, “a full network of services” will be provided “from birth to college.” In The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes what he calls America’s “empathy deficit,” writing that a “stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society.” Obama is a U.S. Senate co-sponsor of the Global Poverty Act, which calls on the president to develop a comprehensive agenda to cut extreme global poverty in half by 2015. He has supported bills increasing the minimum wage. Compare McCain and Obama
Stem Cell Research
Obama supports relaxing federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. He voted for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which was vetoed by President Bush. The bill would have allowed federal funding to be used for research on stem cell lines obtained from discarded human embryos originally created for fertility treatments. Compare McCain and Obama