Obama Religious Biography
In His Own Words
''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.''
(June 2007 speech
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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'
Obama answers questions from religious leaders at a
faith and values forum at George Washington University on
June 4, 2007.
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
Barack Obama's father and mother in an undated photo.
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 TheAudacity 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
In 1985, Obama moved to Chicago to work for the faith-based Developing Communities Project. As Obama explained in his June 2007 speech at the United Church of Christ General Synod:
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.
In this March 10, 2005 file photo from Trinity United Church of
Christ in Chicago, Obama poses with the church's pastor, the
Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
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 speaks during a service at Brown Chapel African
Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma, Ala., commemorating the
1965 Selma-Montgomery voting rights march.
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