Yes Obama Can! Talk About God

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My column from last week about religion-related questions I'd ask Mitt Romney produced a bit of response. Among my favorite comments was one that included this:

"Name one other presidential candidate you have ask questions of their religion? Have you ask Obama about Black Liberation Theology? Leiberman about how being Jewish will inform his relationship to the middle east?"

The reason I liked it so much is that, in 2000, I had the privilege of spending 22 minutes alone with Lieberman, where I asked him about how his faith informed his governance. And four years ago, I spent a ton 'o time analyzing the theology of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and writing about Barack Obama's religion.

It's a fair point, however, that I should write about the Democrat that is almost certainly to face Romney in November. So I'll get to that presently.

But also in fairness, I'd like point out exactly what I did last week -- and why the situations of Romney and Obama vis-à-vis religion are not particularly parallel.

I did not suggest that Romney be asked to explain Mormon doctrine, nor was I interested in any aspects of Mormon theology regarding God, Jesus, the afterlife or the like. I listed official Mormon doctrines that could have an impact on secular governance. And I asked whether Romney's understandings of those doctrines informed his policy positions.

The reason I felt particularly justified in posing those questions is why the situations of Romney and Obama are not parallel.

For a decade, Romney was a member of the clergy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He was ward bishop and stake president. (And thank you to the many Mormon readers who pointed out my dumb inversion last week of the responsibilities of those two positions.) As such he was a recognized authority, expected to understand and agree with official church doctrine and to apply it while working with members of his congregations.

I would only ask these kinds of questions to someone for whom religion is a central part of their public persona. Dick Cheney, for instance, is Methodist but never much talked about it. So it isn't politically relevant. His former boss, however, famously said that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher.

I count it a signal failure of the national media that candidate George W. Bush was not queried sharply and repeatedly to explain how his understanding of the political philosophy of Jesus would inform his governance.

President Obama, like his predecessor, has made his faith a key element in his public persona. By contrast to Romney, however, Obama was a guy in the pew, free to listen and agree or not with what he heard. He has never claimed particular expertise with religion. And has rejected narrow acceptance of Christian doctrine. A more parallel set of questions for Obama would be about Constitutional law, since he was a law school professor in that subject.

But Obama has been speaking and writing about his faith and its effect on him since before he was a senator and through the last campaign and his presidency. Whether or not people are satisfied with -- or even believe -- what he's said is one thing. But only the willfully ignorant or dishonest can claim that he's not been asked questions and given answers about how his understanding of his Christian faith has informed his approach to governance.

What has he said? There's no quick reply to that. So if you're actually interested, strap yourself in and I'll provide some highlights and some links to more complete accounts. Bring some refreshments. We will be here a while.

On the one hand, among the oldest and most complete texts are Obama's two memoirs. Dreams From My Father has a long account of his journey of faith -- from the child and grandchild of people who were indifferent or hostile to organized religion to crying in the pew of a Chicago church. The Audacity of Hope has an entire chapter titled, simply "Faith."

But for me, the uber-source is a remarkable interview Obama gave in 2004, when he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate and long before he was even whispered about as presidential timber.

He sat down with Cathleen Falsani, then a religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She did a news story off the interview at the time. Later, when Obama became a bit more important than a mere senate candidate, Falsani posted the entire transcript of the interview on her own website. You can read it here.

Here's how Obama explained his approach to his faith back then:

"I am a Christian. So, I have a deep faith. So I draw from the Christian faith. On the other hand, I was born in Hawaii where obviously there are a lot of Eastern influences. I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, between the ages of six and 10. My father was from Kenya, and although he was probably most accurately labeled an agnostic, his father was Muslim. And I'd say, probably, intellectually I've drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith."

And here is how he explains his attitude toward specific doctrines:

"I'm a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it's best comes with a big dose of doubt. I'm suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding."

And here is where he starts to explain how his understanding of his faith helps inform his ideas about governance:

"I think it's perfectly consistent to say that I want my government to be operating for all faiths and all peoples, including atheists and agnostics, while also insisting that there are values that inform my politics that are appropriate to talk about... I can give religious expression to that. I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper, we are all children of God. Or I can express it in secular terms. But the basic premise remains the same."

For the next eight years, he's come back to the same basic themes: That he's motivated by his understanding of the Christian social gospel as an inspiration for his personal service and as a guide for the kinds of policies that he pursues. But he rejects narrow and sure interpretations of religion. And he's careful to say that government policy must not be narrowly tailored for any faith or none.

Four years ago, the specifics of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago became a huge part of the presidential campaign. Obama's friend and pastor, Rev. Wright, became a huge part of the campaign because of sound bites of a particular sermon titled "Confusing God and government" that he'd given many times all over the country. Based on the sound bites, it quickly became known as the "God Damn America" sermon.

I listened to the whole thing and did a couple of detailed pieces about it. Here's one that has lots of quotes. And here's one that puts it in context with the history of African-Americans and the black church.

Purely as a matter of theology, those who object to the sermon likely don't think much of the biblical texts of Jeremiah, Isaiah and other prophets. Wright lists a long set of what he counts as national sins and suggests that a nation that sins without repentance deserves to be condemned -- damned -- by God. As I wrote back then, when a Christian pastor says "God damn" from the pulpit, it's a pretty safe bet that he's not simply uttering an epithet.

As a matter of history, Wright's list of putative sins include examples that are as bogus as birtherism. He claimed that AIDS and crack cocaine were government-produced plots aimed at blacks. That the U.S. government knew about the Pearl Harbor attack before it happened.

But other items on his list are true: The Vietnam war was justified on a pretext and the government lied about bombing Cambodia. The CIA helped the South African apartheid government jail Nelson Mandela. The founders of America refused to give full rights to blacks and women.

Obama was hammered with questions about Wright. He gave a remarkable speech repudiating the racism of some of Wright's sermons:

"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy and, in some cases, pain. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -- just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed. But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial...

"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow..."

And after Wright told the media that Obama was playing politics, Obama held a news conference where he repudiated Wright personally.

"His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church."

What exactly did Obama get out of Wright and his church to begin with? Long before the presidential run, he wrote about it in his first memoir. There was something in that church, Obama wrote, that was both particular to the black experience but universal and connecting with the larger Christian faith:

"And in that single note -- hope! -- I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones.

"Those stories -- of survival, and freedom, and hope -- became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shamed about, memories more accessible than those of ancient Egypt, memories that all people might study and cherish -- and with which we could start to rebuild.

"And if a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams."

That's what Obama said he took from Wright's message. Believe it or don't.

In 2006, he gave a speech where he explained how he understands the relationship of American law to moral and religious standards:

"Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Let's jump to Obama's inaugural:

"We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

In 2008, Obama was asked how he can reconcile his position on same-sex civil unions with what some Christians say is a clear Biblical position against homosexuality. His reply:

"If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans."

Here's a quote from a 2009 speech that he builds directly on one of Jesus' parables to justify his proposed economic policies:

"Now, there's a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when 'the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.'

"It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity -- a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad."

Here's an interesting quote from a 2010 news conference where he directly addresses how important his Christian faith is in informing his policy decisions:

"And I will do everything that I can as long as I am President of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation. And as somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise. But I'm also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religion, even if they don't subscribe to the exact same notions that I do, and that they are still good people, and they are my neighbors and they are my friends, and they are fighting alongside us in our battles."

Now we'll jump to a series of quotes from prayer breakfasts. He's regularly attended the annual prayer breakfast that presidents have been attending for more than four decades. He instituted a separate prayer breakfast now held before Easter. And I found a quote from an event I didn't even know about: the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast.

Here's a quote from the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast where he links his understanding of his faith to civility, environmental protection and immigration policy:

"Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility. That begins with stepping out of our comfort zones in an effort to bridge divisions. We see that in many conservative pastors who are helping lead the way to fix our broken immigration system. It's not what would be expected from them, and yet they recognize, in those immigrant families, the face of God.

"We see that in the evangelical leaders who are rallying their congregations to protect our planet. We see it in the increasing recognition among progressives that government can't solve all of our problems, and that talking about values like responsible fatherhood and healthy marriage are integral to any anti-poverty agenda. Stretching out of our dogmas, our prescribed roles along the political spectrum, that can help us regain a sense of civility."

Here's the quote from the 2011 National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast:

"So, yes, immigration reform is a moral imperative, and so it's worth seeking greater understanding from our faith. As it is written in the Book of Deuteronomy, 'Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' To me, that verse is a call to show empathy to our brothers and our sisters; to try and recognize ourselves in one another.

"And it's especially important that we try to do that when it comes to immigration -- because this is a subject that can expose raw feelings and feed our fears of change."

And from the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast, where he discusses the idea that tax rates should be raised for the wealthy:

"For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus's teaching that for unto whom much is given, much shall be required...

"It's also about the biblical call to care for the least of these -- for the poor; for those at the margins of our society.

"To answer the responsibility we're given in Proverbs to 'Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.' And for others, it may reflect the Jewish belief that the highest form of charity is to do our part to help others stand on their own.

"Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother's keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need. These values are old. They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many non-believers. And they are values that have always made this country great -- when we live up to them; when we don't just give lip service to them; when we don't just talk about them one day a year. And they're the ones that have defined my own faith journey."

So to recap:

Based on Obama's own words, he's a man who took a journey of faith. From someone broadly if vaguely interested in spirituality to a specific and Christian understanding of his role in society and the world. He said that both the specific message about black history and the broader Christian gospel touched him at the black Chicago church where he became a Christian. During the last campaign, he publicly rejected the racist statements made by his friend and former pastor.

He does not claim special expertise or even adherence to the letter of any particular Christian doctrine -- saying that his faith is marked by doubt and questions. But he says that his faith is an important tool for him as he makes policy decisions -- decisions that nonetheless must also be understood and be justifiable to people of different faiths or no religion.

He has cited both Jewish and Christian scriptures as helping shape his ideas, with an apparent particular fondness for the Sermon on the Mount. He's used it in connection with discussions of civility, tax policy, immigration, and health care reform.

Do you want more? There's a lot more you can search out and read. I particularly commend his memoirs to your attention.

Do you find his exegesis or his applications to be inappropriate or unconvincing? That's up to you. I'm certainly taking no position one way or the other.

But there can be no question that Obama has spoken frequently -- more frequently than some of his less religious supporters would like, in fact -- about how his understanding of his faith informs his approach to governance.

As I said last week, I think it is past time for Romney to do likewise.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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