Obama and spirituality

On a Saturday afternoon in March 2004, Cathleen Falsani, religion reporter (now religion columnist) for the Chicago Sun-Times, interviewed the then State Senator Barack Obama just a few days after he had been nominated to run for election as United States Senator for Illinois; long before the rest of the world came to know him as the elected 44th President of the United States of America.

The specific subject for discussion was Obama’s spirituality and the following is a condensed version of the transcript from that interview:

“I am Christian…[but] I was born in Hawaii where … there are a lot of Eastern influences. I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, between the ages of six and ten. My father was from Kenya, and although he was probably most accurately labelled an agnostic, his father was Muslim. And I’d say, probably, intellectually I’ve drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith.

“…I believe that there are many paths to the same place … that there is a higher power… that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend ‘race’ or culture, that move us forward, and there’s an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.

“… part of my project in life was probably to spend the first forty years of my life figuring out what I did believe – I’m 42 now – and it’s not that I had it all completely worked out, but I’m spending a lot of time now trying to apply what I believe and trying to live up to those values.

“…my mother… had as much influence on my values as anybody, [but] was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve… we moved to Indonesia. She remarried an Indonesian who… wasn’t a practising Muslim. I went to a Catholic school in a Muslim country. So I was studying the Bible and catechisms by day, and at night you’d hear the prayer call.

“So I don’t think as a child… I had a structured religious education. But my mother was a deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them. And I think her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good.

“And… that… was what I carried with me through college. I probably didn’t get … active in church activities until I moved to Chicago…in 1985… I was inspired by the Civil Rights movement and the idea that ordinary people could do extraordinary things. There was a group of churches out on the South Side of Chicago that had come together to form an organisation to try to deal with the devastation of steel plants that had closed. [They] didn’t have much money, but felt that if they formed an organisation and hired somebody to organise them to work on issues that affected their community, that it would strengthen the church and… the community.

“So they hired me for $13,000 a year. The princely sum. …I didn’t know anybody and started working with the ministers and the lay people in these churches on issues like creating job training programs, or after-school programs for youth, or making sure that city services were fairly allocated … in [under-served] far South Side working class and lower income communities.

“And it was in those places where I think what had been more of an intellectual view of religion deepened because I’d be spending an enormous amount of time with church ladies, sort of surrogate mothers and fathers, and everybody I was working with was 50 or 55 or 60, and here I was a 23-year-old kid running around.

“I became much more familiar with the ongoing tradition of the historic black church and it’s importance in the community. And the power of that culture to give people strength in very difficult circumstances, and… courage against great odds. And it moved me deeply. So I… committed myself to Christ… it not only confirmed… [and] gave shape to my faith, but also allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.”

”…although I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up, a suspicion of dogma. …I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.

“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…

“…I have an ongoing conversation with God… throughout the day I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why am I doing it.

“One of the interesting things about being in public life is there are constantly these pressures being placed on you from different sides. To be effective, you have to be able to listen to a variety of points of view, synthesise viewpoints. You also have to know when to be just a strong advocate, and push back against certain people or views that you think aren’t right or don’t serve your constituents.

“And so, the biggest challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass. Those are the conversations I’m having internally. I’m measuring my actions against that inner voice that for me at least is audible, is active, it tells me where I think I’m on track and where I think I’m off track.

“…I always think of politics as having two sides… vanity… and substantive. Now you need some sizzle with the steak to be effective, but I think it’s easy to get swept up in the vanity…the desire to be liked and recognised and important…throughout the day [I] measure and take stock … am I doing this because I think it’s advantageous to me politically, or because I think it’s the right thing to do? Am I doing this to get my name in the papers or am I doing this because it’s necessary to accomplish my motives?

“… the most powerful political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a certain truth. I can feel it. When I’m talking to a group and I’m saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I’m just being glib or clever.

“I think it’s the power of the recognition of God, or the recognition of a larger truth that is being shared between me and an audience.

“That’s something you learn watching ministers… what they call the Holy Spirit. They want the Holy Spirit to come down before they’re preaching, right? Not to try to intellectualise it but what I see is there are moments that happen within a sermon where the minister gets out of his ego and is speaking from a deeper source. And it’s powerful.

“There are also times when you can see the ego getting in the way. Where the minister is performing and clearly straining for applause or an Amen. And those are distinct moments. I think those former moments are sacred.

“Jesus is an historical figure for me, and also a bridge between God and man in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.

“And he’s also a wonderful teacher. I think it’s important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history… I think some of the things I talked about earlier are channelled through my Christian faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“I used to take the time [for meditation and prayer] in a fairly disciplined way. But during the course of this campaign [for the US Senate] I don’t. And I probably need to and would like to, but that’s where that internal monologue, or dialogue, supplants my opportunity to read and reflect in a structured way these days.

“It’s much more sort of as I’m going through the day… and take a moment here and a moment there to take stock, why am I here, how does this connect with a larger sense of purpose?

“…Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion. I am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am a big believer in our constitutional structure. I mean, I’m a law professor [of constitutional law] at the University of Chicago. I am a great admirer of our founding charter, and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming, and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root in this country… in my own public policy, I’m very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.

“Now, that’s different from a belief that values have to inform our public policy. 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.

“… my politics are informed by a belief that we’re all connected. That if there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago that can’t read, that makes a difference in my life even if it’s not my own child. If there’s a senior citizen in downstate Illinois that’s struggling to pay for their medicine and having to chose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer even if it’s not my grandparent. And if there’s an Arab American family that’s being rounded up by John Ashcroft without the benefit of due process – that threatens my civil liberties.

“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. I think sometimes Democrats have made the mistake of shying away from a conversation about values for fear that they sacrifice the important value of tolerance. And I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive.

“I don’t’ think it’s wrong [for people to want to know about a civic leader’s spirituality]. I think that political leaders are subject to all sorts of vetting by the public, and this can be a component of that.

“… I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalise or justify their actions by claiming God’s mandate.

“I think there is this tendency that I don’t think is healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or dialogue with people who disagree with them… I think that the difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelise and proselytise. There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal saviour that they're going to hell.

“I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell. I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity. That’s just not part of my religious makeup.

“Part of the reason I think it’s always difficult for public figures to talk about this is that the nature of politics is that you want to have everybody like you and project the best possible traits onto you. Oftentimes that’s by being as vague as possible, or appealing to the lowest common denominators. The more specific and detailed you are on issues as personal and fundamental as your faith, the more potentially dangerous it is.
“Obviously as an African American politician rooted in the African American community, I spend a lot of time in the black church. I have no qualms [about] participating fully in those services and celebrating my God in that wonderful community.

“But… rarely in those settings do people come up to me and say, what are your beliefs… Although they may presume [that I subscribe to] a set of doctrines that I don’t necessarily subscribe to.

“But I don’t think that’s unique to me. I think that each of us when we walk into our church or mosque or synagogue are interpreting that experience in different ways, are reading scriptures in different ways and are arriving at our own understanding at different ways and in different phases.

“If all it took was someone proclaiming I believe Jesus Christ and that he died for my sins, and that was all there was to it, people wouldn’t have to keep coming to church, would they.

“… I believe … that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.

“When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people, and they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.

“…[sin is] being out of alignment with my values… [if I have sin in my life] I think it’s the same thing as the question about heaven. In the same way that if I’m true to myself and my faith… that is its own reward, when I’m not true to it, it’s its own punishment.

“[For spiritual inspiration] nothing is more powerful than the black church experience. A good choir and a good sermon in the black church, it’s pretty hard not to be moved and be transported.

“… in my … mental library, the Civil Rights movement has a powerful hold on me. It’s a point in time where I think heaven and earth meet. Because it’s a moment in which a collective faith transforms everything. So when I read Gandhi or … King or … certain passages of Abraham Lincoln and I think about those times where people’s values are tested, I think those inspire me.

”[I feel most centred] when I’m being true to myself. And that can happen in me making a speech or … playing with my kids, or … in a small interaction with a security guard in a building when I’m recognising them and exchanging a good word.

“…I think Gandhi is a great example of a profoundly spiritual man who acted and risked everything on behalf of those values but never slipped into intolerance or dogma. He seemed to always maintain an air of doubt about him… [and] … Dr King and Lincoln. Those three are good examples for me of people who applied their faith to a larger canvas without allowing that faith to metastasise into something that is hurtful.

“…[my commitment to Christ] wasn’t an epiphany. It was much more of a gradual process… probably because there is a certain self-consciousness that I possess… it was just a moment to certify or publicly affirm a growing faith in me.”

The profile of Obama that grew from the interview at Cafe Baci was the first in a series, eventually published by Cathleen Falsani in March 2006 as The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. New York:Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Books by Barack Obama are Dreams From My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006). Melbourne:Text Publishing.

These books can be ordered from the Intregral Development preferred bookseller, The Bodhi at www.bodhitree.net.au

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