Obama and Faith April 30, 2007

Obama and Faith

There’s an article in today’s New York Times about Barack Obama’s search for faith. It details how Obama came to find the Christian God through the help of Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

It won’t be long before some atheists use this as another reason to criticize Obama for being too pious.

What might they use against him? Here are some excerpts from the article:

The Christianity that Mr. Obama adopted at [Trinity United Church of Christ] has infused not only his life, but also his campaign. He began his presidential announcement with the phrase “Giving all praise and honor to God,” a salutation common in the black church. He titled his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” after one of Mr. Wright’s sermons, and often talks about biblical underdogs, the mutual interests of religious and secular America, and the centrality of faith in public life.

The day after the party for Mr. Wright, Mr. Obama stood in an A.M.E. church pulpit in Selma, Ala., and cast his candidacy in nothing short of biblical terms, implicitly comparing himself to Joshua, known for his relative inexperience, steadfast faith and completion of Moses’ mission of delivering his people to the Promised Land.

“Be strong and have courage, for I am with you wherever you go,” Mr. Obama said in paraphrasing God’s message to Joshua.

In “Dreams from My Father,” Mr. Obama described his teary-eyed reaction to the minister’s words. “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,” Mr. Obama wrote. “Those stories — of survival, and freedom, and hope — became our story, my story.”

Mr. Obama was baptized that year, and joining Trinity helped him “embrace the African-American community in a way that was whole and profound,” said [Maya Soetoro-Ng], his half sister.

In the 16 years since Mr. Obama returned to Chicago from Harvard, Mr. Wright has presided over his wedding ceremony, baptized his two daughters and dedicated his house, while Mr. Obama has often spoken at Trinity’s panels and debates. Though the Obamas drop in on other congregations, they treat Trinity as their spiritual home, attending services frequently. The church’s Afrocentric focus makes Mr. Obama a figure of particular authenticity there, because he has the African connections so many members have searched for.

Yes, Obama is religious. That’s not a surprise. But we cannot forget that he was also a constitutional law professor who understands and respects the necessity for separation of church and state. He shares the values that most atheists hold and he’s not about to kowtow to the Religious Right.

Before attacking him for allowing a church to play such an important role in his life, don’t forget these passages from the same article:

While [Obama] has said he shares core Christian beliefs in God and in Jesus as his resurrected son, he sometimes mentions doubts. In his second book, he admitted uncertainty about the afterlife, and “what existed before the Big Bang.” Generally, Mr. Obama emphasizes the communal aspects of religion over the supernatural ones.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama is reaching out to both liberal skeptics and committed Christians. In many speeches or discussions, he never mentions religion. When Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, does speak of faith, he tends to add a footnote about keeping church and state separate.

Mr. Wright, who has long prided himself on criticizing the establishment, said he knew that he may not play well in Mr. Obama’s audition for the ultimate establishment job.

“If Barack gets past the primary, he might have to publicly distance himself from me,” Mr. Wright said with a shrug. “I said it to Barack personally, and he said yeah, that might have to happen.”

I’ve written before that Obama may be the best candidate that atheists have had in recent history. It’ll be some time before we have one of our own able to run for such a high office, but Obama isn’t one to condemn. We’re not at the point where we can criticize someone for simply being religious. As long as our rights are respected, scientific progress is prioritized, and critical thinking is favored over religious intuition, we’re going to be better off than where we are now. And Obama embodies all that.

[tags]atheist, atheism, New York Times, Barack Obama, Christian, God, Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Trinity United Church of Christ, The Audacity of Hope, Dreams From My Father, David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, Maya Soetoro-Ng, Harvard, Religious Right[/tags]

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  • Robert

    Obama seems to me, based on everything I’ve heard from him, to be the sort of person who believes in the positive effects of belief without necessarily believing in the supernatural claims of religion. In fact I think most Americans are like him; they believe religion is a force for good, but if you press them they’ll admit that they don’t really believe in most of the claims of the Bible, and some don’t really believe in God.

    This is an important bunch. They comprise the bulk of American Christians, and don’t identify with the fundies (whom they feel embarass their religion) and as a result we might conceivably reach out and seek their help in dismantling American Christian extremism. Getting a man like Obama into the whitehouse would be a boon to any movement seeking to reconcile moderate Christianity and secular humanism in America, as he represents the ideals of both.

  • Robert,

    I agree. My sister is a believer, and majored in biology. I think that she sees the mysteries and complexity of the world as a sign of the existence of god, but wouldn’t pray to get something, or have a god intervene. She’s relatively rational. Another friend at work, who attends a Catholic church, believes in evolution, thinks that the Bible isn’t wrong about creation, but think that to god, a day is just a billion years. She also mentioned that there are parts of Catholicism she doesn’t agree with, so she just says to herself in her head, that she doesn’t agree with what is being said. I think opening up this dialog is very important. People should feel free to question their faith. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either Catholic or atheist. I do think that people make religion into what they want, for the most part, like slipping into a system of ethics you already agree to. As long as church and state stay separate, and if a belief in faith promotes good humanist ethics with respect for the individual, I think those are noble goals. I, for one, am glad not everyone thinks like I do, but even if your beliefs are different then mine, I can’t abide someone who wants to use any religion to suppress anyone, or do anyone harm. I think there are a lot of Christians out there who are on the same ethical page as atheists, and it’ll take some time for atheism to rid itself of its taboo nature. The positive atheism movement is helping with that.

  • DanielSan

    Careful now. When you say ‘some atheists’, be sure to include what you mean by it.

    As an atheist myself, I get offended whenever someone (atheist or theist) lumps every atheist together and paints them with a broad brush. When you say ‘some atheists’, be sure to say the ‘antitheist atheist’ whom just hates religion, not the atheist who simply just personally disbelieves.

    Good post, however. I agree with 99.9% of it. Just not that one point. Also, there are some right-leaning atheists that would try to use Obama’s piety against him, not because he’s pious, but because they disagree with his politics. And that is truly a shame.

  • How come those who are advocates of the separation of church and state seem to ignore the inroads Islam is making? Is it that the secularists (atheists and other freethinkers) know they have nothing to fear from Christians that they feel so emboldened to attack as opposed to their deafening silence when it comes to Islamists?
    For instance, who’s paying for the foot washing basins that are being installed in some US airports so that Moslem cab drivers can wash their feet before praying? If it was a Christian group, the ffrf would be taking it to court. Why have California public schools mandated classes to study the five pillars of Islam without a peep from the so-called free thinkers who praised the same school system for removing the bible from their libraries? Could this double standard be caused by fear of reprisal from the Islamists?

  • Jim Henderson


    I will be voting and working to get Obama elected. For me no one else comes close at this point in our history.

    Concerning his beliefs and concerns that may imply for Atheists, it reminds me of the issues that surrounded Thomas Jefferson when he was elected. The Christians vehemently resisted him because they knew he was actually a Diest ( if even that). After being elected Jefferson did more to protect the rights of Christians than any other president before him.

    Religion is neutral – like money or the Elks club- some use it for selfish purposes others for others

    Go Barak

  • I’m an atheist. The problems I have with Obama is that the church he belongs to believes in black moral superiority, and he’s into bad economic ideas like comparable worth. I don’t care that he is a Christian. I’ve had experience with a Unitarian Church and had dinner with a black minister who talked like the people over at the Trinity United Church of Christ. I found so many of his statements so very racist and yet he didn’t have a clue that this was the case. His and the people who brought him in held the position that black people can’t be racists since they are not in the majority. It was absolutely ridiculous.

    This is the kind of thing I’m talking about:
    1. Commitment to God
    2. Commitment to the Black Community
    3. Commitment to the Black Family
    4. Dedication to the Pursuit of Education
    5. Dedication to the Pursuit of Excellence
    6. Adherence to the Black Work Ethic
    7. Commitment to Self-Discipline and Self-Respect
    8. Disavowal of the Pursuit of “Middleclassness”
    9. Pledge to make the fruits of all developing and acquired skills available to the Black Community
    10. Pledge to Allocate Regularly, a Portion of Personal Resources for Strengthening and Supporting Black Institutions
    11. Pledge allegiance to all Black leadership who espouse and embrace the Black Value System
    12. Personal commitment to embracement of the Black Value System.”

    You can read this stuff over at http://www.tucc.org.

  • Jennifer Beasley

    I find these comments very interesting. I too had many questions because my family is very into GOD, but as I got older and saw many unexplained miracles, I KNOW that there is a GOD. He is the true and living God. I say this because of the miracle that I have experienced and because of the many prayers that have been answered that cannot be explained by a logical or scientific explaination.

    My mother and I was having a conversation about atheisists just yesterday. Unlike many people, I do not hate atheists. I do believe that they are what the Bible would refer to as cold. This mean that they have no faith in God, and God can certainly work with this. They do not take God for granted because they simply do not believe in Him.

    I can go on and on about God. Every time I think about the things that He has done for my family and me, it brings tears to my eyes. One miracle that I will mention is when my mother’s house caught on fire. My youngest sister was in the room where the fire was. I heard some people telling her to wake up. My mother also heard these people. I told my sister that someone was calling her. My mother said that oh, they are just her friends. I went into the room where my sister was. She was pinching herself. The fire was confined to one area, and there were flammable perfume near the fire. I asked my sister why she was pinching herself. She said that she was pinching herself because some people were shaking her and telling her to wake up. If it had not been for God and angels protecting us, who knows what would have happened. What science can explain that!

    My heart aches for people who do not know God. If no one ever wrote the Holy Bible, I would still have to believe in God and Jesus because they have manifested themselves so many times to me and have put my unbelief and doubt to rest.

    As I write in tears, I pray for any and ALL people who do not believe in OUR (yours and mine) SWEET SAVIOR and the Father.

    Thank you for letting me share my testimony with you.


  • Mr. Hoepper,

    I’m an atheist who’s for separation of church and state, and I think that not only those footbasins should not be subsidized but that the concept of separation should be applied to the building of Mosques in the United States with state funds.

    Our own government cannot build churches here so why should foreign governments be allowed to build and support Mosques with government funds? I think the same principles are involved. Foreign governments should not be able to use their unique positions as tax collectors (or as in most cases totalitarian systems) to support one religion over another. The fact that our own government provides support for these governments means that indirectly our own government is supporting mosques.

    That is, if we send billions in aid to Egypt and then they turn around and fund mosques here the American taxpayer is actually paying for those Mosques. Same is true if we use our military to protect and support a country like Saudi Arabia.

    BTW, I read your website and you do not understand science if you don’t understand why ID is not science. This is information you can easily get off the web. I suggest you go over to P. Z. Myers site. I don’t like his politics but he’s right about evolution/ID/creationism.

  • Obama has always been my choice candidate. As a somewhat new and cautious atheist, his skeptical views of religion really appealed to me. Unlike the other candidates, there is a genuine feel to his words and his demeanor. He doesn’t claim to know the truth outright, but rather holds fast to his ability to go with the flow as long the flow is based on fact. This kind of fluidity may worry some voters, but it’s a characteristic that can be extremely useful in a president. I’m interested to know how this will all pan out. Thanks for the post!

  • Another plus to Obama is that he has spent a portion of his career as a community organizer/activist on the south side of Chicago – i.e. he has worked alongside the poor and disadvantaged of our society. I’d rather see someone like that leading our country than another rich lackey of big corporations.

  • Logos

    The religion issue aside, what is so great about Obama as a candidate

  • Brian, thanks for visiting my blog. I’ll look up PZ Meyer as you suggest.

    Hemant, Saw you on Life Today. You are the friendly atheist. That’s pretty refreshing and totally different from most of my atheist encounters.

    About Obama
    To me he’s an unknown quantity. I do know Hillary and pray (can I say that on an atheist blog?) that she won’t be our next president. Obama is interesting, but can he escape the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? They both use the title Reverend–Did either graduate from a Bible College?
    We certainly don’t need a president who’ll dance to their tune. We need a president for all the people.

    The President: Think about this…who in their right mind would want to be president at this juncture of history? I’ll list my 7 predictions.

    See if you agree-some of them are no brainers–others…?

    1. The next president will be forced to deal with an increasing illegal alien problem. (no brainer)

    2. The next president will be forced to handle a mega terror attack in the USA which could also precipitate an economic disaster unparalelled in history.

    3. The next president will have to deal with an increasing number of (Katrina style) natural disasters.

    4. The next president will have to initiate a military draft. (that will make him/her popular, right?).

    5. The next president will have to deal with a looming economic crisis greater than the 1929 stock market crash even if there is no terror attack.

    6. The next president will have to handle an increasing number of South American countries going Marxist like Venezuela.

    7. The next president will face a growing nuclear third world. (no brainer).

    We’ll all look back on these days as the ‘good old days.’ The economy is booming, joblessness is virtually non-existent, more people are home owners both in percentage and actual ownership than any time in US history, even though we had a 911 and a Katrina, (and don’t forget the four hurricanes that hit Florida the year before Katrina). Yeah, we have a war but it’s not a world war.

    God bless the USA

  • I agree that it probably doesn’t make sense to criticize him on the grounds that he is too religious. Of course, I believe that there are many other valid grounds on which he can and should be criticized that have nothing to do with religion. I tend to think that he could be a fantastic president someday but that he is insufficiently experienced to win my support at this point.

  • I do vote, but now I’m wondering, not only when voting for the presidency but also for Congress and the Senate; who is really trustworthy? I’m seeing so much hypocrisy in both political camps. You have guys like Al Gore who talks a good environmental game but whose home uses twenty times the energy of the average American home. You’ve got Nancy Pelosi who’s campaign was financed largely by unions but refuses to hire union workers for her winery–or any of her other big business ventures.
    And the latest scandal is the DC Madam, (Debora Jeane Palfrey) who’s releasing names of Government officials that used her “escort services.” So far as a result Randall Tobias of the State Department has resigned, and Harlan Ullman (of Shock and Awe fame) is on the hot seat. Who knows who else appears in Palfrey’s little black book?
    The skeletons are coming out of the closet! And who can forget Congressman Wm. Jefferson’s cold cash ($90,000.00 in his freezer)? Just when you think you have a great man or woman to vote for–look out.
    “There is none righteous–no not one!” (the Bible)

  • Sloan Bashinsky

    From : sloan bashinsky
    Sent : Wednesday, May 9, 2007 8:31 AM
    To : no-reply@barackobama.com
    Subject : early retirement, RE-ELECT NO ONE

    Dear Mr. Obama,

    This email from you below looks like a form letter to me. It does not appear in it that you read anything I have written to you, as late as yesterday even. In that missive, I asked that you not send me anything else to read until you had responded personally to what I was sending to you, because I was being told by your and my Creator in dreams to send it to you. Each time I replied to something you sent to me, I got an email back saying no one was reading those emails and to send my thoughts through another Internet method provided in the reply email. When I did that, I got form emails back. I’m going to send this email now, to see if I get the same response.

    Meanwhile, and this may just be me talking and have nothing to do with God, but I found myself thinking this morning that I was moved by God to contribute $2,300 to your campaign so I could see what kind of reponses would be coming back (this is the second form thank you letter I’ve received for the donation), and give me standing to pop off in this way. Initially, and I told a lot of other people this, I felt my being moved in dreams to contribute to your campaign and share that news with other people as indicating you were God’s favored candidate. That, too, I found myself beginning to doubt this morning.

    Maybe God has no favored candidate, is what I’m driving at. Maybe God wants the public to boycott the polls altogether. What do I know? Maybe that would be the strongest possible message Americans could send to their national, state and local governments. Certainly, declining to return anyone to elected office would be a powerful message. You are in elected state office now, as is Hillary Clinton. Maybe it’s time you both retired from politics and found something more to God’s liking for you both to do? You, and every other elected official in America? Maybe I should send you and Hilary some RE-ELECT NO ONE bumper stickers? Maybe I would, if I knew you and Hillary would actually see them.


    Sloan Bashinsky
    Key West, Florida

    From :
    Sent : Wednesday, May 9, 2007 8:31 AM
    To : sloanbashinsky@hotmail.com
    Subject : Delivery Status Notification (Failure)

    This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification.

    Delivery to the following recipients failed.


    From: “Obama for America”
    Reply-To: “Obama for America”
    To: sloanbashinsky@hotmail.com
    Subject: Response to Your Message to Senator Obama
    Date: Tue, 8 May 2007 23:36:20 -0500 (CDT)

    Dear Friend,

    Thank you for your kind message and generous donation. My family and I have been touched by the outpouring of support we have received since announcing my candidacy for President of the United States.

    As I traveled the country last year campaigning for Senate and House candidates, I spoke to people of diverse backgrounds from Rhode Island to Missouri to Washington state. I heard the same message in Omaha, Nebraska, that I heard in Orlando, Florida. The American people want a new kind of politics that replaces partisan name calling with honest conversation that seeks constructive change.

    The cards, messages, calls and donations I have received from supporters like you reaffirm my belief that America is ready to put the era of bitter partisanship and the politics of division behind us, and that 2008 can be a watershed election for a new politics of principled, passionate, and civil debate about the future course of our country.

    As we begin this movement for change, please bookmark http://my.barackobama.com and visit often. Want to get involved right now? We’ve built a set of easy-to-use web tools that empower you. At My.BarackObama.com you can:

    – build your own profile and connect with supporters near you
    – find or create your own local or national group
    – create your own personal fundraising page and track your progress
    – find events near you or plan your own
    – chronicle your campaign experience on your own blog

    And there will be much more to come in the weeks and months ahead.

    Thank you again for contacting me.

    Barack Obama
    Join the team: http://my.barackobama.com
    |Paid for by Obama for America.|

  • As an atheist, I have absolutely no problem supporting Obama — a devout Christian. Why? He understands the constitution, and acts on that understanding. Here’s a letter to the editor I wrote to most of the larger newspapers in New Hampshire back in December:


    I write in support for Senator Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. Almost any Democratic candidate’s stance on religion would represent an improvement over the faith-based blurring of our precious, unique Constitution which we’ve had to endure for the last seven years. But as a committed agnostic, I was still concerned about Obama’s views on faith in relation to government.

    Finally, I found a speech he gave last year on just that topic:

    “I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern pluralistic society. If we’re going to do that, then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90% of us believe in God; 70% affiliate themselves with an organized religion; 38% call themselves committed Christians”.

    Very true. Then he went on to say:

    “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation; at least, not just. We are also a Jewish, a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers”.

    At this point, my heart leapt. As an agnostic, I am used to having my views be completely brushed aside by politicians who seem to forget that freedom of religion must also mean freedom FROM religion, for those of us who so choose, in order for it to have any meaning at all. He continued:

    “Even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the USA, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would it be James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which scripture should guide our public policy? Leviticus, which suggests that slavery is OK, and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or the Sermon on the Mount, a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own defense department would survive its application?”.

    I see Obama as standing head and shoulders over the rest of the pack, who seem to be falling all over themselves in an unseemly attempt to be “holier than thou”. It’s all particularly ironic these days, when we see a clear example of what happens when religion and government are allowed to freely intermix: Saudi Arabia.

    Jefferson, and other patriotic Deists in the history of our great nation, have supported a clear wall between church and state. I feel that Obama would support me when I say “Mr. Jefferson: build up that wall”. He has my vote, my donations, my shoe leather in canvassing, and my sincerest thanks.

  • Darryl

    Our chief worry for the next president is not how religious he/she is, or what kind of religion he/she believes. Our concern ought to be what political philosophy the next president will hold, and what intelligence and wisdom he/she will have. Will he/she be a tyrant as Bush has been; ignoring laws passed by Congress; lying to us for partisan gain? Will the next president understand what course our nation should take? Will the next president be able to lead a reunification of the country?

    I have no idea if any of the candidates will have what it takes. But, time will make it clear. I think we’re in for a bumpy ride.

  • Sloan Bashinsky

    About six weeks ago maybe, I wrote some more about Barack Obama. Unfavorably. I get my information in ways he might understand, might not. I get it from angels assigned to look and keep after me. These angels are not like the nice sweet angels I heard about in Sunday school as a boy. They are like Navy SEALS, but a lot tougher. I get information in other ways, too. In Obama’s case, I developed a staphylococcus boil in my right ear. Right side, for me, represents male. I was writing about Obama. This was something in him, coming at me, being absorbed by me, to give me a read on what’s inside of him. I was convinced then, albeit not happy about it, that there is more to him than is being seen. I also was convinced he has some sort of conscious or subconscious hynotic gift, which has a great deal to do with his phenomenal move into the political stratosphere. And that many people are under that hypnotic effect unawares. I believe I used the word cult to try to explain it. I said I would not vote for Obama. Nor for Hillary Clinton, who might be more benign but is not fit to be President. Nor for John McCain, who’s still fighting the Vietnam War, and, I suppose, will continue to fight it until he perceives that America has won a war, somewhere. I said I may just vote No on my ballot, in ink pen, just to vote something. I’m still inclined in that direction, even as I hope something will change, like Jimmy Carter decides to run. The angels told me in 2004, and again this year, that he is God’s choice for President. A one-term president, he can run again. I’d vote for him, if he was on the ballot.

  • Darryl

    Sloan, you scare me. Do us a favor–stay home on election day.

  • Sloan Bashinsky

    Gosh, Darryl. People who swoon over Obama scare me. And over Hillary and McCain. And over George W. People who support them, even though they don’t swoon over them, also scare me. But what really scares me is me. Screwing up. Doing the opposite of what God wants me to do. That really scares me. On election day, I’ll do what God tells me to do, therefore.

  • Sloan Bashinsky

    I recently was told to write “Jimmy Carter for President” on my ballot. There was an “or else” attached to what I was told. I did not percieve that I would like the “or else.” I will do what I was told. Besides, I think Carter is the best candidate, even if he isn’t running.

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