Sunday, July 13, 2008

On Stands Now...


Monday
What He Believes...
The presumptive Democratic nominee told Senior Editor Lisa Miller and Senior White House Correspondent Richard Wolffe that as a 20-year-old Columbia University student he was torn a million different ways: between youth and maturity, black and white, coasts and continents, wonder and tragedy. "I did a lot of spiritual exploration. I withdrew from the world in a fairly deliberate way," he says. On restless Sunday mornings, while living in New York, he would wander into African-American congregations such as Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "I'd just sit in the back and I'd listen to the choir and I'd listen to the sermon," he says. "There were times that I would just start tearing up listening to the choir and share that sense of release."

Obama's religious journey is a uniquely American tale. It's one of a seeker, an intellectually curious young man trying to cobble together a religious identity out of myriad influences. Obama embarked on a spiritual quest in which he tried to reconcile his rational side with his yearning for transcendence. He found Christ-but that hasn't stopped him from asking questions. "I'm on my own faith journey and I'm searching," he says. "I leave open the possibility that I'm entirely wrong."

Obama has spoken often and eloquently about the importance of religion in public life. But like many political leaders wary of offending potential backers, he has been less revealing about what he believes-about God, about prayer, about the connection between salvation and personal responsibility. In some respects, his reticence is understandable. Obama's religious biography is unconventional and politically problematic. Born to a Christian-turned-secular mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist African father, Obama grew up living all across the world with plenty of spiritual influences, but without any particular religion. He is now a Christian, having been baptized in the early 1990s at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. But rumors about Obama's religion persist. In the new Newsweek Poll, 12 percent of voters incorrectly believe he's Muslim; more than a quarter believe he was raised in a Muslim home.

The story of Obama's faith begins with his mother, Ann. Raised in the Midwest by two lapsed Christians, she lived and traveled throughout the world appreciating all religions but confessing to none. One of Ann's favorite spiritual texts was "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth," a set of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers that traces the common themes of religion and mythology, Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, tells Newsweek. When the family lived in Indonesia, Ann would take the children to Catholic mass; after returning to Hawaii, they would celebrate Easter and Christmas at United Church of Christ congregations. Ann later went back to Indonesia with Maya, and when Obama visited, they would take him to Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. "These kinds of experiences were a regular part of our childhood and our upbringing, and were important to [our mother] because they involved ritual," says Maya. "She thought that ritual was very beautiful. The idea of human beings' striving to be better, having the curiosity and questions about all these things, [was] perpetual and constant inside her."

Obama's organizing days in Chicago helped clarify his sense of faith and social action as intertwined. "It's hard for me to imagine being true to my faith-and not thinking beyond myself, and not thinking about what's good for other people, and not acting in a moral and ethical way," he says. When these ideas merged with his more emotional search for belonging, he was able to arrive at the foot of the cross. He "felt God's spirit beckoning me," he writes in his book "The Audacity of Hope." "I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth." The cross under which Obama went to Jesus was at the controversial Trinity United Church of Christ led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. "That community of faith suited me," Obama says. At the point of his decision to accept Christ, Obama says, "what was intellectual and what was emotional joined, and the belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life-but also that, through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and our foibles-I found that powerful."

But Obama's faith is not without its critics. Some on the right say his particular brand of Christianity is a modern amalgam-unorthodox, undisciplined, even insincere. Last month Dr. James Dobson accused Obama of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology." The campaign responded that Obama was reaching out to people of faith and standing up for families.

Since severing ties with Wright and Trinity, Obama is a little spiritually rootless again. He lost a friend in Wright-and he lost a home, however tenuous those ties may have been toward the end, in Trinity. He has not found a new church, and he doesn't plan to look for one until after the election. "There's an aspect of the campaign process that would not make it a good time to figure out whether a particular church community worked for us," he says. "Because of what happened at Trinity, we'd be under a spotlight."

Nevertheless, his spiritual life on the campaign trail survives through prayer and reading the bible. And although he and Michelle do not have a systematic course of religious study for their daughters, "we say grace at the table. They are inquiring minds, so whenever they have a question about God or faith, then I have a conversation with them," he says. "I'm a big believer in a faith that is not imposed but taps into what's already there, their curiosity or their spirit."
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