HE SAID THERE IS ONLY ONE AMERICA---THERE'S TWO--REALITY, AND THE ONE HE REMEMBERS
'I have a deep faith'
April 5, 2004
BY CATHLEEN FALSANI SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
Casually straightening his tie with one hand as he holds the door for a stranger with the other, the young politician strides into the cafe, greeting an employee by name and flashing a big grin at the rest of the room.
He grabs a bottled protein shake from the cooler at the back of Cafe Baci on South Michigan Avenue, and settles into a table near the soft-drink dispenser, doffing his suit jacket along the way.
Barack Obama is alone on this Saturday afternoon in the city, his press secretary nowhere in sight. He's not carrying anything with him. Not even notes.
Yet he appears confident as he answers questions about his spiritual life, a subject that would make many politicians -- on or off the campaign trail -- more skittish than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
If an hourlong conversation about his faith unnerves him, Obama's not letting on.
The first question he fields without hesitation: What does he believe?
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"I am a Christian," the 42-year-old Illinois state senator and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate says, as one of the nearby customers interrupts to congratulate him on his recent primary win. Obama shakes the man's hand and says, "Thank you very much. I appreciate that," before turning his attention directly back to the question.
"So, I have a deep faith," Obama continues. "I'm rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief 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."
It's perhaps an unlikely theological position for someone who places his faith squarely at the feet of Jesus to take, saying essentially that all people of faith -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, everyone -- know the same God.
That depends, Obama says, on how a particular verse from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me," is heard.
Obama's theological point of view was shaped by his uniquely multicultural upbringing. He was born in 1961 in Hawaii to a white mother who came from Protestant Midwestern stock and a black African father who hailed from the Luo tribe of Kenya.
Obama describes his father, after whom he is named, as "agnostic." His paternal grandfather was a Muslim. His mother, he says, was a Christian.
"My mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody, was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve," he says. "We'd go to church for Easter. She wasn't a 'church lady.' "
In his 1993 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama describes his mother as "a lonely witness for secular humanism."
"My mother's confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn't possess, a faith that she would refuse to describe as religious; that, in fact, her experience told her was sacrilegious: a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny," he says in the book.
When he was 6 years old, after his parents divorced, Obama moved with his mother and her new husband -- a non-practicing Muslim -- to Indonesia, where he lived until he was 10 and attended a Roman Catholic school.
"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 [Muslim] prayer call," Obama recalls. "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.
"Her view always was that underlying these religions was 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."
Obama earned a degree in political science from New York's Columbia University in 1983 and in 1991 graduated magna cum laude with a law degree from Harvard University. Since 1993, he has been a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.
Those experiences, as much as his multireligious childhood, affect how he expresses his faith, Obama says.
"Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion," he says. "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 at the University of Chicago teaching constitutional law.
"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.
"I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalize or justify their actions by claiming God's mandate. I don't think it's 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."
Still, Obama is unapologetic in saying he has a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." As a sign of that relationship, he says, he walked down the aisle of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ in response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's altar call one Sunday morning about 16 years ago.
The politician could have ended his spiritual tale right there, at the point some people might assume his life changed, when he got "saved," transformed, washed in the blood. But Obama wants to clarify what truly happened.
"It wasn't an epiphany," he says of that public profession of faith. "It was much more of a gradual process for me. I know there are some people who fall out. Which is wonderful. God bless them.... I think it was just a moment to certify or publicly affirm a growing faith in me."
These days, he says, he attends the 11 a.m. Sunday service at Trinity in the Brainerd neighborhood every week -- or at least as many weeks as he is able. His pastor, Wright, has become a close confidant.
So how did he become a churchgoer?
It began in 1985, when he came to Chicago as a $13,000-a-year community organizer, working with a number of African-American churches in the Roseland, West Pullman and Altgeld Gardens neighborhoods that were trying to deal with the devastation caused by shuttered steel plants.
"I started working with both 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 to underserved communities," he says. "And it was in those places where I think what had been more of an intellectual view of religion deepened.
"I became much more familiar with the ongoing tradition of the historic black church and its importance in the community. And the power of that culture to give people strength in very difficult circumstances, and the power of that church to give people courage against great odds. And it moved me deeply."
Obama says he reads the Bible, though not as regularly as he'd like, now that he's on the campaign trail. But he does find time to pray.
"It's not formal, me getting on my knees," he says. "I think I have an ongoing conversation with God.... I'm constantly asking myself questions about what I'm doing, why I am doing it.
"The biggest challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass."
Friends and advisers, such as the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church in the Auburn- Gresham community on the South Side, who has known Obama for the better part of 20 years, help him keep that compass set, he says.
"I always have felt in him this consciousness that, at the end of the day, with all of us, you've got to face God," Pfleger says of Obama. "Faith is key to his life, no question about it. [It is] central to who he is, and not just in his work in the political field, but as a man, as a black man, as a husband, as a father.... I don't think he could easily divorce his faith from who he is."
Another person Obama says he seeks out for spiritual counsel is state Sen. James Meeks, who is also the pastor of Chicago's Salem Baptist Church. The day after Obama won the primary in March, he stopped by Salem for Wednesday-night Bible study.
"I know that he's a person of prayer," Meeks says. "The night after the election, he was the hottest thing going from Galesburg to Rockford. He did all the TV shows, and all the morning news, but his last stop at night was for church. He came by to say thank you, and he came by for prayer."
Obama admits it's not easy for politicians to talk about faith.
"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," he says. "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.
"The difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize. There's the belief, certainly in some quarters, that [if] people haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior, they're going to hell."
Obama doesn't believe he, or anyone else, will go to hell.
But he's not sure if he'll be going to heaven, either.
"I don't presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die," he says. "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."