The Obama Faith Interview

Chicago Sun Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani has recently consented to allow the full transcript of her 2004 interview with now President-elect Barak Obama to be published. Because Obama speaks fairly extensively and quite candidly with Falsani about his religious background, beliefs, and practices, it proves to be a fascinating read. And given that political figures—particularly at the presidential level—are often reticent to talk so extensively about their faith, the interview is a rather unusual opportunity for thought and discussion for those interested in religious belief/theology, as well as its intersection with our culture and politics. (In fact, if anyone knows of similar interviews with any other modern president, please point me in that direction.)

Though I would highly recommend reading the entire interview, I’ll include a few notable excerpts:

OBAMA: …So, 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.
………
OBAMA: …I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. And 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 just because I think people are limited in their understanding.

I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.
………
FALSANI:
 Do you pray often?

OBAMA:
 Uh, yeah, I guess I do.

It’s not formal, me getting on my knees. I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. I think 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, synthesize 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.
………
FALSANI:
 Who’s Jesus to you?

(He laughs nervously)

OBAMA: 
Right.

Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s 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.
……..
OBAMA: …This is something that I’m sure I’d have serious debates with my fellow Christians about. I think that the difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and prostelytize. There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they’re going to hell.

FALSANI:
 You don’t believe that?

OBAMA: 
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.
……..
FALSANI: Do you believe in heaven?

OBAMA:
 Do I believe in the harps and clouds and wings?

FALSANI:
 A place spiritually you go to after you die?

OBAMA:
 What I believe in is 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.

FALSANI:
 Do you believe in sin?

OBAMA:
 Yes.

FALSANI:
 What is sin?

OBAMA: 
Being out of alignment with my values.

FALSANI:
 What happens if you have sin in your life?

OBAMA:
 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 that is its own reward, when I’m not true to it, it’s its own punishment.
………

My brief take:

While I would offer support for a handful of the President-elect’s statements, many others are either clearly or potentially inconsistent with Christian doctrines that arise from an infallible/authoritative (but not simplistic!) view of the Bible—including the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of heaven and hell, and the nature and effects of sin. Additionally, given some of the statements above, I’d be very interested to hear on what basis he is willing to make judgments regarding religious truth claims. In other words, who or what determines whether a particular religious perspective, say Islamic fundamentalism for example, is actually harmful rather than helpful (a judgment I believe he’d readily make)? No doubt a further conversation would be helpful in shedding additional light on all these issues.

I would also hasten to add, however, that Obama’s divergence from central points of biblical Christianity would not exactly make him unique among presidents. It’s probably fair to say that many of our most famous, and arguably some of our most effective leaders have differed in significant ways from biblically consistent doctrine (and no one can ever claim complete fidelity with scriptural truth). Though it should never lead to complacency or presumption, God sometimes works in spite of us—whether “us” refers to presidents, pastors, or anyone else.

On the other hand, if you believe that true human flourishing is ultimately tied to the right understanding and application of God’s truth, then significant theological error is never a good thing—whether that person in question is named Obama, McCain, Bush, Clinton, etc. (I say that with full recognition that it is often difficult to figure out how biblical truth should shape and inform public policy in a pluralistic society.) If right beliefs tend to promote right actions, then the opposite is also true. And the beliefs of a president have more potential than most for good or ill.

This is all the more reason why we should dedicate ourselves—regardless of our political affiliation—to pray for our President-elect and others in our government. Pray that God would give them eyes to see and ears to hear his truth, not only for their own benefit, but also that they would govern justly and effectively.

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