My source here is The Audacity of Hope, published by the President-elect during 2006, and I might start by saying that it is one of the most thoughtful and inspiring books I've read in a long while. The chapter "Faith" lies in more or less the centre of the book. Others deal with issues, such as "The World Beyond Our Borders", "Race", "Values" and "Family".
What follows is an attempt to summarize the major points of the chapter:
Religiosity in contemporary America
"Americans", it begins, "are a religious people. According to the most recent surveys, 95 percent of Americans believe in God, more than two-thirds belong to a church, 37 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantively more people believe in angels than believe in evolution."
Obama goes on here to explain that fifty years ago cultural commentators would have said that American religion was in decline. In the 1960s, many mainstream Protestant and Catholic leaders sought to make themselves " 'relevant' to changing times-- by accommodating church doctrine to science, and by articulating a social gospel that addressed the material issues of economic inequality, racism, sexism and American militarism."
The author thinks the cooling of religious enthusiasm in the U.S. was "greatly exaggerated". "On this score, at least, the conservative critique of 'liberal elitism' has a strong measure of truth: Ensconced in universities and large urban centers, academics, journalists, and purveyors of popular culture simply failed to appreciate the continuing role that all manner of religious expression played in communities across the country."
He goes on that the inward focus of American evangelicals on "inward salvation and willingness to render unto Caesar what is his" might have continued indefinitely, but for a range of social upheavals in the 1960s. The "politically awakened evangelicals (became) mobilized. against liberal orthodoxy." Today, he notes the "single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans is…between those who attend church regularly and those who don't."
Finally, on the American spiritual environment, Obama adds …"nondenominational evangelical churches are growing by leaps and bounds, elicitating levels of commitment and participation from their memberships no other American institution can match. Their fervour has gone mainstream." In part, as he says, this success is because many Americans recognize that "…something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness are not enough…They need an
assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them-that they are not destined to travel down a long highway towards nothingness."
On his own spiritual journey
Barack Obama was not raised in a religious household. For his maternal grandparents, who migrated from Kansas to Hawaii, "…religious faith never really took route in their hearts." His mother was not impressed by Christians she encountered. The Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad-Gita sat with other books in her home. She'd take her son to churches, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and ancient Hawaiian burial sites, but he made no commitment to any of them. She saw religions "through the eyes of an anthropologist." Her son, moreover, rarely encountered as a child persons who offered a different approach to faith. His father was a "confirmed atheist", although he was gone from Obama's life by the time he was two. His stepfather, with whom Barack and his mother lived in Indonesia for five years, was sceptical about religion.
The chapter stresses that his mother was "in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known". He writes that she installed in him "the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both." She possessed "an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional…She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life…it was my mother's fundamental faith—in the goodness of people and in the ultimate value of this brief life we've each been given—that channelled these ambitions (of mine)."
Daily work with Christians
"And it was in search of some practical application of these values (to "build community and make justice real") that I accepted work after college as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago that were trying to cope with joblessness, drugs and hopelessness in their midst."
Obama's subsequent experiences with the pastors and lay persons of those churches caused him to "come to realize that without a vehicle for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some point to always remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone."
He adds that he might have remained on his mother's path "...had it nor been for the particular attributes of the historically black church, attributes that helped me shed some of my scepticism and embrace the Christian faith." Among them, he includes "…the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change…to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge kingdoms and principalities."
Another attraction for Obama of the African American church was that "…faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on the world." Obama: "You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it; rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away—because you were human and needed an ally in your difficult journey, to make the peaks and valleys smooth and render all those crooked paths straight."
Candidate Obama's dispute with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, during the presidential campaign and pre-campaign, which eventually led to his resignation from Trinity United church, is so well known as to require no further comment here.
This is only a brief summary of how the President-elect acquired his faith. It's perhaps of interest that according to a fairly recent reader survey by the Economist magazine he would have received huge majorities if people outside America had been able to vote in the American election-more than ninety percent of us in Canada.