Barack, redux

[Photo: Pete Souza/White House]

Original post: October 9, 2008, updating an earlier blog; repost: March 5, 2010. Still read best in tandem with my friend Liz’s blog on election season 2008.

When I arrived in the US in the summer of 2006, I had never even heard the name of Barack Obama, and I had very little interest in politics. That changed within a month of being here. A friend of mine, shocked at my ignorance, directed me to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Obama was the keynote speaker. I watched the video. I was blown away.

[You can see the video here, and read the transcript here.]

Here was a man who inspired me to believe in hope for the future, even at a time when we were still entrenched in Iraq, chasing the wind of Al Qaeda and catching nothing, and our foreign policy had led us to become largely isolated from and resented by the rest of the world—coming from the UK, I experienced a fair amount of this. Here was a man who exuded responsible (not just more or less) government, who spoke of the audacity of hope, who seemed to speak for everyone. Here was a man of charisma, of inspiration. Yet there was something more, a sense that these were more than just words.

And as I watched him and listened to him, I began to believe. I trust Barack Obama: I trust his character, I trust his integrity, I trust his faith in God and his faith in people.

People may call me a fool for being taken in by his empty rhetoric and his false promises; they may deride me or be anxious for me because I think that he will actually try to do the things that he says he will. However, those who know me know that I brook no nonsense, that I do not make decisions lightly, impulsively, or irrationally. Furthermore, while I understand that presidents often are unable (or unwilling) to carry through on promises they make to the people, I support the vision that Barack has and the direction he wants to take the country.

I believe that his faith shapes his life, shapes his choices and decisions. He was not raised in a Christian, or in any kind of religious, household; his parents had Muslim, Baptist and Methodist roots, but the Bible, Koran, and Bhagavad Gita shared shelf space with books of mythology. He is a Christian now (contrary to circulating reports about him being a Muslim), but I’ll let his own words speak for him. Probably the most widely-publicized are his words in The Audacity of Hope, in which he writes:

It was because of these newfound understandings—that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved—that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ [in Chicago] one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth. (208)

In January 2007, reporter Cathleen Falsani (who also wrote an article on Bono’s faith), asked him the question, “Are you an evangelical?”

Gosh, I’m not sure if labels are helpful here because the definition of an evangelical is so loose and subject to so many different interpretations. I came to Christianity through the black church tradition where the line between evangelical and non-evangelical is completely blurred. Nobody knows exactly what it means.

Does it mean that you feel you’ve got a personal relationship with Christ the savior? Then that’s directly part of the black church experience. Does it mean you’re born-again in a classic sense, with all the accoutrements that go along with that, as it’s understood by some other tradition? I’m not sure.

My faith is complicated by the fact that I didn’t grow up in a particular religious tradition. And so what that means is when you come at it as an adult, your brain mediates a lot, and you ask a lot of questions.

There are aspects of Christian tradition that I’m comfortable with and aspects that I’m not. There are passages of the Bible that make perfect sense to me and others that I go, ‘You know, I’m not sure about that.’

A simple ‘yes’ would have been much easier. But it would have been too simplistic. Faith is not simplistic. It is simple, but it is not simplistic. In 2006, Obama delivered the keynote address for the Call to Renewal conference and it was described by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. as “what may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican.” For the full text of the address, you can go here, but here are some snippets (that definitely do not encapsulate the inspiration of the speech):

Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts. You need to come to church in the first place because you are first of this world, not apart from it.

[Conservative religious leaders] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice.

[When a gang member] shoots indiscriminately into a crowd … there’s a hole in that young man’s heart—a hole that the government alone cannot fix. [Contraception can reduce teen pregnancy rates, but so can] faith and guidance [which] help fortify a young woman’s sense of self, a young man’s sense of responsibility and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.

Our fear of getting “preachy” may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide. They’re tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that’s not how they think about faith in their own lives.

Before I began to learn more and more about the issues and policies, the biggest draw for me was his character. I admire Barack Obama because he preaches and lives out integrity and accountability—in his work as a state senator, as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, as a lawyer, in his life as a father, husband and Christian. I admire the fact that he had the conviction to vote against the war in Iraq when even I thought it wasn’t all that bad an idea. I like that he has won the unofficial endorsement of Colin Powell, a man I greatly admire; Powell serves as an informal advisor to Obama, which counts in my book. He is a politician who has been described as ‘humble’ (by CA Senator Barbara Boxer).

But I am not simply voting for Barack because he is a Christian, because he has what I perceive to be good character. I support him also in the policies that he puts forward and the things that he defends. I don’t agree with him on every issue, I don’t expect him to legislate exactly as I would like. But for the most part, I see in Barack Obama a more pragmatic and more thought-out approach in terms of what the gospel demands of us on the one hand and what the Constitution demands of us on the other. I think the line that politicians have to tread in living out their faith is a very narrow tightrope, and it involves much balancing and careful consideration.

Three years ago, before I’d even heard of Barack Obama, I figured that American unilateral action in Iraq and its belligerence on other matters of foreign policy had relegated the world’s richest and most powerful nation to the role of global bully and isolated it against the rest of the world. I figured that the Republicans had cornered the Christian vote, that people who voted both pro-life and for the death penalty (a contradictory position for those who believe in the sanctity of human life?) would also vote red. Then along came a guy who introduced me to the nuances of the interaction between politics and faith, re-emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between church and state while maintaining that his faith is not something that can be detached from his character and his decisions. I figured that the only way to work for change was to challenge governments to do things by getting people to make enough noise, as Bono did with the One Campaign and Make Poverty History (and continues to do with other matters). Then along came Barack Obama, who made me believe that the system, while flawed and broken, is not impossible to work within, though much grace and perseverance is required.

Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC

Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

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