Mark Hemingway points out a 2004 interview of Barack Obama by Cathleen Falsani, on the topic of his faith. Obama calls himself a Christian, and Falsani asks several questions to probe what that means to him. She leaves some important questions out, though.
Obama’s answers reveal him as a practitioner of the non-judgemental, “people are basically good” brand of pseudo-Christianity that is popular in America today. Certainly he is not an orthodox Christian.
What do you believe?
I am a Christian.
So, I have a deep faith. So I draw from the Christian faith. On the other hand, I was born in Hawaii where obviously there are a lot of Eastern influences. I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, between the ages of six and 10. My father was from Kenya, and although he was probably most accurately labeled an agnostic, his father was Muslim. And I’d say, probably, intellectually I’ve drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith.
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.
And so, part of my project in life was probably to spend the first 40 years of my life figuring out what I did believe – I’m 42 now – and it’s not that I had it all completely worked out, but I’m spending a lot of time now trying to apply what I believe and trying to live up to those values.
Much of this is defensible from an orhodox Christian perspective. I would have phrased it differently, but I’ve no problem with values that transcend race or culture and an individual and collective responsibility for those values. On the other hand, the “many paths to the same place” notion seems to point to an unorthodox universality. Also, most orthodox Christians would have managed to mention Jesus in his initial description of his beliefs.
Have you always been a Christian?
I was raised more by my mother and my mother was Christian.
. . .
I’m not sure why this is responsive. He seems to be saying that being raised by a Christian makes you one.
Who’s Jesus to you?
(He laughs nervously)
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.
Is Jesus someone who you feel you have a regular connection with now, a personal connection with in your life?
Yeah. Yes. I think some of the [things] I talked about earlier are addressed through, are channeled through my Christian faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
. . .
I think this is defensible from an orthodox perspective. I would have focused on what Jesus did for us, but he can focus on Jesus the teacher if he wants.
Do you think it’s wrong for people to want to know about a civic leader’s spirituality?
I [don’t] think it’s wrong. I think that political leaders are subject to all sorts of vetting by the public, and this can be a component of that.
I think that I am disturbed by, let me put it this way: 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 think there is this tendency that I don’t think is 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.
. . .
More on this later. Now comes the rub:
Do you believe in sin?
What is sin?
Being out of alignment with my values.
What happens if you have sin in your life?
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.
Here is where Obama makes an unmistakable break from orthodoxy. Sin is not being out of alignment with our own values, it’s being out of alignment with God. The Bible also has a very clear teaching about what happens if there’s sin in your life, and it doesn’t say that sin is its own punishment.
In fact, I think Obama’s view is close to the opposite of orthodoxy. The problem isn’t hypocrisy, the problem is our values are bad. The Bible and history are rife with sinners who were faithful to their values. The effect of sin is to separate us from God. Since we are incapable of reconciling ourselves to Him, we require someone (Jesus) to restore us. It’s a pity that Falsani did not ask Obama about the crucifixion; it would have been interesting to hear what he thought it was about, if not redemption from our sin.
Obama’s thoughts are quite consistent with modern pseudo-Christianity, most strains of which have in common that most people are basically good. In contrast, orthodox Christianity teaches that “there is no one righteous, not even one” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:11,23). It’s no wonder that Obama’s Jesus is primarily a teacher; he has little else to do.
What does any of this matter? After all, we’re electing a President, not a pastor. Curiosity, for one. Obama may be our next President, and it’s worthwhile to know what he believes. (For what it’s worth, Obama above says he agrees with this.)
There’s a more important reason, though. The question of whether man is good is relevant to the basic underpinnings of government. He who believes that some people are good and some bad will endeavor to put the good people in charge of the bad. (Good liberal bureaucrats in charge of bad oil and health care companies, for example). On the other hand, he who believes that everyone is somewhat bad will avoid, whenever possible, giving any person power over any other.
Having seen a speech by Obama in 2006 about his faith and politics, I appreciate very much reading this interview. Having someone ask him questions on the core Christian beliefs to get his response reveals how far away from orthodox belief he is, especially the sin question. You are not a Christian because your mother sort of was or because you walked down an aisle once and go to church, you are a Christian because you acknowledge that your sin separates you from God and only Jesus can bring you out of that state into communion with God.