Welcome, readers. This post was published in December 2006 and has become the most frequently read entry for this blog. As the election gets closer and Barack Obama's place in the competition continues to hold strong, traffic here from search engines swells accordingly. According to Sitemeter, at this writing forty percent of all my traffic is linking here.
Update: January 4, 2007, Obama comes out on top in Iowa. Traffic here is up ten-fold this morning. Mr. Obama has got a lot of attention. Thanks for visiting. You are invited to read another older post I put together last May, Barack Obama on Reinhold Niebuhr
Curiosity about Obama's religion is clearly on the minds of a lot of voters. This is not surprising in light of the number of malicious and misleading stories that remain current about the subject. As late as two months ago a Fox News (you know, the "We report, you decide" people) was deep into the guilt-by-association game with a piece aimed at staining Obama's reputation and that of the head pastor of his black Chicago United Church of Christ with one of their "some critics say" obliquely negative pieces. Read and decide for yourself, but read more than that one link which I will put near the end of what follows. The comment thread has turned out better than I expected, so if time permits you may want to check it out.
Update August 23, 2008
Today Joe Biden was revealed as Obama's running mate. The party conventions will be held during the next two weeks. Democrats first then Republicans.
It is fair to say that the race became ugly just recently. Negative advertising is unfortunate, but history shows that it "works." That sad fact may be the worst stain on our system. Until Obama's trip abroad the contest appeared to be civil. But with McCain polling poorly negative ads were aired to even the numbers. It worked. At this writing most polls are reporting a "dead heat."
My guess is that the second week of September will see the beginning of really vile advertisements from both camps. It's too bad. In this writer's opinion this election has two of the most decent men running in my adult life. Barack Obama has an edge because he is one of the brightest men, along with Phil Gramm and Patrick Moynihan, ever to be in the US Senate.
But this post is about his religion. Over the last two years it has become too long, but I keep it up because it still turns up on the first screen of most Google searches for the subject. Traffic to this post continues to be solid which indicates that a lot of people remain curious about Barack Obama's religion.
Read what is here carefully and critically. But know that the subject will be exploited to the max between now and the election. Drill into the links. Do other searches. Seek facts, not innuendos. Get informed. I hope that what I have collected here, including a long comments thread, will be of help in the reader's search for facts.
[Here starts the original post...]
Fair question. It came up today at work.
Somebody said, "What is Obama's religion? Is he Muslim?"
This turned up. It's from a speech he gave in June.  I sure like how he explains things. Tough for anybody to twist the meaning when he makes it as plain as this. He may not make it in American politics. Far, far too candid.
...I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives -- in the lives of the American people -- and I think it's time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
And if we're going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.
This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger that's deeper than that - a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause.
Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.
And I speak with some experience on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.
It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.
I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.
And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And if it weren't for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.
For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.
And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship -- the grounding of faith in struggle -- that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.
Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts.
You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.
That's a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans - evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values.
And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.
Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
Obama spoke at Rick Warren's Church on the occasion of World AIDS Day. There was a bit of carping from some quarters because they didn't like his Senate voting record on pro-life/pro-choice issues. Those objections apparently didn't impress anyone enough to void his invitation to speak. Andrew Sullivan noticed.
Like no other illness, AIDS tests our ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes - to empathize with the plight of our fellow man. While most would agree that the AIDS orphan or the transfusion victim or the wronged wife contracted the disease through no fault of their own, it has too often been easy for some to point to the unfaithful husband or the promiscuous youth or the gay man and say "This is your fault. You have sinned."
I don't think that's a satisfactory response.
My faith reminds me that we all are sinners. My faith also tells me that - as Pastor Rick has said - it is not a sin to be sick. My Bible tells me that when God sent his only Son to Earth, it was to heal the sick and comfort the weary; to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to befriend the outcast and redeem those who strayed from righteousness.
Living His example is the hardest kind of faith - but it is surely the most rewarding. It is a way of life that can not only light our way as people of faith, but guide us to a new and better politics as Americans.
For in the end, we must realize that the AIDS orphan in Africa presents us with the same challenge as the gang member in South Central, or the Katrina victim in New Orleans, or the uninsured mother in North Dakota.
We can turn away from these Americans, and blame their problems on themselves, and embrace a politics that's punitive and petty, divisive and small.
Or we can embrace another tradition of politics - a tradition that has stretched from the days of our founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another - and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done for the people with whom we share this Earth.
Update and followup...
This post was first published two months ago (12/12) and has become the most frequently hit item I have ever written. Nearly all my traffic is from Google (and other) searches. Even now nearly forty percent of the traffic is looking at this post. As my dozen or so readers know, this blog is an eclectic mix of many topics, but in this case it seems important to do a followup.
Here is the link to the Fox News piece mentioned in the opening paragraphs.
I'm not pushing any one's candidacy. My identity as an old-fashioned Sixties-style Liberal is slowly being overcome as a Flaming Moderate. Pretty dull, huh? Even so, the more I follow politics, both domestic and international, the less impressed I am with polar extremes. We seem to be living in a time when it is a politically fatal move to endorse a reasonable and practical but not flashy remedy for high-profile problems. Or to change one's opinion, God forbid.
This commentary by Van at Judith Weiss' blog summarizes the central challenge that Barack Obama faces. Sadly, it has nothing to do with his suitability to run for president. Nothing.
Melissa V. Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton University professor who has followed Obama's political ascent, said that he may be forced to choose: "You can be elected president as a black person only if you signal at some level that you are independent from black people" -- a move she said would be "guaranteed" to make black people angry. "He is going to have to figure out whether there is a way not to alienate and anger a black base that almost by definition is going to be disappointed," she said.
Something like Catch 22.
Somehow relating to this problem of polarization -- after all, that's the nub of the problem -- I listened to Ira Glass at This American Life yesterday afternoon. The program ended with an intense look at how majorities and minorities behave (rather MISbehave) in Congress. Looking back at the five or six last decades, he concludes that Washington politics seems more prone to vengeance than comity. (The main program was a somewhat salacious take on Valentine's Day, but the Coda at the end was thought-provoking, replete with actual examples of politicians doing what they do best...being mean to one another.