I think of the tradition of Christian skepticism as a very old tradition, a tradition of people who are as aware of and concerned with their doubt as they are committed to their faith. I think that’s the kind of Christianity that Obama found at Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church of Christ, and I think that’s what appealed to him.
[Recently] I quoted a comment that Jeremiah Wright made to Obama’s biographer, David Remnick. Wright said to him, “He came to Trinity not just looking for a social gospel but looking for a church that didn’t put other people down.” That sense of Christians as people on a quest, and that quest taking them in different directions, and different people choosing different worlds for themselves is something that I think appealed to Obama and is consistent with the way you would expect from the son of cultural anthropologist to think. He understands that the different cultures in human history have had different orientations toward values.
He finally found in Jeremiah Wright’s church a way of thinking that made sense to him, and he uses that phrase, “I felt the spirit of God beckoning to me” with reference to his experience in Trinity Church. I think it’s pretty powerful. It’s the sort of conversion story that you get in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and I think it’s similar to the experience that Obama himself had.
Partly because of the Muslim canard, very few have taken the president’s profession of Christianity very seriously. I’d argue it’s critical to his record and to his politics, but Christianist Republicans and secular Democrats have largely missed it because of ideological blinders. Back in 2007, I wrote:
He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult. But—critically—he is not born-again. His faith—at once real and measured, hot and cool—lives at the center of the American religious experience. It is a modern, intellectual Christianity. “I didn’t have an epiphany,” he explained to me.
“What I really did was to take a set of values and ideals that were first instilled in me from my mother, who was, as I have called her in my book, the last of the secular humanists—you know, belief in kindness and empathy and discipline, responsibility—those kinds of values. And I found in the Church a vessel or a repository for those values and a way to connect those values to a larger community and a belief in God and a belief in redemption and mercy and justice … I guess the point is, it continues to be both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey for me, this issue of faith.”
At some point, a historian may take a look at Obama’s record and see in it the contours of this very modern Christianity: His Niebuhrian foreign policy, with a few moments of compassionate weakness (Libya) and his dogged resilience on expanding access to basic healthcare for millions come to mind. But it’s a theme way under-covered and a paradigm rich for interpretation. Obama’s religiosity is of a type that seems occluded in a culture riven between fundamentalism and scientism. But I suspect it is the religiosity of the American future.