Today is the official pub date for The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. I am very excited about its publication. Of all the books about Obama that have been or will be published, this is the only one I know of that deals exclusively with his faith.
Two years ago, virtually no one outside of the state of Illinois had heard of him. Today, he is a household name, not only in America but around the world. Millions find him to be an inspirational and articulate leader—just what we need at this moment in history. Others find him calculating and dangerous—the same old liberalism in a different package.But love him or hate him, Obama is a force to be reckoned with. He is not going away any time soon, even if he’s not elected this time around. As Mansfield points out, he could run for the presidency as often as he likes over the next 24 years and still be younger than John McCain is today.
And at the center of his identity is his religious faith. As Mansfield himself says, “If a man’s faith is sincere, it is the most important thing about him, and it is impossible to understand who he is and how he will lead without first understanding the religious vision that informs his life.” Obama makes no bones about it: his faith informs every aspect of his political vision.
This is a slim book with a big agenda: to explain Obama’s faith, to put it in historical context, and to explore what it might mean for our collective future.
Here are five reasons why I think The Faith of Barack Obama is important:
- The book explains Obama’s drive and vision for America. As the CEO of a Christian publishing company, I am fascinated by the fact that Obama’s religious faith is at the center of who he is. Believed by supporters or disputed by detractors, it seems clear to me that Obama’s faith is the fuel of all that he has achieved and the source of his greatest challenges in his pursuit of the presidency.
Obama is the first liberal presidential candidate in a generation to speak openly about his Christian faith. Is that faith sincere? I have been surprised by the adamant opinions of people who have yet to read Mansfield’s book and stridently insist that Obama’s faith is a sham. Frankly, I don’t think it is helpful to dismiss him so quickly. There is too much at stake not to dig deeper and attempt to understand what motivates him.
- The book counters many of the myths about Obama’s faith. Scores of these have circulated on the Internet. You’ve probably heard most of them: “Obama is a radical Muslim who will not recite the pledge of allegiance.” “Obama was sworn into office on the Quran.” “The Book of Revelation describes the anti-Christ as someone with characteristics matching those of Barack Obama.” The list goes on. The only thing these myths all have in common is that they are false.
It is true that Obama was raised in a non-Christian home, under the influence of an agnostic mother and a Muslim father. Mansfield explores how that shaped Obama and continues to influence his religious vision. But he also describes Obama’s remarkable conversion to Christianity after working in Chicago’s inner city and how even today he describes himself as “a follower of Jesus Christ.”
- The book explores the difficult aspects of Obama’s faith. Mansfield discusses Obama’s membership at the controversial Trinity United Church of Christ under the pulpit of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He even reports first-hand from the church, after sitting through a Sunday morning service and then interacting with the parishioners. In doing so, he provides a broader faith context than you get from the endless loops of media sound bites.
Probably the biggest objection traditional evangelicals have to Obama is his support of abortion rights. Many evangelicals, including some well-known authors, have told me that this is the only thing that is keeping them from voting for Obama in November. Mansfield deals with this issue head-on and explores the rationale for Obama’s position.
- The book provides a window into contemporary Christian culture. Mansfield contends that Obama’s popularity represents a fundamental shift in the religious landscape. For the first time since Jimmy Carter, many younger evangelicals (and even a few older ones) are embracing an agenda that is religiously conservative and politically liberal.
In this new, post-religious right environment, these evangelicals feel no obligation to vote Republican. In fact, they see it as their Christian duty to vote against a party they believe has pilfered the economy, savaged the environment, and propagated a needless and costly war.
Whatever one’s take on Obama himself, his message clearly resonates with these voters. And if you want to understand what’s going on culturally and politically in America today, Obama’s life and faith serve as an important vantage point.
- The book provides a new model for public discourse. This is probably the thing I personally enjoyed the most about the book. When I was a young boy, my grandmother loved to watch professional wrestling. We used to laugh at her, knowing that the wrestlers were merely performers entertaining an audience.
But since the late 1980s, we have had to endure a form of “intellectual mud wrestling.” Pundits have sensationalized the issues and polarized the American public—all in the name of building a larger audience for themselves and their advertisers. Something is dreadfully wrong, and I, for one, am tired of it.
Mansfield takes the admonition of the Apostle James seriously: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19-20).
In my view, we need more listening and less talking. We need to understand our opponents point-of-view before we start criticizing it. And most of all, we need to treat everyone with respect and dignity, even those with whom we violently disagree on the issues. Mansfield models that in a way that I find very compelling.
Mansfield, who also wrote the New York Times bestseller, The Faith of George W. Bush, states clearly that he does not intend to vote for Obama. Nevertheless, he believes it is crucial we understand the faith that drives the man who may be the next president of the United States. Unless we do so, we may very well find ourselves fighting yesterday’s battles and missing the opportunity to have a richer dialog about what it means to practice our faith in the public square.