Ebenezer Baptist Church

Barack Obama speaks yesterday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, where Martin Luther King Jr. was once the preacher.

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Barack Obama

When I arrived in the US in the summer of 2006, I had never even heard the name of Barack Hussein Obama. 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: parts 1 and 2, 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 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.

Unity

For conservatives, he’s too liberal; for liberals, he’s too conservative. For some black people, he’s too white, for some white people, he’s too black (his dad was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas). He attracts support from among Republicans and independents as well as his own Democratic party; his divisiveness springs from his desire to cultivate unity, a desire which threatens the status quo and those who would cling to it. He spurns the traditional models of running for president by tearing down and throwing dirt at the other candidates (though on occasion he has had to confront false accusations forcefully). He has drawn comparisons to Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in his ability to inspire people to band together for a greater cause. And this is one of the main things that attracts me to him: his desire to join people together to work for good.

This is not to say that the message for unity is easy. A TIME Magazine article in 2006 explored the fine line that Obama treads:

Obama’s debut on the national stage, his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, mesmerized people because he seemed to speak for almost everyone, black and white, liberal and conservative, immigrant and native born. But in the Senate, where voting means you have to take sides, Obama has found that preserving his Everyman appeal is almost impossible.

While Obama has drawn praise from Democrats and Republicans for his intellect and diligence, he’s struggling to please all those who expect something from him: liberals want the formerly feisty antiwar candidate to be the standard bearer for their causes, Democrats in Washington want him to take on Bush, African Americans want the only black Senator to speak out on racial issues, and moderates and Republicans like McCain want to see Obama’s bipartisan side. It’s a complicated balance, particularly for a man who would need the support of all those disparate groups to become President–a possibility he already has his eye on. “People have enormous expectations of him,” says David Axelrod, one of Obama’s top advisers. “And to live up to them is difficult. He’s just a person, and the minute you start casting votes, you make some people happy and some people unhappy.”


Barack Obama doesn’t want to be president of the blue (Democrat) states, and of the red (Republican) states. He understands that the only way to get things done—to really get things done—is to get people to work together. He wants to be president of the United States of America.

Faith

I can tell you now that I don’t agree with Barack on all of his policies; I can tell you now that if he is elected president, I won’t agree with every decision he makes; I can tell you now that he will make mistakes. I could tell you each of those things about all of the candidates. But what sets Barack Obama apart for me is that I trust his character, I trust his integrity, I trust his faith in God and his faith in people.

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.


Of course, people will say, “But George W. is a Christian, and look at all the bad decisions he made.” Christians make bad decisions; non-Christians make bad decisions. Nobody is immune to this malaise. But one of my lecturers put forward this comment as food for thought on the place of values in the political arena: “I disagree with George W. Bush vehemently on a great number of issues, but I’d be far more comfortable with my daughter working in Bush’s White House than in Bill Clinton’s.”

Character

Probably the biggest draw for me is 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); largely, he seeks to demonstrate kingdom values (I believe) by seeking the protection of all human life, the protection of the environment, the propagation of peace (as far as possible).

Candidates for Change?

Change is going to happen; that is not in question. Whoever is elected president of the United States in November will bring change to this administration, and to the way this country is run; every presidential candidate is pushing themselves forward on the way that they will be different to George W., and so it’s not a mere probability that something will change—change is going to happen.

But what kind of change? Every presidential candidate brings something to the table, something good, something inspiring, something that might want to make you vote for them. Barack Obama stands for the kind of change that I want to see: change that means unity—across red and blue states, change that means accountability, change that means transparency, change that means integrity, change that means a fierce defense of not just the American people but of all human beings.

In the End

There is much more I could write about the junior senator from Illinois. I could write a book about him if I had the time, resources and inclination. But I don’t. I merely wanted to share something about a man who has captured my imagination and given me license to believe that hope is not a bad thing, that change for the better is possible, that the world does not have to be going to hell in a handbasket. And I realize that much of this is written in generalities. You may want to know what his stances are on immigration, the economy, abortion, and so forth. I want to tell you what I think of him.

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.

Ultimately, we vote for who we want to, for who our conscience, and our hearts and minds tell us to vote for. I’m not claiming that Barack Obama ought to be the candidate you ought to vote for if you’re Christian or not, black or white or Asian, if you’re rich or poor. How you decide who you vote for is your choice.

Barack is mine.