In Good Faith

The real meaning of Barack Obama’s speech on religion and politics.

Sen. Barack Obama

I don’t know about you, but I’m not accustomed to hearing politicians admit to making mistakes. At least not without a smoking-gun document, talkative intern, or FBI wire in the picture, and sometimes not even then. And yet that’s precisely what Sen. Barack Obama did in his much-talked-about and just-as-much-misunderstood speech about religion and politics last week (you can listen to it here). Amid the uproar about whether Obama was using the occasion to scold fellow Democrats or to advance a possible 2008 candidacy, it’s been overlooked that he started and ended the address with incidents he regrets from his political career.

Obama began with a story about his 2004 campaign for the Senate. In the last months of the campaign, Obama’s opponent, the volatile Republican Alan Keyes, declared that “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.” Against the counsel of his political advisors, Obama fired back. He now admits that his volley was weak. “I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response in such debates,” he told the crowd at Jim Wallis’ Call to Renewal conference. “I said that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can’t impose my own religious views on another.” Obama’s statement was reasonable, but he now thinks it was the wrong one. “My answer did not adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs,” he said last week.

Thirty minutes later, Obama concluded his remarks by quoting an e-mail message he received from a pro-life voter during the campaign, a man who had expressed his disappointment that Obama called abortion opponents “right-wing ideologues” on his campaign Web site. “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion,” the e-mailer wrote, “only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” “I felt a pang of shame,” Obama acknowledged.

If it’s hard to imagine a speech like this from George W. Bush, he who in a notorious 2004 press conference could not name a single mistake he’d made, that’s the point. Obama used the anecdotes to set up a larger theme, about the nature of faith and doubt. And whatever else pundits and bloggers say about the speech, that may be Obama’s lasting message and impact.

For the past six years, the most prominent Christian in America has been the president. His belief is not of the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” sort that fundamentalists embrace. Rather, Bush subscribes to a syllogistic doctrine of presidential infallibility: God works through Christians; I am a Christian; I have decided to do X; therefore, X is God’s will.

Bush is known to start each day reading a devotional from My Utmost for His Highest, a collection of essays by 19th-century Scottish minister Oswald Chambers. As Bob Wright explained in the New York Times a few years ago, Chambers had a very simple—some might say comforting—view of divine will. “The basic idea” Wright wrote, “is that once you surrender to God, divine guidance is palpable.” The only questioning involved is whether one carries out God’s will, not whether one correctly interprets it.

Those who accuse Bush of being a theocrat have made much of his reported belief that God speaks through him. That’s not entirely fair, because what Bush refers to is a fairly common hope among believers that God will use each of us to be instruments of justice and mercy and grace. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight,” from Psalm 19, is a prayer many Christians recite. It’s just that most of us don’t express this as a confident assertion that God does in fact speak through us. Instead, the prayer is a humble plea.

Obama chose to emphasize this sentiment when he told the story of his own faith journey. The senator was raised in a primarily secular home: His father was born a Muslim but became an atheist as an adult; his mother was “spiritual” but a skeptic of organized religion; his grandparents were nonpracticing Protestants. Obama’s first prolonged exposure to the church came when he moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer. Working with African-American churches, he said, “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.”

But—and he is firm about this—conversion wasn’t for him the end point. “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,” he said last week.

Millions and millions of faithful, including many evangelicals, have this sort of complicated relationship with their God. One of the enduring mysteries of faith is that it’s not easy to determine divine will. Most of us who consider ourselves religious are engaged in a constant struggle to discern God’s will for us, and we’re always aware of just how far we fall short of meeting that standard. Obama received one of his loudest ovations when he admitted: “The questions I had didn’t magically disappear.”

This humbler version of faith has been in the shadows for the past few years, derided as moral relativism or even a lack of true belief. Obama stepped up not to defend this approach to religion, but to insist on the rightness of it. That should be comforting to anyone who has been deeply discomfited by Bush’s version of Christianity. A questioning faith is a much better fit for a society like ours than one that allows for no challenge or reflection. It also acts as a check against liberals who would appropriate God for their own purposes, declaring Jesus to be the original Democrat and trotting out New Testament verses to justify their own policy programs. Liberals don’t have the answer key to divining God’s will any more than conservatives do.

Obama’s speech, delivered to an audience of the frustrated religious left, was not a tactical plan for electoral success in November or in 2008. It wasn’t a “We are too religious!” rebuttal to Republicans. It was, for the first time in modern memory, an affirmative statement from a Democrat about “how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy,” as Obama put it. John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Mario Cuomo in 1984 each gave seminal speeches on faith and Democratic politics, but they were primarily concerned with defining their own faith—Catholicism—in terms of what it was not.

Obama’s goal was different and larger. The speech worked partly because the senator speaks with easy-going confidence about his faith, weaving spiritual phrases into his speech without needing to announce them to his audience as so many of his colleagues do (“This debate about tax cuts reminds me of that verse from the Book of Hebrews …”). But more important, he doesn’t recount the story of his conversion in order to establish his religious bona fides; he does it in the service of a broader argument. And he doesn’t defend progressives’ claim to religion; he asserts the responsibilities that fall to them as religious people. Americans are looking, Obama said, for a “deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country.” He started that conversation. A few others are joining in. It’s time for everyone else to catch up.