Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review: "The Faith of Barack Obama"

Title: The Faith of Barack Obama
Author: Stephen Mansfield
Published: Thomas Nelson, 2008

This is an extremely insightful book about the faith of Barack Obama. Briefly, there are three reasons why you should read this book. Firstly, the reader will gain a better appreciation of Barack Obama both as a person as well as a decision-making political leader. Secondly, reviewing his religious vision can be rewarding as it helps us to learn to appreciate our own spiritual journeys. The third and final reason is the most significant. As Obama is one of the most influential world leader, we will learn to better appreciate the reasons behind the man's decision making and not simply consume the whole news reporting by the mass media.

It is the inward faith that dictates outward actions. Thus, in order to appreciate the person and to understand his leadership style both past, present and future, one will need to comprehend his ‘religious vision that informs his life.’ (xxiii)

In a sense, the book is like a religious biography of Barack Obama. The author paints Obama as a man trying to walk the middle ground between the left and the right. Not only does the political climate requires it, the post-modern culture demands it. ‘Balance’ is the keyword and a given in the modern secular American culture. Stansfield shows us a man who grew up as one forced to walk between two worlds. The first part of the book describes Obama's frantic search for self-identity. Racially he is ‘too black’ among his white friends and ‘too white’ among his black friends. Religiously, when he was young, he was exposed to atheism, Islam, humanism and various Christian beliefs. His grandmother, Madelyn Payne , herself a rebel to strict religion, was born to conservative Methodist parents. His grandpa, Stanley Dunham welcomed Unitarianism. His father Barack Obama Sr had Islamic influences, and his stepfather lived in a Muslim populated country of Indonesia. Geographically, he has lived in Hawaii, Indonesia and North America. Thus, his search for self-identity starts with trying to make sense of a background that is mixed with superstitious folk religions, skeptical religious reactions and secular political expectations. On top of that, he struggles with racial identity (black or white?), religious affinity (Muslim, Christian, liberal?) and political nationality.

In “My House, Too,” Obama embraces a personal faith that is intimately shaped by Rev Jeremiah Wright, the black pastor of Trinity Church. It is through this relationship with Trinity Church and Dr Wright that helps Obama register some pride in being black. Instead of focusing on the radical theologies of the Trinity pastor, Stansfield constructively highlights the significance of Wright’s ministry that restores pride and purpose in the faith of Barack Obama. Thus, Obama finds his faith in the Trinity version of ‘activist,’ ‘politically liberal,’ and responsible social action (61). Trinity Church’s highly educated ministry leaders helps to address Obama’s intellectual curiosity. Its well connected parish enables him to rub shoulders with leaders in various echelons of high society, yet keeping in touch with the ordinary man in the street through fellowship meals that is full of ‘hugs and meals and stories to be shared’ (63). In fact, his decision to leave Trinity is a remarkable display of how he tries to walk the balance between two opposing forces. On the one hand, he refuses to disown his pastor, by saying: ‘you don’t abandon family’ (65). Yet due to political sensitivities, he wisely withdrew his membership from the controversial church. Stansfield does the public a good service in highlighting the importance of Trinity’s positive influence over Obama, to counter the various negative images that some quarters of the press have paraded about over its radical preaching, and the lack of patriotism. Indeed, it is only right to remember that Obama did not ascend to the Presidency on his own strength. His ability to stand on his own agenda stems from a recovery of his self-identity that first started at Trinity Church and nurtured via a close relationship with his spiritual father, Jeremiah Wright.

The Integration of Faith & Practice
Contrary to what some people may believe, Obama is not a fence-sitter. He has convictions that is close to his heart. In his foray into politics, he has to address both concerns of the religious left, the conservative right and others. Yet there is a sense that he is able to stand on his own without having to sway to either side of the religious left or right. (Some may contend that he is more 'leftist' than right wing.) He tiptoes gently among pro-choice and pro-life groups. Religiously, he treads carefully among the liberals and the conservatives. Eventually, he embraces a faith that is liberal (99). In order to deeper appreciate the positioning of Obama, one of the most helpful parts of the book is the ‘Four Faces of Faith.’ Here, Stansfield uses four famous personalities to draw the political-religious landscape. In John McCain, we see a form of leadership that is based on old-fashioned conservative faith that determines ‘right behavior,’ where ‘character and duty’ and ‘virtues’ are ‘informed by faith’ (104). In Hillary Clinton, we see a face of America that tries to update traditional Methodist faith to the modern environment. In George W Bush, we see the champion of ‘Religious Right,’ the ‘evangelicals, the awakened Moral Majority’ that tries to explicitly practice Christian principles both nationally and to some extent internationally. Stansfield contrasts these three faces with Obama by saying that Obama differs from all of them by being black, liberal, under fifty and ‘Christian in a non-traditional sense’(127). Most significantly, while the three faces mirrors various forms of conservatism and glorifies past successes, Obama epitomizes the future.

Yet, this does not mean Obama is one who is helplessly liberal and ungrounded in anything. In fact, Stansfield highlights Obama’s faith as different from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who tried to go too far to the other end by explicitly separating faith from practice (143). In fact, Obama is one who is firmly integrated. It is from this angle that Stansfield see Obama as a person who can bring healing to the nation. Obama's non-alignment to any of his previous predecessors makes him an ideal candidate to start things afresh. Perhaps, in Obama, there will be national unity to bring about courage to address poverty, attack racism and accelerate ethical levels that is consistent with personal faith and public practice.

My conclusion
America, despite its increasingly secular influences, and the constant determination to keep religion separate from the state, it is still a land where faith matters mean a lot. In fact, the leader seems to be the one who is able to mirror as closely as possible the religious identities of the general public. It is here where I shall conclude this review. The reason for Obama’s popularity is simple. Religiously, racially, and politically, his struggles mirrors many of us and increasingly points to how the new world will look like. Never underestimate the power of faith, and specifically never underestimate the potency of the faith of Barack Obama.

This book is highly recommended for those of us who wants to fresh look at the person behind the Presidential seal and the reasons for his inner strength. Due to his amazing ability to mirror the changing landscape of the new century, we see a leader who not only understands the past and the present, but can potentially usher in hope for many in the future and beyond.

I'll give this book 3.5 stars out of 5.



Rosie Perera said...

Thanks for that excellent review! It's a book I've wanted to read but have had no time for thus far, and you have just have given me the essence of it so succinctly.

YAPdates said...

Thanks Rosie,
I have procrastinated on reviewing this book, but am thankful I managed to complete it. These days, I've been thinking about Christ & Culture (remember Niebuhr?) and hope to review another book around that theme. Any recommendations, apart from Stackhouse's latest book (Making the best out of it)?


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