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Barack Obama: Putting faith out front

How the Illinois senator came to embrace religion in his life.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 2007



CHICAGO

On a recent Sunday, the magnetic pastor who led Barack Obama to Christianity was at his usual perch on the dais here, a South Side megachurch where a plaque beneath stained-glass depictions of the African-American struggle reads "Unashamedly Black, Unapologetically Christian."

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The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., in a casual short-sleeve shirt, preached about Martha as a "single saint," urging unmarried women to draw self-esteem from faith rather than men. He took blacks to task for what he said was their silence on domestic violence, homophobia, and the "illegal, untested, insane war in Iraq, started by a C-student draft dodger."

And in honor of National HIV Testing Day, he alerted his flock to mouth-swab tests being offered in the church building after services. "You can get results in 20 minutes – free and confidential," he said. Then he led more than a thousand worshipers, and a 200-member choir in traditional African dress, in a hymn to the Lord.

It was at Trinity United Church of Christ here, in the late 1980s, that Senator Obama says he found religion. Raised in a secular household, with ancestral roots running from Islam to Baptist to atheist, Obama had grown up a skeptic. But Mr. Wright's blend of scripture and social action resonated with Obama, then a young community organizer in black neighborhoods ravaged by steel-mill closings.

And when Wright preached one Sunday about the sustaining power of hope in the face of poverty and despair, Obama says he found himself in tears.

"The questions I had did not magically disappear," Obama wrote in his recent book, titled "The Audacity of Hope" after Wright's turn of phrase, of the day four years later when he made a formal commitment of Christian faith. "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."

Attention to 'least of these'

More than the other Democratic candidates for president, Obama has made faith a centerpiece of his campaign.

He has warned the left against ceding the mantle of religion to the evangelical right. He speaks of the church as an abiding force in American public life, from the Boston Tea Party through the abolitionist and civil rights movements. He suffuses his speeches with biblical allusions – "I am my brother's keeper" is a favorite phrase. And he has cast his generation of black leaders as modern-day Joshuas, after Moses' successor, who led the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Many of Obama's political views are "an outgrowth of his reading of some of the seminal parts of the Bible about doing unto the 'least of these' just as we would have done unto Christ," says Joshua DuBois, the campaign's director of religious affairs, paraphrasing verses in the book of Matthew. "He takes very seriously the numerous passages in the Bible that talk not only about poverty, but of people of faith taking God's words and extending them beyond the four walls of the church."

But as Obama promotes faith as a means of uniting a diverse America around a shared set of values, he has at times found himself in a political minefield. To the left are liberals uneasy with religious intrusions into politics; to the right, conservatives who have questioned his Christianity and denounced his ties to Wright's Afrocentric church.

Secular childhood

Obama's childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia was a swirl of faiths and cultures. His father, a black Kenyan economist, was raised Muslim but was an atheist by the time Obama was born. His mother, a white Kansan, had Baptist and Methodist roots but viewed organized religion with a gimlet eye, wary of how often it cloaked intolerance.

"Jesus, she felt, was a wonderful example," Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, recalled in a phone interview. "But she felt that a lot of Christians behaved in un-Christian ways."

In their house, the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-Gita shared shelf space with books on mythology. His mother viewed them all through the eyes of the anthropologist she was. Religion for her was "just one of the many ways – and not necessarily the best way – that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives," Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," published in 2006.

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