Senator Obama on Religion

Tom Shipka

Presidential aspirant Barack Obama tells us that he wants to overcome divisions in America and refocus Americans on the pressing problems that face the nation and the world. One such division is between evangelicals, on the one hand, and liberals and seculars, on the other. How exactly does the Senator hope to bridge this gulf? He answers this question in a chapter on religion in his book The Audacity of Hope. (1)
Senator Obama first tells us that he was not raised in a religious household. His father, originally a Muslim, was an atheist at the time of his marriage to Obama's mother, and his mother, the primary influence in his early life after his parents divorced when Obama was only two, gave him an anthropologist's perspective on religion, schooling him in the great religions and their scriptures, and teaching him to treat religion "with suitable respect" but also "with suitable detachment." But as he aged and got a job working "for a group of churches in Chicago that were trying to cope with joblessness, drugs, and hopelessness," he discovered the value of religion as a source of hope, stability, and personal responsibility, eventually submitting to baptism at Trinity United Church of Christ in south Chicago. (2)
As to his proposals to bridge the evangelical-liberal gulf, Senator Obama sees a need for self-evaluation in both camps. Liberals need to appreciate how broadly and deeply religion pervades American society, that religious people share their commitment to the next generation and the focus on "thou" and not just "I," and that liberals should stop squandering time, energy, and money trying to remove "In God We Trust" from our currency and "One Nation Under God" from the pledge of allegiance. As for evangelicals, he says that they fail to understand the rationale against entanglement of church and state of our founders and clergy (3), and fail to appreciate the dangers of sectarianism in America's religiously diverse society today. "Whatever we once were," he writes, "we are no longer a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." Moreover, the Senator observes, even if nearly all Americans were Christian, religious conflict would remain. "Whose Christianity would we teach in the schools," he asks, "James Dobson's or Al Sharpton's?" And which passages of scripture would we emphasize? Would it be Leviticus which approves slavery and condemns eating shellfish? Or Deuteronomy "which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?" Or the Sermon on the Mount, "a passage so radical," he says, "that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?"
Finally, Senator Obama admonishes evangelicals that it is not enough to "simply point to the teaching" of their church or "to invoke God's will" on an issue. Their proposals, the Senator insists, "must be subject to argument and amenable to reason." For instance, on abortion, he writes, "If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths" and "those with no faith at all."
Only time will tell whether Senator Obama succeeds in his quest to be President, and, if he does, whether evangelicals and liberals will respond to his call to dialogue and collaboration.


  1. Crown Publishers, 2006, pp. 195-226.
  2. His utilitarian view of religion also appears in other comments. For instance, he notes that " can fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and the sense of reverence all young people should havefor the act of sexual intimacy." (p. 215)
  3. He notes that "the religious right who rail against liberal judges don't understand that their fight is with the drafters of the Bill of Rights and the forebears of today's evangelical church." (p. 217) He gives special recognition to Baptist minister Reverend John Leland who campaigned for separation of church and state.

© 2008 Tom Shipka