Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Faith of Barack Obama: A Review

Thanks to Mr. Michael Hyatt, President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, I received a copy of The Faith of Barack Obamaby Stephen Mansfield on the promise to write a review.

It's a slim book--only 147 pages plus endnotes. It's divided into six chapters, the first is biographical, outlining Obama's childhood and discussing the "Is Obama really a Muslim" question. Mansfield makes a presuasive argument that the years Obama spent in Indonesia were not formative for his religious faith. On the contrary, Mansfield, relying on Obama's books, The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father, makes a convincing case that Obama was raised respecting religion without actually having a faith of his own (p. 16). The following chapters deal with Obama's connection to Trinity in Chicago (Chapter 2); his expression of the black liberation theology in his books and speeches (Chapter 3); a slight chapter entitled "Altars of State" (the endnotes call this chapter "Our Civic Religion"), outlining how religion plays out in past and present presidential politics, a throw-away chapter about the faith of Hillary Clinton, John McCain and President Bush, and a concluding chapter which essentially repeats points made above.

All this is to say, while Mansfield's book is well-written and an easy read it is thin. The author does convincingly demonstrate that Obama is no "Muslim Manchurian Candidate." But what comes rapidly to the fore is that Obama's faith itself is slight, is thin, is little more than a tinge of liberal Protestantism seasoned with the black church experience. Obama doesn't seem to believe in doctrine. His prayer life is depicted more as interior dialogue with himself rather than seeking communion or conversation with God. Mansfield harps on Obama's insistence that doubt plays a large part in religious experience and punctuates with quotes from the candidate that equate all major religions. It's no wonder the book is short and thin on substantive analysis: there's little there to analyse.

Toward the end of the book, Mansfield seems to grasp this, casting the this election in larger terms. He writes of the immense role religion has played in public life and policy for the past few election cycles, and argues it is at its peak now. Thus the faith that Obama has of immense importance. Mansfield that the electorate has "before them an opportunity that may, if they choose, be embraced as the path to a new history. It is an opportunity to heal, to take the historic wounds and generational conflicts that political debates are shoving to the fore and respond them in the spirit of the great healers, in the manner of those who whish to fashion a future rather [sic] a short-term political victory.... Indeed, it may well prove that this is the longer-term importance of this thrashing time in our history, just as it may well prove that this is the more important meaning of Barack Obama's presence in our history at this moment." (p. 132, 133).

But removing the overblown conclusion, the inclusion of nearly an entire chapter on the history of Rev. Wright's church and content of his sermons, the entire chapter dedicated to the faith of the other presidential contenders (at the time it was written), and what you have is a lengthy magazine article. Maybe a two-parter, but an article nonetheless. Again, it's not the author's fault so much as it is the subject. The book was bound to be written and Mansfield's approach and prose is fine. What's lacking is the subject.