Finding His Faith
From Newsweek's Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe
via Joseph Campbell Foundation Update November 11, 2008 (subscription required)
Originally published Jul 12, 2008 from the magazine issue dated Jul 21, 2008
In 1981 Barack Obama was 20 years old, a Columbia University student in search of the meaning of life. He was torn a million different ways: between youth and maturity, black and white, coasts and continents, wonder and tragedy. He enrolled at Columbia in part to get far away from his past; he'd gone to high school in Hawaii and had just spent two years "enjoying myself," as he puts it, at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In New York City, "I lived an ascetic existence," Obama told NEWSWEEK in an interview on his campaign plane last week. "I did a lot of spiritual exploration. I withdrew from the world in a fairly deliberate way." He fasted. Often, he'd go days without speaking to another person.
For company, he had books. There was Saint Augustine, the fourth-century North African bishop who wrote the West's first spiritual memoir and built the theological foundations of the Christian Church. There was Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher and father of existentialism. There was Graham Greene, the Roman Catholic Englishman whose short novels are full of compromise, ambivalence and pain. Obama meditated on these men and argued with them in his mind.
When he felt restless on a Sunday morning, he would wander into an African-American congregation such as Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "I'd just sit in the back and I'd listen to the choir and I'd listen to the sermon," he says, smiling a little as he remembers those early days in the wilderness. "There were times that I would just start tearing up listening to the choir and share that sense of release."
Obama has spoken often and eloquently about the importance of religion in public life. But like many political leaders wary of offending potential backers, he has been less revealing about what he believes—about God, about prayer, about the connection between salvation and personal responsibility. In some respects, his reticence is understandable. Obama's religious biography is unconventional and politically problematic. Born to a Christian-turned-secular mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist African father, Obama grew up living all across the world with plenty of spiritual influences, but without any particular religion. He is now a Christian, having been baptized in the early 1990s at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. But rumors about Obama's religion persist. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 12 percent of voters incorrectly believe he's Muslim; more than a quarter believe he was raised in a Muslim home.
His baptism presents its own problems. The senior pastor at Trinity at the time of Obama's baptism was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the preacher who was seen damning America on cable TV for weeks last spring—and will doubtless be seen again this fall. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, almost half of the respondents say Obama shares at least some of Wright's views; nearly a third say Wright might prevent them from voting for the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The story of Obama's religious journey is a uniquely American tale. It's one of a seeker, an intellectually curious young man trying to cobble together a religious identity out of myriad influences. Always drawn to life's Big Questions, Obama embarked on a spiritual quest in which he tried to reconcile his rational side with his yearning for transcendence. He found Christ—but that hasn't stopped him from asking questions. "I'm on my own faith journey and I'm searching," he says. "I leave open the possibility that I'm entirely wrong."
The story of Obama's faith begins with his mother, Ann. Raised in the Midwest by two lapsed Christians, she lived and traveled throughout the world appreciating all religions but confessing to none. One of Ann's favorite spiritual texts was "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth," a set of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers that traces the common themes of religion and mythology, Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, tells NEWSWEEK. When the family lived in Indonesia, Ann, on occasion, would take the children to Catholic mass; after returning to Hawaii, they would celebrate Easter and Christmas at United Church of Christ congregations. Ann later went back to Indonesia with Maya, and when Obama visited, they would take him to Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Later, while working in India, Ann lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery.
Visiting temples was not just tourism for Ann. "These kinds of experiences were a regular part of our childhood and our upbringing, and were important to [our mother] because they involved ritual," says Maya. "She thought that ritual was very beautiful. The idea of human beings' striving to be better, having the curiosity and questions about all these things, [was] perpetual and constant inside her."