Stephen Mansfield has done well in this brief book about Barack Obama’s life and faith. Presidential biography makes some of the most interesting reading, and the story of presidential candidate Barack Obama is among the most remarkable. I am grateful for the opportunity to read and review the book. It has helped me to better know who Obama is, and understand his significance.
Perhaps most interesting to me is that Obama, if elected, would be the first “Third Culture Kid” to become president. One of the aspects of Obama’s life that Mansfield makes clear is that Obama is a “man without country” (xvi). He was too white for his black friends, and too black for the society of his white grandparents. He was born in Hawaii, and barely knew his father from Kenya. A significant portion of his childhood was spent in Indonesia where his step-father introduced him to folk-Islam. And his mother sent him to a Catholic school, though she herself taught Obama her “atheistic optimism” (14).
Technically, John McCain is also a TCK, born in the Panama Canal Zone, and moved from base to base much of his childhood, though in my opinion, as far as cultural diversity goes, that does not hold a candle to running barefoot in the streets of Jakarta.
As a TCK myself, I find Obama’s biography fascinating. Raised in Colombia of American parents, I can identify with the feeling of being neither fish nor fowl. I can sympathize with his longing for belonging, and yet never quite fitting in. And even when apparently finding some birds of a feather, I know the feeling of resting lightly on the roost. Mansfield describes Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright’s church and suggests that Obama was able to attend there for 20 years and “take the chicken and spit out the bones” (64). I can attest to the TCK’s ability to pick and choose wherever he goes. In my past 15 years as an adult TCK, as I moved from assignment to assignment, I have participated in a dozen churches on four different continents. Of these churches, I only left two for doctrinal reasons. The others I stayed and got plugged in despite the flaws—and found the Lord still worked in me and made me useful in that season. But I have little assurance that Obama would have the foundation to pick and choose rightly. Being raised in an atheist and Muslim home, attending a Catholic school, I don’t see where Obama would ever have received the biblical instruction required to have the discernment to pick and choose from Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. All the same, I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt. I will grant that he may have able to receive some benefit from the good, bring his own contribution as well, and leave most of the bad to the side. If this is true, it stems not from any superior skill of Obama’s, but from God’s sovereign ability to use imperfect vessels to accomplish His purposes.
This brings me to the main thing that troubles me about Obama. Mansfield quotes from Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, that “he was seeking a ‘vessel’ for his values, a ‘community of shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs’” (24, 52). This concerns me because it appears that Obama came not to faith and a church because he was drawn to Christ, but because he already had a “faith” of his own making and sought a sympathetic community not unlike a virus seeks a host to draw the basic requirements to pass on life. The Gospels record several people who wanted to be included among Jesus’ followers, but on their own terms (Matt. 8:19-22; Luke 9:57-62). Jesus turned all of them away, because “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself” (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23). No one can come to Christ with his own agenda; Christ is Lord, He sets the agenda.
Furthermore, Mansfield quotes from Audacity that “rather than ‘renounce the world and its ways’” Obama “was pleased that his faith would not require ‘retreat from the world that I knew and loved’” (53). This raises red flags in my mind, for though Jesus’ followers are “in the world” (John 17:11), we are not to be “of the world” (John 15:19). Likewise John in his first epistle writes “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). If Obama is pleased with his faith because it has not required him to forsake the world he knew and loved before his conversion, then I must express serious doubts that Obama has found biblical, saving faith.
If I could hazard a guess at where Obama is spiritually in his own mind, I would draw from the words he used to describe his own mother. In a caption to a photo on page 68, Mansfield records Obama as having written, “For all her secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person I have ever known.” Obviously Obama is not speaking with scriptural understanding here because no atheist is spiritually awakened in the biblical sense. Without Christ, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). I believe Obama intends to pay his mother a compliment in calling her “spiritually awakened.” The way the world understands these words, being spiritually awakened merely means appreciating beauty in others different than one’s self and acknowledging an immaterial dimension to reality. Ann Dunham raised her son well, and I suspect there is a great deal of her still in him. Though many are eager to say Obama is a Christian, and proud of it, it might be more accurate to say he is “spiritually awakened” as the world would understand it, and he has associated himself with Christianity in order to give his spirituality expression.
Unfortunately, Mansfield was not able to interview Obama personally, and since I have not read any of Obama’s books myself, I will stop short of pronouncing Obama an infidel. But after reading The Faith of Barack Obama, the best I can say is that I hope this is not the final definitive word on Obama’s faith. Obama is still a young man. I pray that the Lord will indeed save Barack Obama. Jesus is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him (Hebrews 7:25).