Obama's faith and prophecy

I thank John Meunier for giving me a link to and extracts from the full text of a 2004 newspaper interview with Barack Obama about his faith.

This full text seems to me the very genuine testimony of a man who was brought up as a nominal Christian, had a clear evangelical conversion experience, and has an ongoing relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but is also wary of some the certainties and arrogance of many evangelical and other Christians. In fact very like me in these ways. But I would express myself with more certainty than he does on some matters, such as that there really is a future hope for Christians.

I was struck most strongly by this part:

FALSANI:
Do you pray often?

OBAMA:
Uh, yeah, I guess I do.

Its’ not formal, me getting on my knees. I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. I think throughout the day, I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why am I doing it. …

It’s interesting, the most powerful political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a certain truth. I can feel it. When I’m talking to a group and I’m saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I’m just being glib or clever.

FALSANI:
What’s that power? Is it the holy spirit? God?

OBAMA:
Well, I think it’s the power of the recognition of God, or the recognition of a larger truth that is being shared between me and an audience.

That’s something you learn watching ministers, quite a bit. What they call the Holy Spirit. They want the Holy Spirit to come down before they’re preaching, right? Not to try to intellectualize it but what I see is there are moments that happen within a sermon where the minister gets out of his ego and is speaking from a deeper source. And it’s powerful.

There are also times when you can see the ego getting in the way. Where the minister is performing and clearly straining for applause or an Amen. And those are distinct moments. I think those former moments are sacred.

It seems here that Obama is attributing the power in his speeches, when he is not “just being glib or clever”, to the Holy Spirit, in the same way as the Holy Spirit is behind powerful sermons. In other words, he is claiming that his speeches are prophetic – not in the predictive sense underlying what I wrote concerning the prophecy about Sarah Palin, but in the more fundamental sense that prophecy is the Holy Spirit speaking through human beings.

The USA and the world certainly needs a prophetic President, one who spends time regularly in “an ongoing conversation with God” and follows the leading of the Holy Spirit not just in speeches but also in every decision and action. It seems that in Barack Obama we have the genuine article in these respects. Let’s hope and pray that he is able to keep this up through all the pressures of the post he is about to take up.

0 thoughts on “Obama's faith and prophecy

  1. ok.
    I for one, I guess, hopes the man does well and governs “for the common good” as our Dec. of Ind. states the government should do.
    Yet, I do wonder how much Mr. Obama listens to God the Holy Spirit when he ponders the issue linked below.
    http://townhall.com/Columnists/RobertGeorge/2008/10/15/obamas_abortion_extremism
    No, I am not some crazy right winger… the original article appeared elsewhere… it seems, however, that the US voters did not do their due diligence. (see: Zogby poll of Obama voters)
    The electoral college, which the Framers designed to keep rhetoricians out of powerful positions, failed in this modern case.
    Peace and grace.

  2. Mashmouth, as I have written elsewhere I do not endorse Obama’s abortion policies, and like you I hope that he listens to the Holy Spirit when he ponders this issue. I also hope that Christians who oppose him simply because of his stand on this matter are listening to the Holy Spirit, and not to spirits of negativity and condemnation which come from another place.

  3. From the interview, it doesn’t sound as if he’s an evangelical. He sounds like an inclusivist. There are many paths to the same place, and those include non-Christian religions. He’s not talking about political cooperation, as Bush does when he says Islam is a good religion. He’s talking about paths to the same place religiously, something Bush would never say. That’s a key difference between evangelicals and liberal Christians.

    It’s hard to tell why he says he prays and then specifies that he has an ongoing conversation with himself all day, asking questions of what he’s doing, unless he sees prayer as meditating on your life instead of as talking to God. That’s a bit worrisome from the perspective of defending him as an evangelical. It strikes me more as what you’d expect from a Unitarian Universalist. It’s not the only thing in this interview that comes across that way, in fact. He later says this internal monologue or dialogue replaces Bible reading too.

    In the part you speak of as the Holy Spirit speaking through him, I notice that he seems to resist that. He reduces such talk to being aligned with truth (something he says he can’t have a monopoly on, whatever that means), and recognizing God is then reduces to recognizing the greater truth shared between him and the audience. It sounds like the typical secularizing of Christian language that you get in the mainlines. He even uses the expression “what they call the Holy Spirit” as if he doesn’t really like to speak in such terms.

    It becomes clear later on why earlier on he’s got some real resistance to thinking of Jesus as anything more than a good teacher who can serve to bridge us to God. Jesus preached pretty seriously about hell, and Obama doesn’t seem to want to accept that part of Jesus’ teaching. He’s even openly agnostic about whether there is an afterlife to begin with. His reward may only be in this life if he lives his life as well as he can, and it’s clear that he’s working with a merit-based system of reward, because there’s nothing about God’s grace or even faith. He goes on to give an example of what heaven reduced to nice experiences in this life would mean.

    Then he reduces sin to being out of line with one’s own values. In other words, the only sin is hypocrisy. There’s nothing about offending God, nothing about objective righteousness and objective moral wrongness.

    It’s interesting that he sees Abraham Lincoln’s “faith” as an example of doing it right. Lincoln, to his death, refused to believe in the resurrection of Jesus or the resurrection of believers. He had no truck with miracles.

    I can’t see how this interview gives evidence that he’s an evangelical. He seems to me to be everything evangelicalism has resisted in the liberalization of Christianity in the mainlines. Until now, I was agnostic about whether his faith was genuine. It seems very likely to me now that it’s not. It’s hard for me to imagine a life transformed by the Holy Spirit leading to someone rejecting so much of the revealed truth of scripture and then passing it off as humility.

  4. Peter,
    I did not say, like you did, that I hope Obama listens to the Holy Spirit. In fact, I characterized him as one who likely does not. In fact, like the post after ours, I noticed that his constant dialogue with himself sounded like he thinks that he is God, and he is always praying to himself.
    ‘I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. I think throughout the day, I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why am I doing it. …’
    What?!
    Jeremy… well stated post. In fact, I could not have said it better myself.
    Google ‘Earth Charter’ to see what likely the Universalists would likely ratify, as I suspect Mr. Obama would as well.

  5. Jeremy, I did not say that Obama was now an evangelical, only that he had an evangelical conversion experience in the past. But I am prepared to believe that people who are not evangelicals have genuine relationships with God through Jesus Christ. I accept that what he says here is not entirely satisfactory from an evangelical viewpoint. As you say, he uses the kind of language acceptable in theologically and politically liberal circles. Part of the reason for this may be an attempt to avoid alienating voters by seeming to come across as a fundamentalist, so we shouldn’t necessarily take everything he says too literally. It seems clear to me that his faith is genuine, it’s just not the same as yours, Jeremy.

  6. It’s genuine in the sense that he sincerely believes it. It’s genuinely part of the broad tradition commonly called Christianity. But what gives me pause is the kind of attitude toward God’s word, the reduction of language about God, prayer, sin, and heaven to merely secular analogues, and the nearly-outright denial of biblical teachings that are very hard to dismiss as authentically in Jesus’ own teaching, certainly in the witness of the apostles even if you go to the level of the Jesus Seminar in skepticism about the biblical witness to the historical Jesus. I’m willing to accept that there are people who aren’t evangelicals who have a genuine relationship with God, but it seems a stretch to me to call Obama’s religion as even Christian in a broader sense, pretty much in the same way that it strikes me as odd to call Unitarian Universalists Christian. He doesn’t seem much less radical than them.

  7. Jeremy, perhaps the real point is that there is not enough evidence in this article alone to decide whether Obama’s faith is closer to liberal evangelicalism or to unitarian universalism. So we are bringing into the equation evidence from elsewhere, presuppositions, hopes and fears, and from different mixes of these getting different results.

    I suppose I am mixing in a good dash of Jeremiah Wright style evangelicalism and supposing that Obama has not rejected most of that even if he has rejected some of Wright’s extreme politics. Possibly that is just wishful thinking.

    But surely if in doubt we should think positively about our apparent brother in Christ, Philippians 4:8, and work to build him up in his faith and in his work for your country and the world, rather than to tear him down with negativity based on supposition.

  8. I don’t mind offering up support for what he does in governing that’s worth supporting (something we’ll at times certainly disagree on). I don’t mind encouraging him to seek to serve God through developing a relationship with Jesus. I just worry about flat-out assertions that he’s an evangelical. I was hesitant about such a claim for Bush, but there was never anything theologically far out from Bush like there seems to be with Obama. Bush seems to have undergone a radical change in his life due to what seems like a religious conversion. Obama seems to have gone forward at an altar call and begun calling himself a Christian without much change in the secularized religion that he seems to follow. I don’t think there’s much evidence that Bush isn’t an evangelical, but I think this interview is significant evidence that Obama is not.

    I have no intention of giving anyone false assurance of salvation, and when we’re talking about someone who doesn’t even believe in salvation in the form of an afterlife then I think we’re probably doing that by some things that we might call trying to build him up in his faith. If I were able to sit down with Obama, I would encourage him to do the same things with respect to God that I would encourage anyone to do, but it seems to me that calling him an evangelical assumes something that sends a message that I’m very unconfident is true.

    And I’m not sure why you think Wright is an evangelical, even a liberal one. He very clearly satisfies one of the three scriptural grounds for excommunication and probably satisfies at least one other. The three grounds are gross doctrinal error, gross immorality, and significant divisiveness within the body of Christ. Wright has very clearly demonstrated that he does the third proudly and publicly. He calls white Christians the anti-Christ and treats us as if we’re not really Christians. Now you also have to reject basic Christian doctrine to do such things, but I think there is also some evidence that he does so in other matters, particularly on the atonement (and I don’t mean merely thinking about the atonement with union metaphors instead of substitution or such things; I mean replacing atonement altogether with the social gospel).

    Liberal evangelicals would include people who reject the substitutionary element of the atonement but retain a penal element (e.g. my co-blogger Wink), who support open theism but insist that God has a plan and will win in the end (e.g. philosophers Dale Tuggy and Keith DeRose), who are universalists of the sort that they’re convinced everyone who goes to hell will eventually repent and follow Christ once they see the consequences of not doing so, and thus evangelism is still urgent, and hell is still real (e.g. Keith DeRose), who are inclusivists of the sort where Christ’s sacrifice in fact atones for some in other religions because general revelation teaches them that God must provide a solution to the sin problem and trust him to do so (e.g. the C.S. Lewis view), that a homosexual lifestyle is morally ok but who feel the need to reinterpret scripture to defend such a view (e.g. I have a friend who holds such a view and is clearly an evangelical) and the similar sort of view about gender roles (e.g. evangelical egalitarians).

    There are some who deny inerrancy (but really affirm it and just deny a straw man that they think inerrancy is), but I think actual denial of inerrancy is harder to maintain while being an evangelical, but the Fuller model makes an effort by still insisting that scripture is infallible on any moral teaching or theology within its pages. (Some at Fuller don’t actually follow this. I know of one who thinks Paul was a complementarian but insists that we shouldn’t be, and I think that moves out of the range of evangelicalism.) But I think you can say that there are errors in dates and place names in the Bible and still count as being within evangelicalism, just on the fringes.

    Those are liberalizing tendencies in evangelicalism. One can be an evangelical and hold such views. It seems to me that you’ve left evangelicalism if you deny the reality of hell altogether and express skepticism about even heaven or if you redefine prayer as talking to yourself, as if it’s not a conversation with God at all. I’m pretty open to thinking of people as evangelicals, albeit on the fringes, even if one is not theologically conservative. I consider Keith DeRose an evangelical. There are some whose views I simply can’t discern, such as Brian McLaren. But some have expressed enough that I think there’s reason not to consider them evangelicals, because I’m not sure there’s anything distinctively Christian about their religious views, even if they attend a Christian (in name at least) congregation. This seems true of Obama from this interview. I expect it’s probably true of J.K. Rowling, for the record (and I’m a big fan of her work). It seems to me that Obama could just as easily have had pretty much the same faith he has if he had instead found himself in Mormonism, Islam, or Unitarian Universalism, and the only reason he was in Wright’s church was its political usefulness.

  9. Jeremy, I too would “worry about flat-out assertions that he’s an evangelical”, if I ever saw one. But I haven’t, and haven’t made one myself.

    As for Bush, I’m not sure if warmongering in direct contradiction to Jesus’ commands is enough to make one not an evangelical, but surely it is enough to make one at best a very bad Christian.

    On your definitions I would probably be a liberal evangelical. I would use the term of people significantly more liberal than me, but probably not of Obama from the limited evidence I have seen.

    But God, who is full of love and mercy, will probably save both of them (and me!) on the basis of their confessions of faith, despite the failure of both to live up to the highest ideals of the Christian faith.

  10. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Obama: not a matter of “once evangelical, always evangelical”

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