Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: The Faith of Barack Obama

As an observer of US politics from afar, I have been as interested as anyone in the Obama phenomenon. As I said back in February: "I don't know enough about Barack Obama or his policies to know whether I support him or not, but as a NZer who can't vote in the USA that's pretty irrelevant anyway. But I do know inspirational public speaking when I see/hear it! And surely inspiring his/her country to do better is one of the key roles of a president? Few people can remember Jack Kennedy's specific policy successes, but all remember how inspirational he was."

So, when Michael Hyatt wrote that Thomas Nelson (of which he is CEO) had published the book "The Faith of Barack Obama", and he called for blogger reviews, I leapt at the chance of receiving a review copy because it would bring together many of the interests that I myself write about - christianity, politics, leadership, social justice, public speaking, etc.

Michael's introduction promised that the book would:
  1. explain Obama’s drive and vision for America;
  2. counter many of the myths about Obama’s faith;
  3. explore the difficult aspects of Obama’s faith;
  4. provide a window into contemporary (US) Christian culture;
  5. provide a new model for public discourse.
In my opinion the book has met those lofty goals. It provides a fascinating insight into Obama's personal faith, it's beginnings, the context in which he came to a personal faith after a lifetime of exploring, and most critically - given he could be US President soon - how his faith drives his politics.

But, for me as an overseas observer, neither of the two sections of the book that stand out the most are about just Obama himself.

The first is the section providing historical context and depth around Obama's former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Based on media reports you would think Wright was on the lunatic fringe, but the book makes it clear that while his speaking is provocative it comes with a lot of depth, understanding and prophetic deliberateness. His language and imagery are of the pulpit, not of the public square - if you are not familiar with the style of the pulpit you will most likely misinterpet what he is trying to communicate. This section is worthy reading for anyone interested in how the church could (should?) respond to oppression of its own people, and to social justice issues in general.

The second is the "Four Faces of Faith" chapter comparing the personal faith of Obama with the personal faiths of Hillary Clinton, John McCain and George W Bush - all of whom are active christians who attend their local church when possible (which is not easy for a national politician), and whose faith informs their politics. This chapter is a vital contribution to the need for an understanding of how christian faith can take different forms, which themselves spawn quite different approaches to politics - and yet still be a genuine faith.

This chapter contrasts a faith rooted in an understanding of the oppression of a people and hope that it can end. It compares a faith that is "progressive ... social justice ... and the most liberal face of all" (Obama), with a faith that "cling(s) to traditional religion but long(s) for a politically liberal America" (Clinton), with a faith that is "not comfortable speaking publicly about a personal matter like faith ... measur(es) faith by good deeds ... distrust(s) excessive religious talk but value(s) religion confirmed by good works and character ... silent character ... unpreachy character ... character that would never vaunt religion for political gain" (McCain), with a faith of the "evanglical ... the awakened moral majority ... those eager to connect the nation to her moorings in holy passion and to her call to be a 'city upon a hill'" (Bush).

I commend this book to you. It is a good read, and an aid to understanding faith and politics.

If you buy "The Faith of Barack Obama" here I will receive a referral commission.
Update: Mon-15-Sep: added the sentence about the language and imagery of the pulpit.

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