Monday, November 17, 2008

Review: The Faith of Barack Obama

Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama, like his earlier works on George W. Bush and The American Soldier, respectively, seeks to provide a short, accessible theological biography of an important figure in modern American history. Much treatment, scholarly and otherwise, has been given to Obama’s racial background, his educational influences, and his early political career in Chicago. But very little serious treatment (i.e. not scare-tactic propaganda) has been given to his faith background.

Mansfield attempts, and largely succeeds in, examining Obama’s varied religious influences in as objective a manner as possible. His first chapter explores Obama’s childhood being raised by his mother and grandparents who, while being more or less agnostic themselves, nevertheless respected the value of religion in others’ lives and exposed young Barack to a variety of religious traditions. Mansfield also dives into Obama’s time living in Indonesia with his step-father, where he attended a secular school and learned about Islam as a civil religion, much the way children in the United States are exposed to aspects of Christianity as a civil religion. Mansfield does a very skillful job in refuting the largely discredited charge that Obama is a Muslim, since he left Indonesia before reaching the age when young men would choose to embrace the faith for themselves.

Perhaps the most valuable part in the entire book is the chapter where Mansfield explores the influence of the black church, and specifically of Jeremiah Wright, on Obama’s faith development. Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama attended for more than two decades, was uniquely able to nurture Obama’s faith journey because of its deep commitment to political activism and social justice- concerns Obama shared when he came to the church. As for Wright, Mansfield paints a very nuanced picture of him as a man of his generation, shaped by the struggle for civil rights, harboring deep suspicion of the government because of grave injustices like the Tuskegee experiments, and greatly influenced by the rise of the Black Liberation Theology of James Cone. Obama is a man of a different generation that, sharing the same concerns of their predecessors and carrying on their struggle, is not as angry and thus more able to gain acceptance in white society. Mansfield sums up the influence of Wright on Obama by saying, “To be a member of a church is not necessarily to descend into mindlessness, and a mind as fine as Obama’s is less likely to accept ideas unexamined than most.” (pg. 67)

The journalistic skill and subtlety with which Mansfield examines Obama’s background makes most of the book excellent reading. It is also what makes one particular chapter, “Four Faces of Faith” so disappointing. This chapter feels extremely out of place and makes this reader wonder if it is something of a last minute addition to the book. In it, Mansfield takes the four most prominent figures of the 2008 election cycle, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, and paints a picture of them as representatives of the different approaches to faith, largely defined by generational identity, in America today. (The book probably went to press before the sudden arrival of Gov. Sarah Palin on the national stage, and it would be interesting to see how Mansfield would incorporate her into this chapter).

It’s not that this chapter is not written without the usual research and insight that Mansfield generally brings to his subjects, or that the chapter contains a gross amount of political bias (even though one does sense that Mr. Mansfield was a strong McCain supporter). This chapter is disappointing because it does very little to give us a picture of who Barack Obama is as a religious person in the way the rest of the book does so skillfully. This material would have been better suited as a long form feature article, or as preparatory material for books on the faiths of Hillary Clinton and John McCain, respectively (books I’d quite like to read).

This particularly unfortunate and out-of-place chapter aside, The Faith of Barack Obama is an excellent book. Mansfield closes by suggesting that, as a representative of his generation, Barack Obama will be a transformative figure as coming generations move past old divisions and conflicts and form a new mold of racial and religious identity.

(Sidenote- Mansfield heavily references Obama’s books Dreams from My Father, and The Audacity of Hope, which many readers will want to pick up after reading The Faith of Barack Obama if they have not already. These books are also well written and worth your time.)

This is the first review I'm doing as part of a blog ring for Thomas Nelson Publishers. I was provided a free copy of the book in exchange for a review on my site.

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