Monday, November 17, 2008

A President Like Me?

No, I don't mean a woman. I mean an agnostic. During all the arguing over whether the country was ready for a female president or a black president, I was arguing that we would elect both before we would knowingly elect an atheist* or agnostic president. My point was made nauseatingly clear during the spectacle of the Faith Forum at Saddleback Church.

After reading The Audacity of Hope close to two years ago now, I formulated a hypothesis that President-Elect Obama (then barely Senator Obama) isn't technically a Christian but an agnostic. I have kept this theory a secret because I really wanted him to get elected, and apparently even the whisper of someone not being a Christian can be the end-all of a campaign. But now that he's elected and it's too late for all of those who really care about what religion your president is, I'm going to tell you why he is agnostic.

In his earlier writing, he uses words that are very ambivalent about Christianity. He freely admits his parents were agnostics and while knowledgeable about world religions did not subscribe to any organized religion. He talks about the importance of the teachings of Jesus (the golden rule, the whole "what you do unto the lesser of these, you do unto me" bit) which I - and most freethinkers - have always argued are simply ethical codes that do not require the existence of a higher being to be true or important. He never coughs up the big Christian tenet that Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins and was resurrected.

Also in his earlier days he discussed the importance of Church and his decision to join one for the important role it plays in community and that he felt his neighbors were almost suspicious of him unless he joined "the church". That a lot of important business as a community organizer is done on Sunday mornings when everyone gathers to worship in one place.

It wasn't until he made a serious run at the White House that all of a sudden his identity as a well-defined practicing Christian took hold. But us doubters could still see the signs. He still seemed very uncomfortable discussing his faith. I hadn't yet vocalized my hypothesis to Deano, but during the Faith Forum he turned to me and said, "He doesn't believe any of this. He's just paying lip service." Immediately I agreed, "Yup."

I've always thought that this hypothesized core disbelief in the more supernatural aspects of Christianity explained well his bewilderment at the public's opinion of Jeremiah Wright. Not only do I believe this issue exposed the disconnect between white and black Christians and how they perceived the role of the Sunday sermon, but the whole time the Rev. Wright controversy was raging, Senator Obama had this attitude as if he didn't understand the depth of offensiveness to true believers. His deer-in-the-headlights look betrayed the fact that he never took the sermons seriously to begin with. And I think he was caught off guard in is ignorance at the fact that yes, people do take their preachers very seriously. I've experienced this confusion many a times when attempting to empathize with my more Christian-leaning friends and family.

After getting to know the subtly free-thinking Senator Obama from his books and interviews, I was a little disappointed when he all of a sudden he decided faith played such a big role in his life. I can't really blame him, I stand by my assertion that the average voter wouldn't vote for someone who questions the existence of God. But I think most of you know my opinion that such a candidate would make an inherently more qualified leader. But a God-questioning, half-black "elite" named Barack Hussein Obama wouldn't have a metaphorical snowball's chance in hell of getting elected UNLESS he was clearly and undeniably a practicing, worshipping card-carrying Christian. I think even if you do believe him to be so, you would not argue that above all the man is an incredibly shrewd and talented politician.

I don't know if I'm right. Like any scientist I formulated a hypothesis based on the evidence presented, though perhaps the human side of me was internally rooting for an outcome. But the other day while surfing the nets, I came across a just-released interview with then State Senator Obama from 2004. Granted, he still asserts himself a Christian (he was a politician in 2004 afterall), but the language was even more nebulous than in The Audacity of Hope. This passgage is a perfect illustration:

...I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. And I'm not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I've got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others. I'm a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it's best comes with a big dose of doubt.

Read the interview in its entirety here.

*A couple quick definitions for those of you less familiar with the language of doubters.

Atheist: Someone who does not believe in the existence of a God(s).
Agnostic: Someone who is undecided about the existence of God. They generally come in two flavors - (1) Those who think God's existence is unprovable and therefor do not feel a conclusion can ever be drawn or (2) Those who are simply unconvinced by any theological argument of which they are aware but reserve the right the be persuaded either way.
Freethinker: Someone with defined spiritual beliefs that do not fit within the framework of an existing organized religion.

Interesting tidbit: 93% of scientists can be classified into one of these three categories. On the continuum of doubt, I fall in between agnostic and freethinking.


Scott said...

Well I'm happy to report that on this subject I wholeheartedly agree with you. I have far more respect for someone who has a moral code that is based on an internal barometer than an artificial one enforced by a fear of eternal damnation. Believe it or not, this makes me respect Obama a little bit more. I don't want my leaders to have to consult the church before making important decisions. Stem cell research is a great example. How many years have been lost and how many lives could have been saved had religious belief not interfered with the advance of that science?

Minnesotablue said...

WOW! You have put my thoughts into words that I have been unable to do for years.

dr sardonicus said...

C'mon, Natalie, you know in your heart he's a Muslim... ;)

(The word verification for this post is "Dante". Seriously.)

gabrielle said...

“Doubters have been remarkably productive, for the obvious reason that they have a tendency toward investigation and, also are often drawn to invest their own days with meaning”. Excerpt from Doubt a history by Jennifer Michael Hecht which is on top of the stack of books on my night table. A tome about the great doubters and their legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickenson. 551 pages long and that’s only the beginning. I agree with your thesis, MB. Obama is part of a long tradition of curiosity, questioning and tolerance. And aren’t we lucky?
Turning the page.

spants said...

I agree with you that he's probably agnostic, or at least a "doubting Thomas." Either way, his religious code, false or not, is the basis for his position against gay marriage. Pretty nasty stuff. The strategy there was likely to a) appear more Christian, and b) to keep up his support among African-Americans, who as a demographic are against gay marriage for religious reasons.

In the end, whether Obama's religious beliefs are real or not, he uses them as a justification for his positions, one of which is seemingly hypocritical due to the era in which he was born, and the parents he was born to. It doesn't get more real than that.

magnetbabe said...

Yay! Common ground! "moral code based in internal barometer" is exactly what I was trying to convey but couldn't properly articulate it. That's one of my biggest pet peeves about organized religion is that they think because a 2000 year old book tells them what is moral they must have the monopoly on morality.

Thank you, truly a compliment.

dr. s,
Dang it! I totally forgot my other point was that this new image was supposed to offset the "secret Muslim" business.

"A History of Doubt" is on my wish list (hint, hint) and I just recently listened to her interview on Speaking of Faith.

Obama's position on gay marriage is something I have a huge problem with. And I agree that I think he's betraying his own beliefs with his stance. I don't know if I think his political stance was completely contrived of religion or a desire to seem more mainstream when he already came off as the most exotic candidate we've seen. Everyone knew that after being betrayed 8 years by W the Evangelical vote would be up for grabs. In the end, the white Evangelicals came home to Palin. But I also think part of the strategy was to attract the moderates who might have seen Obama as too "scary liberal" had he vocally come out for gay marriage. Again, not trying to excuse the inexcusable but I just think the whole issue was a little more complex than simply what the Bible supposedly says about homosexuality. Also, I disagree about his stance on gay marriage as trying to keep the African American vote. I just don't think this particular cultural issue would have kept African American voters from voting for him. If that were true they certainly looked the other way on him being so pro-choice which is a bigger religious issue.

Hot4Teacha said...

Holy blog, Batman (no pun there!). You are such a deep thinker, Nat - and I agree with you 100%. Why should someone always check themselves against a book (even the Bible) rather than going with what they know in their gut? Common sense is a good indicator, and when someone as smart as President-Elect Obama is making the decisions, I trust his sense mroe than a lot of other people's, whether alive today or 2000 years ago, as recorded by a bunch of guys in a big book.

spants said...

Abortion isn't as big a taboo among African-Americans as homosexuality, that's why. I think Obama was trying to keep African-American turnout as high as possible, and not alienating them in this "third-rail" way was a part of that. He's saying "hope" with his mouth, but he's playing cynic with his politics. He wouldn't be the next president if he wasn't off-the-charts shrewd.

Like I said, whether he believes it or not, he's using his religion as the justification for his position against gay marriage. It's sick no matter which way you look at it. I think people (not me) had this idea that Obama isn't a real politician. Those people are wrong.

I don't think Obama was ever really going after the evangelical vote. He wouldn't have won if he wasted his efforts there. And what exactly do you mean "I just think the whole issue was a little more complex than simply what the Bible supposedly says about homosexuality"? I couldn't find a context for this.

Dianne said...

The moment it hit me that Obama was far more freethinking about religion then his campaign made him out to be was during an interview late in the campaign.

He was talking about his daughters - his involvement in taking them to school and reading with them and checking their homework. Of course he was asked about his involvement in their 'religious education' and for a split second he looked perplexed and then annoyed.

His response was quick though and I delighted in what appeared to be its honesty. He said that the family attended church together 'as often as we can, it is a good way to stay in touch with the community' - your point exactly!!

and then he explained that he wanted his girls to think for themselves and question life and faith and that he wanted to make sure they were aware of all the religions in the world as that awareness builds 'tolerance'

One of the moments I was most certain he was the leader for me.

magnetbabe said...

Yes! Common sense should be an inherent quality, not checked against any book.

I agree that ultimately he is a politician, that was the crux of my argument. But I still think the gay marriage issue was not going to keep African Americans from voting for him. Having lived in an oft-visited swing state, and one with a high African American population for most of the election, that was the feeling I got at the rally and in the community. But I don't know for sure. I'm neither black nor religious. ;)

I am not trying to justify or downplay his public stance even though I believe it is different from his personal one. But with all the other cultural factors working against him, I can unfortunately see where his stance was the more pragmatic one for him. And all I meant by my comment was that the gay marriage issue while rooted in religion is often used as more of a litmus test for libralism than an intelligent conversation about what it means to let others experience happiness or even where it is in a religious doctrine that homosexuality is immoral. (I've often asked my religious friends to give me a biblical passage stating the same and they cannot.) But my point is that social moderates may see strong LGBT support as a signal that a politician will carry out a "liberal agenda" and be scared off. By the way, this attitude the Democrats have adopted of pandering so hard to the middle while the right unapologetically works its base is getting very tired and adds to their overall perception that they stand for nothing.

The truly sad part about this election and the three anti-gay amendments that passed was that I think in this economy, Obama could have been outspoken about LGBT issues and taken a leadership role while STILL being elected, meanwhile edcuating people whose demographics made them inclined to vote pro-Obama anti-gay. No one cares about wedge issues when they are losing homes and jobs, but asked on a ballot they will glad lend their homophobic opinion.

I've been keeping a close eye on that "split-second perplexity" as you so aptly put it. Very perceptive!

Christopher said...

First of all, I thought your post was brilliant. Thank you. And I fully support your hypothesis of how curious people arrive at conclusions (with the result sometimes being, “I dunno.”) However, I find a need to weigh in on the gay marriage thing. Given his political acumen I think president elect Obama has little choice but to cede to the conservative majority. Remember when Clinton tried to lift the veil in the military – don’t ask, don’t tell! I think this can be classified as a betrayal that we all saw coming. He is a black man that managed to do what I viewed as the impossible in our time (please be aware that a black church under construction in Massachusetts was burned to the ground on election night.) Same sex marriage can all too easily be framed as a hate campaign because its most elemental level makes many Americans uneasy and the unease crosses all kinds social and cultural of boundaries. I don’t know how we will resolve this last huge civil rights issue. I do know that a black man from our nation’s liberal party was just voted into the presidency. There is a way to achieve this. He knows the country isn’t there yet – and we need to push this agenda.

Beth said...

I'm not sure what Obama is, but I like him. I would never vote for someone based on religion. I am spiritual, but not religious. I'd rather have someone consult their conscience or the facts than the heavens, but that's just me.