The quiet impact of Obama’s Christian faith
Why the president’s convictions led him to believe he could unite a divided country — and why he failed
President Obama was flying over Los Angeles in June as he listened to the first accounts from a courtroom in Charleston, S.C., where family members of nine dead parishioners who were gunned down at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had just addressed the accused killer.
He heard the words of a daughter who had lost her mother: “May God forgive you. I forgive you.”
He listened to the plea of a mother who had lost her son: “Every fiber in my body hurts . . . but may God have mercy on you.”
The president paused, the thump of the helicopter’s blades filling the otherwise silent cabin. He had planned to tweet some statistics later that day comparing gun violence in the United States and other developed countries, but now he told his staff to cancel that.
Instead, in the Oval Office two days later, he seized upon something that seemed more important to him than any argument about gun control — an idea central to his political identity and his conviction that he could unify the divided nation.
“The essence of what is right about Christianity is embedded here,” he said of the families, according to notes taken during the meeting.
As Obama saw it, the parishioners and their families met the most demanding teachings of Christ. “They welcomed the stranger,” he said in the Oval Office meeting. “They forgave the worst violence.”
These were Obama’s thoughts as he prepared to deliver the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He wanted to use the moment to talk about the example that the pastor, who was killed in the attack, his parishioners and their families had set for a country that had grown so suspicious and gridlocked over the course of his presidency.
“How do we conduct ourselves?” he asked. “Don’t we have to do something more than just praise how wonderful these folks were and then go about our daily lives?”
Obama did not grow up in a religious household and became a practicing Christian as an adult. He has written more extensively about his spiritual awakening than almost any other modern president, addressing it in two books before he was elected to the White House and in more than a dozen speeches since.
His faith had been central to his identity as a new kind of Democrat who would bring civility to the country’s political debates by appealing to Republicans through the shared language of their Judeo-Christian values.
With just one year left in his second term, Obama now holds a different distinction: No modern president has had his faith more routinely questioned and disparaged. Recent polls show that 29 percent of Americans and nearly 45 percent of Republicans say he is a Muslim.
He has repeatedly said in recent months that one of his biggest regrets is that he will leave behind a country that has grown more polarized and distrustful during his two terms in the White House. “There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics,” Obama said in a recent interview.
To understand why he so deeply believed that he could close that gap and why he largely has been unable to do so, it is essential to understand his faith and how it shapes his politics. That faith also explains why he has not given up.
In his final year in office, Obama hopes to work with Republicans and evangelical Christians on criminal justice reform. He will make a renewed push on gun control and the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“He’s trying to figure out how to get a lot of these big things he cares about out of the box of political opportunism and into a more humanistic space,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning for the president’s final year in office.
The same impulse drove Obama’s Charleston eulogy. In the days before the funeral, Obama’s speechwriter, Cody Keenan, compiled 19 pages of notes on the families and their church. He reread James Baldwin to help him think about race relations and a Holocaust-era theologian — Dietrich Bonhoeffer — to better understand the nature of tragedy and grace.
Keenan turned in the first draft of the speech at 5 p.m. on the evening before Obama was to speak. Five hours later, the president called him back to the White House. The first two pages were largely intact with the president’s notes and thoughts jotted in the margins. The final two pages had been completely rewritten in longhand on a legal pad.
After eight years of working for Obama, Keenan had become adept at channeling the president’s fluid writing style, his thoughts and even his feelings onto the page. “But, there are times where it’s just impossible,” he said. He started to apologize, but the president stopped him.
“When you’ve been thinking about this stuff for 30 years, you’ll know what you want to say, too,” Obama said.
Eeven years earlier, Obama was thinking about this same subject while drafting a response to Farr Curlin, a Chicago doctor who had written to him about abortion.
It was after 1 a.m. on March 18, 2004. Twenty-four hours earlier, Obama had won the Democratic Senate primary in Illinois — the biggest victory of his political career at that point. Curlin, who began by congratulating him, had written because he was upset by abortion-related language on Obama’s campaign website in which the candidate had promised to fight “right wing ideologues” seeking to “take away women’s rights.”
“You know very well that you will struggle to find a thoughtful person who opposes abortion because he or she wants to take away women’s rights,” Curlin wrote. His opposition to the procedure, he said, was grounded in reason and supported by more than 2,000 years of church teachings.
Curlin didn’t ask Obama to change his stance; he only asked that the president use “fair-minded words” when discussing the issue.
In his late-night reply, Obama defended his belief that a woman should be the final “decision maker” and apologized for the overheated language on such a “profoundly difficult” subject. “It’s very difficult not to fall prey to some of that rhetoric,” he responded, “and it worsens in a long primary battle.”
Curlin saved the email on a hard drive. Obama wouldn’t become a national star for nearly five more months, when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, but Curlin could sense that there was something special about him. He’d seen him speak at the University of Chicago and had been impressed by his intelligence, his evenhanded tone and his message that Americans could have serious disagreements without demonizing their opponents.
“I believe you will win [the Senate election] and may go on to be the President one day,” he wrote in the email.
Obama saved the email exchange as well. Two years later, as he was contemplating a challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, he would make the email the centerpiece of a major speech on faith and politics at a religious conference in Washington. In the address, Obama condemned Republicans who used faith as “a tool of attack” and criticized liberals who dismissed faith as “inherently irrational or intolerant.”
Americans wanted a “sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives,” he said. They craved assurances that “they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.” Obama spoke of his Christian awakening as a community organizer in Chicago and ended his address by telling the story of the doctor, whom he never publicly named, and his email.
Obama acknowledged feeling “a pang of shame” when reading Curlin’s note. “It’s people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country,” he said.
As he told the story of the email exchange, Obama added details. The doctor’s Christian faith, Obama said, had led him to oppose not only abortion, but also same-sex marriage, the “idolatry of the free market” and the “quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of the Republican agenda.” Obama also described the unnamed doctor as supporting his policy initiatives to “help the poor and to lift up our educational system.”
None of this information was in any of the email exchanges between Curlin and Obama, who have never met or spoken. Both men taught at the University of Chicago in the early 2000s.
“Frankly, I was a very minor faculty at the time,” Curlin said in a recent interview, “and I am not sure how he would have learned more about me.”
All of the details Obama attributed to him are generally correct, Curlin said. It appears that Obama, touched by the doctor’s earnestness and intrigued by his intellect, may have read some of Curlin’s academic papers and talked to one of his colleagues about him.
Obama retold the story of the email exchange in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and again in 2009 in a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. He cited the exchange as proof that faith and spirituality could elevate American political debate, opening hearts and minds. “The ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen,” Obama said at Notre Dame. “It should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self righteousness.”
Today, Curlin takes a different lesson from his exchange with Obama and the president’s two terms in office. When Curlin listened to Obama tell his story, it seemed to him that the then-senator understood the “totalizing nature of Christian discipleship” and the “profound importance” of extending religious freedom not just to individuals, but also to religious institutions.
Some of Obama’s policies since then, especially his move to require religiously affiliated institutions to cover contraceptive services under the Affordable Care Act, demonstrated a different view, Curlin said.
“I remember that was the point that I thought, ‘Why?’ ” Curlin said of the Affordable Care Act decision. “It startled me.”
To him, the move was part of a broader trend that prioritized the desires of some people over the freedom of religious institutions to practice their faith according to centuries-old teachings and tradition, especially when those teachings were considered “embarrassing” or out of step with modern mores.
“We’re at a point eight years after he was elected where people who want to embrace and live out what the Catholic Church teaches about what it means to be human, including on issues of sexuality and marriage, are feeling much less free to talk in public than they were before,” he said.
Curlin doesn’t blame Obama for that broader societal change, but he thinks his decisions have contributed to it. “Insofar as he’s had policies come up that might either arrest that trend or accelerate it,” Curlin said, “he has chosen unquestionably to accelerate it.”
ama’s 30 years of thinking about faith and politics had led him to this point: Behind him in the Charleston arena were purple-robed pastors and deacons. In front were thousands of mourners and a casket holding Pinckney’s bullet-ridden body.
“We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith,” Obama began.
The president and his staff often debated whether it made sense for him to visit mass-shooting sites. He had attended memorial services in Tucson; Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; and the Washington Navy Yard, but he skipped others where the losses had been just as tragic and the pain of the survivors just as intense. Some of his staff members worried, given the seemingly endless run of mass shootings that had marked his presidency, that he risked becoming the nation’s “eulogist in chief,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
“It’s almost like you’re enabling it by providing this kind of ceremony around it,” the official said. “Like we’re getting used to it and so we have a process for handling it.”
In this case, there was no question that Obama would go. Obama knew Pinckney, who had been a backer of his presidential campaigns, and began his eulogy by praising the pastor’s work. He extolled the black church as a refuge in times of trouble and a force for progressive change — the African American community’s “beating heart.”
Then Obama shifted to the material he had written in a four-hour burst on a legal pad the previous evening. His cadence slowed and his voice deepened, making him sound more like a pastor than a president. He spoke of the killer’s act, designed to provoke “fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion.”
“Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” Obama said, raising his voice to be heard over the mourners’ shouts of joy.
“God has different ideas,” he continued, as the crowd members rose to their feet.
Then he uttered one of the boldest sentences of his presidency, a sentence that he had improvised in the moment and that captured the essence of his Christian faith.
“He didn’t know he was being used by God,” the president said of the shooter.
Throughout his political career, Obama has described his faith as one that acknowledges doubt and man’s inherently sinful nature. “He has a very stoic and fatalistic view of mankind,” said Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), a longtime friend of the president.
For Obama, faith is a means to move from that dire reality — the world as it is — to the promise of the world as it ought to be. This idea of faith as an ennobling struggle runs through virtually all of his most ambitious speeches.
“It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs,” Obama said in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech.
It’s the faith of the soldier “who sees he’s outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace,” he said in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
In Charleston, surrounded by grief-stricken mourners and standing just a few feet from Pinckney’s casket, Obama was no longer using a historical or hypothetical example to illustrate his belief. As he explained it, the Charleston parishioners had demonstrated their faith when they welcomed the killer into their Bible study. The families of the dead had passed God’s test when they faced down despair and found the grace to forgive.
Now it was up to the rest of the country to follow that example, Obama said, by working together on some of the most intractable problems of his presidency: race, poverty and guns.
In the days leading up to the funeral, Obama often seemed nostalgic for the first months of his presidency, when the country seemed less divided. He confessed that one of his biggest struggles as president had been to figure out ways to close the gulf between the “good impulses of the overwhelming majority of Americans” and the country’s rigid, rabid and dogmatic politics. “The problem is that there’s this big gap between who we are as a people and how our politics expresses itself,” Obama said.
Later that evening at a fundraiser in Los Angeles, he spoke of a disgruntled former supporter — “clearly an intelligent guy” — who had written him to express his disappointment about the past seven years.
“The core of his complaint was that he thought that when I got to Washington I could bring people together and make them work more effectively,” Obama said.
The reasons for the country’s divisions are long and complicated and include a fragmented media, economic uncertainty and rapid social change. Sometimes, Obama has appeared to single out conservative evangelical Christians for special blame, saying in an interview with the New York Review of Books that “it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have blamed Obama for the rift, arguing that he has used his faith to press for progressive change on issues such as immigration reform, accepting Syrian refugees and same-sex marriage, but has dismissed their faith-based opposition as intolerance. “He’s a lecturer. He finger-wags a lot,” said Peter Wehner, who ran the policy idea factory in George W. Bush’s White House and wrote admiringly of Obama’s evangelical outreach in 2008. “One gets the sense if you are a conservative Christian that he’s instructing you rather than trying to bring you along.”
In the tragedy of the Charleston shootings, Obama saw a chance to recapture some of the spirit that had fueled his rise in 2004 and animated the early hope of his presidency.
“That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart,” he told the mourners in Charleston. “That, more than any particular policy analysis, is what’s called upon right now.”
He looked out at the crowd. “If we can find that grace, anything is possible,” he continued. “If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”
Twice Obama spoke the opening words of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace.” He then closed his eyes and bowed his head. Slowly and hesitantly, he began to sing.