The quagmire of faith and electoral politics

Reviews of Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama and Dan Berrigan’s The Kings and Their gods: the pathology of power

During the campaign season I get the distinct impression that the conventions are as much worship services and rock concerts as political rallies. I hate having my buttons pushed, so to speak. Every word and image is carefully constructed, from the use of light to create warmth, to the careful placement and timing of every person’s appearance. The Party offers assurance, security, and yes faith, that we finally have hope, we will finally have Change, where the alternative is more of the same. And who doesn’t want change? I can’t help but feel a great deal of ambivalence about it all. Why can’t we go back to the days when people made up their minds and voted without so much influence, so much money spent on rallies and campaigns to make us feel empowered. And then I remember that we are a people expected to do nothing until we’re told by advertisers, and that is truly scary. The harbingers of freedom of speech for the world cannot think for themselves unless they’re being overcome by chatter.

This is the milieu in which I think about faith in politics. The God-o-meter has about the right feel to it, measuring God-talk on a weekly basis. Here are two book reviews that offer very different approaches to faith and power. I’ve been home kid-watching and being sick for the last week, but in the meantime I’ve been pondering how we may rightly speak about God’s influence and role in twentieth century ruling offices.

ISBN 978-1595552501

Thomas Nelson, 2008.

192 pages.

I have to say quite honestly that Stephen Mansfield’s new book The Faith of Barack Obama took me by surprise. I knew Mansfield as the 2004 best-selling author of The Faith of George W. Bush. With that book Mansfield sold Evangelicals perhaps what they were already looking for in their President—the assurance that indeed, he was the man of faith they suspected they needed. Evangelicals put “their” man back in office and the rest is history right? Worse yet, Mansfield’s book helped to inspire the movie “George W. Bush: Faith in the White House,” which I reviewed as perhaps the most egregious example of modern religio-political propaganda on film. (This movie, incidentally, has continued to air on Christian television long after Bush’s succession to the White House, it is presumed, to continue to inspire the faithful during hard times.) Bush, according to Mansfield and the film’s director David Balsiger, was America’s first truly sincere born-again president, anointed, called of God, to “do some good.” This finds its way back into Mansfield’s book The Faith of Barack Obama in Mansfield’s interview with evangelist James Robison. According to Robison, Bush told him long before the first election,

“I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can’t explain it but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen and, at that time, my country is going to need me. I know it won’t be easy, on me or my family, but God wants me to do it. In fact, I really don’t want to run. . . . My life will never be the same. But I know God wants me to do this and I must do it.” (pg. 125)

Here was George, anointed and obeying God’s call, but then, according to Mansfield, what happened?

“To the extent that his presidency was a proving ground for innovative policies—faith based initiatives, a doctrine of preemptive military action, a neoconservative faith in America as the guarantor of global democracy—his administration’s missteps wrapped those policies in an aura of failure. His years in office were best summarized by journalist and professor Marvin Olasky, once Bush’s mentor on faith-based social policy, when he said that the Bush team reinvented politics but failed to reinvent governance. It was true. In the end, there was no galvanizing vision, no rallying dream to pull the nation through.” (pg. 126)

How times have changed. In this latest book I wonder whether Mansfield is not trying out a new audience. He admits that the Religious Right has seen its day and says that Barack Obama reflects the kind of faith indicative of our postmodern times. Mansfield carefully and deliberately works to explain Barack Obama ‘s faith, presumably for those inclined to misunderstand, and even hate him. I give Steven credit for wanting to dispel the rumors being perpetuated about Obama being a closet Muslim extremist. I think it also noble that he go to great lengths to humanize and contextualize Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Perhaps this book can provoke some thinking among those less interested in really knowing Obama. But in the end, this book never really delivers on what it wants to offer. In the final chapter, “A Time to Heal,” Mansfield suggests that Obama may just be the healer this nation needs to bring us together. This is curious, given that the author himself makes it clear elsewhere that he is not supporting Obama and won’t be voting for him in November. Further, even with all the sentimentality, there is a strong undercurrent of sympathy for the “old” Religious Right in the book.

Mansfield uses three pages (97-99) to sound out on Obama’s overreaching prochoice voting record, “more prochoice than even NARAL required. . . . for babies who survived abortion to then be exposed and left to die.” These three pages could have been plucked out verbatim and used as a press release for the Religious Right only two weeks ago in order to further help McCain’s campaign just after their little forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback church.

My biggest problem with The Faith of Barack Obama is really with the author’s whole “inspirational faith” program overall. I didn’t know he had such an irenic, conciliatory, open minded approach in him. But I strongly suggest that his whole program is wrong theologically. Stephen Mansfield is a former pastor who is now a very popular biographer, not just for presidents in waiting, but also for a former senator, the pope, and the teacher and evangelist, Derek Prince. Mansfield deals in narratives, inspirational stories that are timely, provocative, and inspirational. Readers are meant to relate to his subjects in profound ways. If the books inspire faithfulness and devotion toward the subject, wonderful. If malice and anger, so be it. It really depends on the reader. Faith is a provocative topic, especially where power and money are concerned.

The author doesn’t delve too deeply into the nature of his faith claims or arguments. His search into Barack Obama’s faith doesn’t even need a firsthand interview with the subject himself. He’s content to sift through the interviews and sources already available. The fullest extent of his research involved actually visiting Trinity UCC church on the south side of Chicago. Mansfield’s books are quick reads. They’re very similar to other books you’d pick up in a small airline bookstore on your way to catch a flight. My frustration with The Faith of Barack Obama lies in the fact that he never really pushes a discussion of faith in politics any further than the sound bites perpetuated by the Religious Right and Left for the last decade. Once again, Mansfield’s narrative reinforces what we already know about politics, much promise, little delivery. This doesn’t inspire my faith, or any hope in the future. He does demonstrate that journalists of the Religious Right can grow more flexible with the changing times. They may not agree with where faith in politics is going, but they can seem sympathetic.


Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008

202 pages

In stark contrast to Stephen Mansfield’s book, comes Daniel Berrigan’s new book The Kings and their gods: the pathology of power. I asked for a review copy of this book because I believe we desperately need prophetic critical witnesses of America’s own pathological claim on world-wide empire. I’ve heard a thing or two about Daniel Berrigan’s witness. I know of his years as a fugitive from the law, living in hiding out with lawyer and author William Stringfellow. I know of his community, Jonah House, and the ways and means of the Ploughshare actions, pouring blood over missile silos and beating on them with household hammers. But before this reading, I’m not sure I knew so much about Berrigan’s biblical theology. The Kings and their gods wrestles with the books of first and second Kings. It’s a modern eye cast over the writers, the editors, the history makers of the Bible at this time.

The search for Yahweh’s work in the life of David, Solomon, and his predecessors is largely a cry, “Where?” and usually places the judgment “Gone!” God is replaced in Berrigan’s retelling with the god Solomon assumes is present, the national god who sees and, of course, approves. Berrigan assures us that the prophets will later speak and make it clear that Yahweh is very different. But Berrigan says that without a prophetic witness, Solomon’s forty year reign of peace, far from being a fulfillment of God’s promise, is actually empty of Yahweh’s guidance.

I believe this reading of the Scriptures does violence to any sort of coherent biblical theology. Berrigan wants to extricate God anywhere there is violence or oppression in Israel. He sees pathology and later interpretation imposed anywhere he feels Solomon is too drunk on hubris to really be hearing God. Berrigan is bravely facing Israel’s ugly human history, but he is also imposing an extrabiblical revision on it, foreign to the way Israel saw itself, and the way Jesus understood Israel’s history. For this reason, far from setting an example for us in this age of the pathology of power in Scriptures, Berrigan tries to neatly rearrange “clean” and “dirty” moments of history wherein Israel follows Yahweh or is led by its own gods. This misses the point entirely.

In the Bible, whether God is traveling with Israel in the wilderness, residing with them in a tent, or whether he fills Solomon’s wealthy and majestic temple to His Name, God remains the same. He wants to be present near His people. He wants to provide them with rest. So in the New Testament we see Jesus fulfilling God’s covenant as David’s Son, providing true wealth and a true temple in Himself for humanity. In Hebrews 4 we are finally told of a rest fulfilled in Christ. Jesus himself embodies the roles of prophet, priest, and king, in all the ways in which Israel’s greatest examples miserably failed.

The other apparent problem to me with this book is in the singular reading of Kings without the use of the other histories and writings in the Bible, such as Proverbs, first and second Samuel, Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, etc. The account of the Kings is devoid of critical witness left alone.

Berrigan’s judgment that God is instead a kingly pathology is no real help. He guides us through the pain of the nation’s sin, but also accuses God for being their God, relegating Him to the role of lesser god. This is a shame. Would that he’d done biblical theology instead of wallowing in writer-centric pontification. It would have made his valid points, that we remain messed up as a nation and as a church not having learned Israel’s lessons, much sweeter.

Where Stephen Mansfield is content to see and bless faith among the powerful in whatever form, Daniel Berrigan is eager to curse the sins in Israel’s regal history and relate them to our own to the degree that he seems to believe that any rulers cannot possibly be used of God. Both of these books illustrate a way of speaking about power that falls short. It’s true that Americans are still far too comfortable speaking about faith in order to win favor. Electoral politics is a quagmire for biblical faith. I don’t quite know what else to say.


1 Comment

Filed under books, Politics, religion and politics

One response to “The quagmire of faith and electoral politics

  1. Chris,

    These are a couple of excellent reviews, thanks – I had toyed with picking up the Obama book, not sure I will anymore.

    I am not surprised by your Berrigan comments, I have recently read a book co-authored by Berrigan and was not particularly blown away by the intellectual vigour. Ironically, in view of what you have criticised him for the failing of Berrigan was his unwillingness (or at least ambiguity) in dealing with violent action in the pursuit of justice.

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