Tag Archives: Barack Obama

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.

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Hold it right there Rick Warren

I was away when Rick Warren’s Saddleback forum aired. Brett McKracken, managing editor of Biola magazine, gives the Pros and Cons of Rick Warren as the new James Dobson. This blog has all the videos of it together and links to the transcripts, near as I can tell. Personally, I continue to be disgusted that Evangelicals feel they have every right to help the nation decide who to vote for. I find it offensive that Rick Warren would use so much money getting his name and church on the major networks—for Jesus. There are no little sit-downs with Presidential Candidates. To call yourself their personal friends right before the candidate’s perspective Party conventions is a power play, plain and simple.

I’d like to address Rick Warren’s use of the word Worldview. At the very beginning of the forum he says that faith and worldview are the same thing. That’s just dead wrong. He then asks the candidates about their faith in terms of worldview. The idea of Worldview is actually a philosophical construct. It is very old and yet Evangelicals have coined the term so closely to faith, that Rick Warren has here actually made the two one. The original word in German is Weltanschauung. Faith is not a perspective. Faith has an object: God. Faith is nothing without its object. This is very important. In a terribly ad hoc, sloppy manner, Rick Warren here turns faith into a way of seeing the world in order to identify with a presidential candidate. That’s just sick. I don’t believe I’m just haggling over words here. Theology and Philosophy, while both relating to cognitive belief, are distinct. In blurring the lines Rick Warren is really out of line.

I first read about the forum in the Dallas Morning News, in an article titled, “McCain, Obama share their views on evil, marriage, abortion at faith forum.” The article describes the differences in candidate response to the question: “At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?” This question is what this whole forum will be remembered by. Here’s the video. The question falls at 3:48. Look at Obama’s total answer. I don’t care for his reply to this direct question, but he does give a thorough apologetic for the Democratic Party position. No surprise. His point that abortions have not decreased under President Bush is an important one, but I think it has been ignored.

For John McCain on the other hand, the crowd gave him a twelve second ovation in reply to the answer: “At the moment of human conception.” Does this question not seem framed to give them what they want to hear? Here’s the video, the same question on abortion starts at 3:15:

His actual reply after the applause was short and (for Republicans) sweet. “I have had a pro-life record for years.” Enough said. But is it really enough? Are pro-life politicians really delivering? Have they overturned Roe v. Wade? Have the made life better for babies, for children or for mothers seeking abortions? The question was about human rights. Obama seemed to say that it was a large question. McCain parsed code words. I don’t think either candidate dealt with the question, because I don’t think the question was as deep as it pretended to be.

The Dallas Morning News typified it all by giving Richard Land the last word on Obama and McCain:

“I’ll take a third-class fireman over a first-class arsonist,” said Mr. Land.

And there you have it folks. Once again Evangelicals are given a pass on having to think. The right candidate again, drumroll please, is Republican. What a surprise. And in the name of bipartisan friendship Rick Warren does with a smile and an awww shucks demeanor what cold old Jim Dobson can’t do anymore—give Evangelicals a reason to vote on solely on abortion.

What would have been the better approach? Let people make up their own mind! Dissolve this stupid thing called “the Evangelical vote” altogether. Stop playing politics along with the world and just be a Christian. Voting for the President is actually the least important thing we can do as political people. Loving God and our neighbors is the most important. At best Saddleback’s forum was a distraction. At worst it was a tool for political power for the Religious Right.

One last funny note though, at one point (McCain video 2, :24 in) Warren says that he invited a couple hundred thousand of his personal friends to send in questions. Maybe THIS understanding of the words “personal friends” is how we should understand it every time he says it! So when he calls Obama and McCain personal friends he means the same thing. EVERYONE is a personal friend. Well, as a “personal friend” to Rick Warren, let me say this:

“Please pick your friends better Rick. Not everyone is really your friend. It doesn’t help us to understand friendship, or people, when everyone is a friend. . . . just as it doesn’t help us understand faith when you blur it with Worldview.”


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Like hope, only different

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