This commentary on Barack Obama’s general position on Christianity and Islam, and their relations to politics, is based on my reading of a single book: Obama’s very own The Audacity of Hope; which was first published in 2006. More specifically, the chapter entitled ‘Faith’ (chapter six) understandably provides me with most of the detail.
The first thing you can say about this chapter (‘Faith’), which is quite long and detailed, is that Barack Obama doesn’t have anything at all to say about Islam - despite this essay’s title. I think he only uses the word ‘Muslim’ twice; once in relation to his father. When he does mention religions other than Christianity, he tends to lump them all together. So when writes ‘Muslim’ he’ll also write ‘Buddhist, Hindu, Jew’, etc.
Don’t expect any analysis of Islam in Obama’s book; let alone his saying anything positive. I suppose it’s slightly relevant that this was written in 2006; and, if anything, he’s probably come closer to Islam since that time.
Generally, Obama is both positive and negative about Christianity. He’s positive about the righteous Christian movements or churches and negative about the bad (right-wing) movements and churches. However, even in the cases of the right-wing churches and movements, all such criticisms are expressed through other people’s words. Such that he says that X said this about that church or that aspect of Christianity. He never says anything critical about Christianity himself. At least not categorically critical. He gets his mother, or his friends, or his associates to express all his (?) negative judgements towards Christianity; which, as I said, I’m not arguing that he is completely against. Again, it depends on which church or movement and on which aspect of Christianity he’s talking about. But it’s still clear he has a massive problem with certain Christian movements and positions – the right-wing or Republican-based ones.
It’s also clear why these positively-portrayed Christian churches and movements appeal to Obama. They appeal to him politically; which is what he says himself. The righteous Christian churches and movements are the ones that have the righteous political positions and do the righteous political things. In other words, Obama’s in favour of what he calls “progressive” Christian movements and churches. Perhaps I can also say Democrat-supporting churches and movements.
What really appeals to Obama about “progressive” Christianity is its commitment to social causes such a “Third-World Debt relief”, poverty alleviation, social welfare and whatnot. He likes his Christianity to be “radical”.
And it's here, importantly, that we can see the appeal of Islam to Obama. Islam is seen by itself, and by others, to be a “socially-conscious religion” and a religion opposed to such things as “capitalist exploitation” and even to be against racism.
The thing is that many of his criticisms, expressed indirectly or through other people’s words, of “fundamentalist” or right-wing Christianity could equally be applied to Islam. But, of course, he most definitely doesn’t apply them to Islam. Far from it. Islam is literally never discussed in the entire book. That can hardly be an accident considering the fact that he refers to a conversation he had with someone in which that person says that Barack Obama’s name will always work against him. So I must conclude that just as his name was deemed to work against him (in the early days), so mentioning or discussing Islam in this book – or anywhere else – at this time might have been seen - by Obama and others - to work against him. Thus he keeps shut about.
First things first. Obama explicitly states that he is a Christian. He recalls a conversation he had with someone when that person said: “And I know you’re a Christian, with a family of your own.”
To which Obama replied: “That’s true.” (197)
He also refers to the time when he “was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized” (208).
Despite that confession, as it were, he happily admits that his mother and father weren’t that religious – or religious at all. He says: “I was not raised in a religious household.” (This seems to be contradicted later.)
However, there was religion in the larger family. His “grandfather had been raised by devout Baptist grandparents” and his grandparents “were practicing Methodists”. In terms of his parents, Obama says that “religious faith never really took root in their hearts” (202-203).
He says that in spite of his father’s Islamic faith. In explanation, he tells us that his “father had been raised a Muslim, [but] by the time he met [his] mother he was a confirmed atheist” (204).
If his real father wasn’t a devout Muslim, his stepfather certainly was. His was Indonesian. In fact Obama lived in Indonesia, with his mother, for five years. He then tells us that he “first sent to a neighbourhood Catholic school and then to a predominantly Muslim school” (204).
I don’t want to appear cynical, but at a later point in the book Obama goes all Tony Blair on us. That is, I’m convinced he starts to spin some lies about his upbringing. Maybe it’s all lies; but the claim which follows just looks to me like a blatant one. It sounds like he’s doing an advert for the “interfaith movement” in fact. He assures us that in his
“household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita [were “on the shelf”]… [and that on] Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.”
Now I bet only a religious scholar - or a professor of comparative religion - would have that many religious books on his “shelf”. I just don’t believe it. That great fusion of every religion under the sun also being under the Obama family’s roof – it’s just too much. Apart from the profusion of religious books from different religions, how on earth could one mother, a Christian, have taken one son, a Christian, to a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine and to a Chinese New Year celebration? (The latter example is more believable.) This seems to be tailor-made to reinforce his position as having a liberal and tolerant attitude towards all religions. (Even to head-hunting religions and the mass sacrifices of the ancient Aztecs?)
He goes on to tell us how pluralist he is towards all religions later in this same book. Was he trying to prove to his American book-reading public that he was a syncretic or interfaith type-of-guy and that he was brought up to be that way?
Obama's Liberal & Tolerant Attitude Towards All Religions
Obama was also trying to tell us that he has a liberal attitude to all religions. But at least he had the guts to admit that the very idea of being tolerant to all religions is problematic. The thing is, those problematical aspects don’t seem to apply to Islam but only to the wrong kinds of Christianity. First his stance on liberalism:
“Liberalism teaches us to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs, so long as those beliefs don’t cause anyone harm or impinge on another’s right to believe differently.”
Then Obama sees the problems. Again, what he now says can be perfectly and aptly applied to Islam and Muslims. He doesn’t apply it to Islam or Muslims. He applies it, again, to the wrong kinds of Christians. He says that
“[t]he faithful may feel compelled by their religion to actively evangelize wherever they can. They may feel that a secular state promotes values directly against their beliefs. They may want the larger society to validate and reinforce their views. And when the religiously motivated assert themselves politically to achieve these aims, liberals get nervous.” (213)
You can say all that again! I wish Obama had said all that again but this time applied it to both Islam and the behaviour of Muslims. He didn’t. In fact, in many respects, though not all, what he says above is more applicable to Islam - and the behaviour of Muslims - than it is to what he calls “fundamentalist Christians”. Yet, as I said in the introduction, there is no mention or discussion of Islam. He obliquely refers to Islam and Muslims when he mentions 9/11 and what sort of reception his name might have received in the early days. So Islam and Muslims were on his mind at the time. Apart from that, there are a minimum of four million Muslims in the United States and some of them have very high positions in the Government, the universities, etc., as well as having a big impact in the strictly religious – but also political! – arenas (such as CAIR and the political activism of numerous Islamic/Muslim groups, organisations and individuals).
So why the blatant fact that Obama completely fails to discuss Islam in America and the world generally? (He may have made up for this in his later books.) In the popular phrase: what was he trying to hide?
Basically, Barack Obama’s own Christianity is most decidedly a Democrat’s Christianity, or a progressive’s Christianity, or even a socialist’s Christianity. He makes that very clear indeed. Specifically, he saw progressivism in “the African American religious tradition” (207). Or, more clearly, Obama says that he
“was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change… the grounding of faith in struggle”. (207)
(That word, “struggle”, is often used by Marxists and socialist revolutionaries.)
Obama then goes on to specify other churches and movements, outside the “African American religious tradition”, which satisfy his need for a thoroughly progressive Christianity. Not being an expert on the American scene, I admit to being surprised that certain “evangelical Christians” are included in his list of Good Christians. He specifically comments on what he calls “megachurch pastors”. People like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes. According to Obama, these pastors wield “enormous influence to confront AIDS, Third World debt relief” (216). In addition
“‘progressive evangelicals’ like Jim Wells and Tony Campolo are lifting up the biblical injunction to help the poor as a means of mobilising Christians against budget cuts to social programs and growing inequality”. (216)
Now, not to be too cynical, these various Christian movements, churches and individuals appear to be nothing other than mere auxiliaries to the American Democratic Party. (I suppose that’s fair enough because the Republican Party has its own auxiliaries too.) The question is: how closely do they actually work for the Democrats or is it just the case that they replicate Democratic Party policy without thereby being controlled by the party (or being an adjunct of it)?
All this is very ironic because we are always being told, by Leftists/liberals, that “the Republican Party is in bed with fundamentalist Christian churches” and that this is a bad thing. Yet Obama is showing us that this is replicated by the Democratic Party. This leads me to conclude that the left/liberal moaners about the Christian-Republican Coalition are not against religion fusing with politics but with the wrong types or religions fusing with the wrong types of political parties.
All this shows us why both Obama and many leftists/liberals simply adore the Islamic/Muslim Brotherhood/CAIR fusion with politics and political parties; both in the US and elsewhere. Yet these same people certainly don’t like political-religious fusions when the political part of the equation is Republican/right-wing and the religious part is, as they put it, “Christian fundamentalist”. (In which ways is it the case that American Muslims or the Muslim Brotherhood/CAIR are not “fundamentalist”, “intolerant”, “reactionary”, etc.?)
Whatever the obvious and direct liaisons between these Christians and the Democratic Party, it’s still the case that both the “progressive evangelicals” and the “African American religious tradition” did the same kind of things, at least according to Obama. What they are doing is “articulating a social gospel that addressed the material issues of economic inequality, racism, sexism, and American militarism” (200).
It’s certainly the case that Muslims worldwide speak out – and fight! - against “American militarism”. Do Muslims really fight against “economic inequality, racism, sexism”? Muslim leaders often sell themselves as being fighters against economic inequality – but usually when they don’t have political power. Thus they are no different from the legions of out-of-power leftists and liberals who promise – but don’t say – Utopia and jam sandwiches for all when they "vote for me" (or carry out a revolution). Such rhetoric sells as well to Muslims as it does to non-Muslims.
What about ‘racism’? Islam is officially anti- or non-racist; but it never has been in reality. Apart from the fact that racism, as a science, was a 19th century phenomenon; Muslims have always been Arabocentric and also racist to all sorts of non-Arabs (primarily African blacks) since the beginning of Islam.
As for Islamic anti- or non-sexism. I will not even deign to comment on that absurdity. (I just have.)