Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/08

9

Presidential Metaphysics

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Does Barack Obama believe in God? Does he, in fact, have a single religious bone in his body?  Steve Sailer, in his terrific new book about the President-elect, is dubious:

Obama believes, more or less, in nothing. He is, asserts [British essayist Jonathan] Raban, a “scrupulous agnostic.” Myself, I have no idea what Obama truly believes about the faith he publicly professes, but certainly there is little in Dreams to suggest that Raban is wrong. Indeed, while Obama’s supposed conversion at Trinity, which the book suggests took place in February 1988, is dramatically described on pp. 291-295 of Dreams, I can’t find any Christian references coming up again in the last 147 pages of his autobiography … Overall, the only reference in Dreams I could find to Obama sincerely engaging in anything like prayer is his fondling his memories of old PBS Black History Month documentaries about the Civil Rights era:  “Such images became a form of prayer for me, bolstering my spirits, channeling my emotions in a way words never could.”

Steve, who has read everything Obama ever wrote or said, thinks that:  “Obama’s celebrated acceptance of Christianity turns out to have been an affirmation of African-American psychic separatism.”

Personally I’m fine with the “ceremonial deism” that is expected of our presidents; and that aside, would be happier with an irreligious president than a religious one, other things being equal (which, to be sure, they rarely are). I don’t actually think presidential metaphysics matters much. Still I can’t help but wonder about this guy’s character. All those years attending church?

I recall an interview with George H.W. Bush prior to the 1988 election, where the interviewer asked him if he considered himself born again.  Certainly, said Poppy. But Poppy, bless him, was a terrible liar. You could practically see the thought scrolling across his forehead:  Holy cow, the things I have to say to get elected!    Be interesting to see Obama respond to some similar question.

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16 comments

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 9, 2008 at 9:52 am

    “Evolution is more grounded in my experience than angels.”

    – B. Obama

  • Ergo Ratio · December 9, 2008 at 11:28 am

    Just what does attending church have to say about one’s character, exactly?

  • middleman · December 9, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    …neither of his parents believed in God, so he certainly didn’t have any strong religious influence growing up. It has always seemed to me like the african-american church is as much a cultural entity as a religious one. In that sense, the church seems to be the center, not just religiously but culturally (meetings, events, community interaction etc…), of african-american communities all over the states, including Chicago. This, in addition to Michelle Obama’s religiosity, may have pushed Obama towards more active participation in his church.

  • jrb · December 9, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    “Steve, who has read everything Obama ever wrote or said,…”

    The should have tried that on the detainees at ‘Gitmo.” Every one of them would have broken and confessed.

  • Caledonian · December 9, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    middleman :
    It has always seemed to me like the african-american church is as much a cultural entity as a religious one.

    That’s what the vast majority of churches are, and have always been. People by and large are not interested in doctrine and theology. At most, those are recognition symbols people use to determine whether or not others are part of the same ‘tribe’.

    In their day-to-day lives, the vast majority of people live as they have always done – by superstition and folk intuition.

  • Eric · December 9, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    “I recall an interview with George H.W. Bush prior to the 1988 election, where the interviewer asked him if he considered himself born again. Certainly, said Poppy. But Poppy, bless him, was a terrible liar. You could practically see the thought scrolling across his forehead: Holy cow, the things I have to say to get elected! Be interesting to see Obama respond to some similar question.”

    He has been asked this question by Christianity Today: “You’ve talked about your experience walking down the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ, and kneeling beneath the cross, having your sins redeemed, and submitting to God’s will. Would you describe that as a conversion? **Do you consider yourself born again?**”

    Barack Obama: “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. I didn’t ‘fall out in church’ as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn’t want to walk alone on this journey. Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.”

    It’s a strange, though very ‘political,’ answer. How could someone who believes in the resurrection and in eternal life consider it ‘more important’ to use Jesus as a model for social action (community organizing?)?

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · December 9, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    In their day-to-day lives, the vast majority of people live as they have always done – by superstition and folk intuition.

    Cf. me, in the review that got me struck off Ramesh Ponnuru’s Christmas card list:

    What the poll numbers suggest to me is that the moral philosophy of the people of the United States is — as is, I would guess, that of people pretty much anywhere else — basically pagan, with a couple of thin coats of vague religiosity painted over it. We no longer smash sick people on the head with a rock, as I suppose our remote ancestors did, but invalids remain just as unpopular as they were back in the Paleolithic. Anyone who has endured a long confining illness knows this. Our preferred method for dealing with the unpleasant side of life, including topics like abortion and euthanasia, is to think about them as little as possible. In the fuss over Mrs. Schiavo, it was not hard to detect a general public irritation at having had the whole unsightly business forced on our attention. Perhaps this is not humanity at its most noble, but:

        Show me what angels feel.
        Till then I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

  • Panopaea · December 9, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    >“I recall an interview with George H.W. Bush prior to the 1988 election, where the interviewer asked him if he considered himself born again. Certainly, said Poppy. But Poppy, bless him, was a terrible liar. You could practically see the thought scrolling across his forehead: Holy cow, the things I have to say to get elected!”

    You have to understand that in the culture of the Episcolpalian Church the language ‘born again’ is foreign. It’s not language Episcopalians, especially of Bush Elder’s generation, used. Even though it is biblical language it is more a low church Baptist type of doctrinal language. Episcopalians are very high church and sacramental in their language and understanding of regeneration. I.e., Bush very much *did* mean it when he said yes to being born again, it was just not language he would have used if he hadn’t been prompted to use it in that question.

  • Panopaea · December 9, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    >Show me what angels feel. Till then I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

    Jesus became man to suffer what man suffers and to pay the price for fallen man’s sins. Jesus was the God-man. If you lean on Jesus you lean on a human being – a brother.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · December 9, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Panopaea:  I have no clue what it means to “lean on Jesus.” As Frazier says to Sam after the latter’s Elvis visitation: “The man is dead.”

    I dimly understand that you have some inner experience that you express using those words; but I have never had such an experience myself, and so have no point of connection with you here.

  • Julie · December 9, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    I quote “It’s a strange though very ‘political’ answer How could someone who believes in the resurection and in eternal life, consider it ‘more important’ to use Jesus as a model for social action (community organizing?)?

    Because Jesus said “As you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”

    As to the Born Again questions….many denominations do not use that wording….which probably could apply to Baptism, joining the church, having a spiritual experience or at whatever point you have a new, deeper understanding of God, Jesus and your relationship. Actually I have wondered if some denominations have different meanings for that phrase.

    I wandered onto this column as my husband got up from the computer….now I’m looking at the bottom of the page and wondering if I didn’t wander into a group who are trying their best to prove that they don’t need religion…or perhaps they have met some people who call themselves Christian who are pretty meanspirited (they are definitely out there and I don’t understand their thinking either.) I’m not speaking of the truly human, as we all are….who do make mistakes without intentionally meaning to hurt anyone else, I’m speaking of some who give Christians a bad name by talking about it without seemingly realizing that actions speak louder than words.

    If those are the people who you have met far too often…..I’m sorry….they really aren’t living the way God/Jesus would have us live….but Jesus did die for our sins so we could be forgiven if we believe in Him….and that applies to all of us, right up to the end. However, when you do begin to trust the idea of Jesus, keep in mind, it is never too late. As for working your way into heaven…as some would have you believe….you cannot….Grace is a gift given to you by God….but when you believe in Jesus/God, your heart will change and you will want to do the right things (which is different than “working your way into heaven.) Try it, you might like it! Maybe that is what Barak did?!

  • Eric · December 9, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Julie, the point isn’t that ‘social action’ isn’t important; indeed, it’s obligatory. Rather, it’s that it’s not more important than salvation itself (from a Christian persepctive; again, it’s not that the two — social action and salvation — are completely unrelated; rather, it’s that they can’t be identified). Think about it this way: From a Christian perspective, what’s more important — the fact that Jesus helped a number of people during his lifetime, or the fact that Jesus was resurrected?

  • Panopaea · December 9, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Bradlaugh :
    Panopaea:  I have no clue what it means to “lean on Jesus.” As Frazier says to Sam after the latter’s Elvis visitation: “The man is dead.”
    I dimly understand that you have some inner experience that you express using those words; but I have never had such an experience myself, and so have no point of connection with you here.

    To be honest, I am not a Christian who uses such language myself (to lean on Jesus, other than to say I lean on his passive and active obedience which is impujted to me by faith). I was actually playing off the language in the poetry you quoted: “Till then *I cling*, a mere weak man, to men.”

    Language is interesting in conversion. There is a lot of what I call ‘church language’ (not doctrine necessarily) you hear that is off-putting to some (like myself) and you just have to realize that it’s not a necessary part of the faith. It’s sort of like slang: if it sounds stupid it’s ok to just see that it is stupid and not take part in it yourself.

  • Derek Scruggs · December 10, 2008 at 5:48 am

    @Eric “How could someone who believes in the resurrection and in eternal life consider it ‘more important’ to use Jesus as a model for social action (community organizing?)?”

    Well, if you’re inspired by Jesus, it seems like a pretty reasonable lesson to draw: help the poor and get to heaven. Does everyone who volunteers at a soup kitchen waste time giving out food when they should instead be trying to save souls?

    (I’m not saying one way is right and another wrong, I just don’t find Obama’s answer remarkable.)

    “From a Christian perspective, what’s more important — the fact that Jesus helped a number of people during his lifetime, or the fact that Jesus was resurrected?”

    I’m not a Christian, so I can only speculate. But I suspect if Jesus had been a murderous tyrant who nonetheless was resurrected, he would not be so popular today. The inspiration to be a better self goes part and parcel with the man/god. The first emperor of China was believed to be a god too, but not too many people pray for his guidance.

  • Kevembuangga · December 10, 2008 at 8:52 am

    “Only in America”

    To a non American it’s pretty amazing how much religious
    questions matter in the US political life.
    At no other places beside the theocratic Muslim states does such things matter.
    Isn’t there something hopelessly rotten here?

  • Eric · December 10, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Derek: “Well, if you’re inspired by Jesus, it seems like a pretty reasonable lesson to draw: help the poor and get to heaven. Does everyone who volunteers at a soup kitchen waste time giving out food when they should instead be trying to save souls?”

    Derek, as I said, such acts are obligatory, so to characterize my remarks as somehow leading to the conclusion that they are a waste of time is simply inaccurate.

    “But I suspect if Jesus had been a murderous tyrant who nonetheless was resurrected, he would not be so popular today.”

    This is the wrong sort of comparison. Think about a person who dedicated his life to serving the poor, yet was not resurrected. Such a person would indeed be moral, and would obviously provide the sort of inspiration you’re talking about. However, what if we compared him to another man, one who similarly helped the poor, and thus provided us with the same sort of model as the first man (never mind the means by which each acted for now), but who also provided them with the hope for and a way to eternal life (which is what Obama claims to believe)? Again, it’s important to keep in mind the context of Obama’s comment: He claims to believe that Jesus provides us with a way to cleanse our sins so we may achieve eternal life, and also with a model for social action — and yet considers the latter to be more important than the former?! This is not to say that both aren’t important, or that they’re unrelated, or that they’re mutually exclusive; rather, it’s to suggest that if you honestly believe what Obama does about eternal life, it’s hard to see how you can consider ‘Jesus as a model for social action’ to be *more important* than ‘Jesus as a way to eternal life.’ Both are important, and they are certainly related, but one has implications that far outweigh the other (just as is the case with the philanthropist and Jesus, given Obama’s beliefs). It’s like saying, “I believe that X will completely end deaths resulting from automobile accidents, but more importantly X will make our cars much more comfy! “

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