Earlier tonight, President Obama delivered his first Oval Office speech to the nation. Before I watched the speech in its entirety, I read several news reports (New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times) that referred to the president’s “prayer” that closed out his remarks. I was fascinated, then, to view the full 17 minutes and to draw some understanding of what makes up my president’s own theology, or at least the theology with which he speaks. Some statements on faith I observed:
“Tonight we pray for that courage.”
“We pray for the people of the Gulf.”
“And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.”
“God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.”
I am often very interested in a leader’s spirituality, as I know it to be the core of one’s person. Understanding from President Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, and from other reflections, that he comes from an irreligious mother and an atheist father, I do know that our president walked through the ceremony of baptism in 1988 at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. According to Obama, his involvement in this church, enabled by baptism, was largely for purposes of leveraging religion for social change.
More than three years ago, Obama wrote an article entitled “Barack Obama: My Spiritual Journey,” published in TIME magazine. The president’s comments tonight (mentioning “God” three times in his speech, and stating “we pray” three times) caused me to reflect on some descriptions of his own spiritual background and his own personal theology, as outlined in that article:
“In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. 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.”
A “spiritually awakened person” is a person with “an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love,” with the values of “honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work,” and who “rage[s] at poverty and injustice.” It is a person with “an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional,” one who sees “mysteries everywhere and [takes] joy in the sheer strangeness of life.”
In describing Christians with whom he has worked, President Obama writes that “they saw that I knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, an observer among them.”
“Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on this world.”
In describing his baptism, President Obama reflects: “But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s Spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”
“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.”
“Almost by definition, faith and reason operate in different domains and involve different paths to discerning truth. … The best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of what we know to be true — as individuals or communities of faith — will be true for us alone.”
“There are some things that I’m absolutely sure about — the Golden Rule, the need to battle cruelty in all its forms, the value of love and charity, humility and grace. … I [am not] sure what happens when we die, any more than I [am] sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang.”
Perhaps most significant to me in President Obama’s speech this evening was the use of the indefinite article “a,” when praying for guidance: “And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.” I find our president to be very consistent in what he reveals about his own theology and spirituality–that in his journey, things are still indefinite, still beyond his understanding. Although I would feel confident, even compelled, to use more definitive language, myself; and although my spiritual convictions are very different than Obama’s, I can stand with my president in acknowledging that there still remains a great deal of mystery in my own faith.