Six years ago, I sat down with a young Illinois state senator for a lengthy interview about his faith. At the time, the fresh-faced politician with an unusual name was still toiling in relative obscurity in Chicago.
When my “spiritual profile” of Barack Obama ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, it was greeted with modest interest, mostly for the novelty of a Democratic candidate speaking at length about religion.
That all changed a few months later, when Obama, by then a candidate for the U.S. Senate, delivered an electrifying keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention and began an international meteoric rise.
Ever since Obama’s keynote address, scarcely a day has gone by when I haven’t received at least a couple of e-mails from curious readers asking about my interview with Obama. I thought such interest had reached its zenith during the 2008 presidential race when Obama was subjected to a religious litmus test by both the far right and the far left.
With the release of a Pew poll showing that nearly one in five Americans believes Obama is a Muslim (rather than the Christian he professes to be), and the president’s comments affirming the right of Muslims to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero, I’ve seen a virtual tidal wave of renewed interest in that old interview.
To date, it remains the longest and most-exhaustive interview Obama has ever granted on the subject of his faith. Although Obama talked honestly about his “Christian faith and a personal relationship with Jesus,” he didn’t give pat, easy answers.
Thousands of pundits, from loud-hailers like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to average-Joe armchair political enthusiasts, have unearthed the transcript of my 2004 interview. Hundreds have e-mailed me directly to share their conclusions about the president’s spiritual predilections.
And this is where it gets interesting.
Depending on who is doing the reading, two polar-opposite portraits of Obama as a man of faith have emerged. Many conclude he is, in fact, a spiritual charlatan who says he is a Christian but who is actually something wholly “other.” A Muslim. A Universalist. A secular humanist. Perhaps even, as more than a few have suggested, the Anti-Christ.
Still others look at that old interview and see the portrait of a man of complex, complicated, and a modern, modest Christian faith. They see a person of faith much like themselves, for whom traditional labels of “liberal,” “conservative,” “progressive,” and “devout” do not apply — at least not neatly.
“I’m rooted in the Christian tradition,” Obama told me. “I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people.”
My interview with Obama has elicited more response than anything else I’ve written in more than 15 years as a journalist. Why? That’s a question that persists for me as a journalist and, more poignantly, as a person of faith.
Why are we so fascinated with the faith of celebrities in general, and politicians in particular? It goes far beyond an interest in what religious beliefs might tell us about the moral character of the leader of the free world. And it surpasses our national pastime of celebrity voyeurism.
In the case of President Obama, it is, to me, a wholly spiritual phenomenon.
The Obama interview is a mirror that readers hold up to themselves. What they see in it, and the conclusions they draw from it, say far more about the condition of their souls than the president’s.
The curious and the malicious alike see themselves reflected in Obama’s statements about his faith. Either they find a kindred spirit or a supernatural enemy, depending on the preconceived political and spiritual notions established long before they began reading the interview transcript.
They do not take the president — who has never publicly claimed to be anything other than a simple Christian — at face value. They believe their own faces, reflected brilliantly or grotesquely in the mirror of Obama’s naked words, to be the gospel truth (pun intended.)
They see only what they want to see.
As I read some of the thousands of new responses to Obama’s interview about his faith (and doubts) that were sent my way in recent days, I am reminded of something another Christian Chicagoan, evangelist Dwight L. Moody, said more than a century ago.
“Of 100 men, one will read the Bible,” Moody said. “The 99 will read the Christian.”
Moody meant it as a caution, not an endorsement.