He Is Not One of Us

In consideration of Obama's atypical American upbringing, I marvel at the O-team's former confidence that the public would be satisfied with their candidate's sparse remarks in public about his parents.
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The roots of the "Obama is a Muslim" delusion/lie here: in the grain of truth to the story, which inadvertently the official Barack Obama hagiography has nourished; in the character of American Christianity, which began to change in (yet another) Great Awakening forty years ago; in the failures of American education and the consequences of a half-century of assiduously secular mainstream media. Whatever explanations I or anyone else may propose, however, it is important not to be facile, but on the contrary to acknowledge perplexity. We are astounded that such ignorance persists, despite all efforts at extirpation. How is it that this particular bit of misinformation thrives in our public discourse, increasingly knitted together by information technology -- or is access itself part of the problem?

Perplexed, pundits have of late posited various explanations, assigning the Muslim delusion to Islamophobia, racism, anger at the economy and big government. The wellspring for the Muslim delusion is not politics, however; we must resist the temptation to connect large issues of faith with specific politics too quickly. The fact that some commentators have done so contributes, ironically, to the feeding rather than the deconstruction of the delusion. Moreover, this particular urban myth had taken hold long before ancillary forces gathered prominence in the ongoing presidential narrative.

In September 2007 a Google employee, standing in line for an Obama rally in San Francisco, asked me if Barack Obama was a Muslim. Intrigued by the prospect, he was disappointed when I disabused him of the notion. He was not the first "Obama inquirer" I had met who wondered about the man's religion -- so much so that I emailed Debbie Mesloh, Obama's communications director in California at the time, to warn her that I had been hearing "Obama is a Muslim" a lot. And this was California, where the possibility that a presidential candidate might be other than a Christian was not necessarily a reason for distrust. Back in the South, where I was also following the presidential primaries, the Muslim myth took on an entirely different character. Here, more than in any other region, you are likely to find churches whose membership believe that the current war on terrorism is at its heart a fundamentalist battle between Christianity and Islam. This is the impetus for a Gainesville, Florida church to burn copies of the Quran on Saturday, in commemoration of 9/11.

I grew up in a somnolent Southern Presbyterian congregation that has become such a militant, if not so publicly demonstrative, institution. I always visit my former church when I go home; but I learned -- not too long after 9/11 -- that its core fundamentalist conviction can not be dislodged. Nevertheless, I was sure that old friends and acquaintances would heed my testimony that Obama is not a Muslim. You might suppose that over time my words carried some weight. Not so. Here were people -- all well-educated and well-traveled -- who could not be disabused of the notion. Listening politely when I came to town, nevertheless by my next trip old friends were sharing the same outlandish stories with me all over again. Stubborn as crabgrass, the Muslim meme lives among us even now. Why? Since 2007 I have given this question much thought. Over several days, and at some length, I will share with you the answers I have found.

Who Are His People? A common observation in the American heartland (and in many other cultures) goes like this: "I don't know him personally. But he comes from good people." Among the interesting assumptions about identity here is the primacy of family and clan over individualism. In the most urban parts of the United States, except among immigrant communities, this point of view has lost the power it once had; elsewhere, however, it still shapes perception. It is significant, therefore, that Barack Obama has no American clan, no living blood relatives, through which, upon his entry upon the national stage, citizens could have tentatively placed him. With no parents, no grandparents (his maternal grandmother died shortly before the election), Obama has in the United States only a half-sister, an enigmatic and retiring woman who campaigned for him only sporadically and seldom appears in the news. Think, by contrast, not only of the Bush and Kennedy families of recent memory but also of the brothers who helped us, through character juxtaposition, to assess Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

A downside to the meteoric rise to power that Obama experienced is that he has no political clan either. Canny, he managed during his Chicago sojourn to avoid the taint, for the most part, of the local machine. As attempts to link him to such characters as Tony Rezko and Rod Blagojevich show, Obama never fit easily anywhere in the world of Illinois politics. In the U.S. Senate, he did not have time to forge legislation before ascending the presidency. Unlike Johnson, as well as Nixon and Reagan, Obama never spent the years in power with their concomitant successes and failures and alliances by which we might, from the beginning, have known him.

During the race for the presidency, the Obama campaign fashioned a compelling backstory for a candidate few Americans knew. The choices the O-team made seemed at the time brilliant. But the half-truths and lacunae are now playing themselves out with unintended consequences. Presenting himself as a doctrinal Christian, Obama himself set up this essential truth for evisceration by not speaking more candidly about his complicated relationships with his agnostic mother, Muslim step-father and Muslim relatives in Kenya. Such reticence was not contrived but came naturally to him. Likely he thought that writing a book about his search for identity was "enough said." As any serious writer will tell you, the autobiographical impulse arises from a desire to control the narrative. His campaign, also, shaped the story: mother from the Kansas heartland (really she grew up in Seattle), father an immigrant (actually he came here on a student visa first to the University of Hawaii and then briefly to Harvard). Personalities, upon becoming public, always escape descriptive boundaries, however. The first conjecture that Obama is a Muslim, which arose in 2006, shows the speed and power of this phenomenon.

In retrospect, in consideration of Obama's atypical American upbringing, I marvel at the O-team's former confidence that the public would be satisfied with their candidate's sparse remarks in public about his parents. Although Obama confined himself mostly to mentioning his mother's struggle with health insurance issues while dying of cancer, she was a much larger and more interesting human being than this oft-told chestnut would suggest. Indeed she was utterly fascinating--a truth upon which the American public fastened and then hastened to fill in the blanks. This dynamic has been as consequential with regards to the father Obama never knew.

Think about this for a minute: Obama is our first president whose father was a foreigner. Obama, Sr. was not an American: he was not born here; he did not settle here. The fact that neither Obama nor his associates has ever confronted this singularity merely serves to magnify its importance for many. The resonance of "foreigner" resists easy articulation; paradoxically the inarticulateness strengthens resistance. This is why, in part, my Southern friends cling to their beliefs about our president. Andrew Jackson, whose Scots-Irish father emigrated from Ireland to the colonies and died two years later in the Carolinas, before his son Andrew was born, is the only other president with a paternal narrative close to Barack Obama's. It is not a coincidence that Obama has joined Jackson as two of our presidents most vilified and least understood by their contemporaries. Childhood loss, a primal experience that can never be fully assuaged, drives ambition and desire in ways that we perceive but can not plumb and therefore fear, especially in powerful men whose people we do not know.

Obama himself fed the perception of his essential foreignness by granting his first interview as president to Al Arabiya, by giving his first big speech abroad in Turkey, by making the early Cairo journey to appeal to the Muslim world. These actions must have seemed natural to him; after all, he spent several childhood years in largely-Muslim Indonesia. More importantly, it was clear that here, like with the new START Treaty and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, was something the new president really wanted to do. This eagerness is something Obama brought right away to his Muslim outreach in a way he never has to matters of financial regulation and the domestic economy. We voters recognize that spark of interest when we see it. For his part, Obama's huge mistake was in not preparing the American public for this outreach and explaining often and in detail why he was so desirous of it. Because many political commentators follow foreign affairs closely and find the presidential approach to Muslims abroad perfectly natural and understandable, it is only now that the enormity of the consequences are clear.

In this light, is it surprising that many Americans believe that Barack Obama at heart is a Muslim? Or that they identify him with the Obama clan they read about, his paternal relatives in Kenya? The ironies here are manifold. To touch upon one only, Obama himself is not close to his Kenyan family. Since he never talks about these relatives (except for the "grandmother" to whom he is not related, for she is not the paternal grandfather's wife from whom he is descended), we have been free to extrapolate. Reductively, in ignorance of African tribal societies, latching onto isolated bits of Islamic law for guidance, some Americans have insisted that because Obama, Sr. was Muslim, culturally if not in religious practice, ergo the son is as well. It has been pointless for Obama's supporters to try to walk back the cat here: to assert that Obama, Sr. was not an observant Muslim--more, an agnostic. The trajectory of life, which we appreciate most as we grow older, suggests the futility for such men as Obama, Sr. of denying familial heritage, perhaps especially in matters of faith.

In 2007 I contacted Janet Soskice, a professor of theology at Jesus College, Cambridge and a respected scholar on the three Abrahamic faiths. I wanted an expert opinion on the matter of paternal religion passing on to the son, from the point of view of Islam. Soskice replied with a keeper of an email: "According to the Quran, as descendants of Adam and Eve we are all Muslims." Her response is priceless because it reads two ways, at one and the same time contradictory and co-eternal: Islam is the one true religion and therefore nonbelievers are apostates; we are all equally the children of God.

Faith Without Works Is Dead. Barack Obama's favorite Bible verse would seem to be Genesis 4:9. "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain asks. If the answer implied is not enough, the parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament makes it clear once and for all. "I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper," Obama frequently says. At Obama's assertion, however, many American Christians hear not a central tenet of our faith (the Second Commandment, repeated by Jesus in his commandment to his followers to "love one another as I have loved you") but an assertion of the social gospel stripped of Christianity itself. What the President professes sounds to many of our fellow Americans like good works divorced from divinity and married to European-style socialism. James 2:20 is a foundational absolute for Christians: faith without works is dead. Barack Obama believes this. I believe this. All Christians so believe. So how is it that many Americans suppose that our president does not mean what they mean even as they quote the same Scripture?

Broadly speaking, American Christianity has taken two different roads since World War Two. Inspired both by careful attention to biblical scholarship and by an ecumenical spirit, a desire to find harmony among all the world's great religions, some Christians have emphasized Jesus' teachings over his putative divinity. In the end, Christianity is all about helping one's fellow man. What does it mean to be a Christian? Doing good works. Without the most careful attention to Obama's statements and asides, the kind of scrutiny that only obsessed journalists like me and not ordinary Americans bring to the matter, one well might conclude that Barack Obama is such a Christian.

This is a reasonable, comfortable, harmonious Christianity. It is also in decline. To begin to explain why, let me proffer a piece of my own experience. In 1993 my family and I went to Easter services at the National Cathedral in Washington, which is Episcopalian. The rector began his sermon with this observation: Jesus may or may not have risen from the dead. This is a peripheral issue, the rector said. "If so, why am I sitting here, listening to a third-rate mind like yours?" I immediately asked myself.

The reverse of the Episcopalian's remark is one I heard recently at City Church in San Francisco, "planted," as evangelists now say, in 1996 by Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City. Today more than a thousand Bay Area folk worship at City Church each Sunday. The congregation is very young; on the Sunday of my visit, I was one of the oldest in the crowded pews. After his sermon and before communion, the minister said, "I know that some of you here today are inquirers, and you are thinking that this gathering is worth your while if you get a little something out of it to help you in your life. But really it is a waste of your time unless you believe that what we are about to do, celebrating the sacrament of communion, is partaking of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ."

This is not the Presbyterian church of my youth: where baptism as an infant, vague familiarity with the Bible, occasional church attendance and good intentions made one a Christian. In the 1970s American Christianity experienced a Great Awakening comparable to the one in the early 1800s that gave us the abolitionists. The impetus for this new religious revival was two-fold: the civil rights movement and the pagan but mystical, profane but earnest hippie subculture. At heart, the hippie lifestyle was a call to the quest for the authentic, through a spiritual journey, the better to live an examined life. As the energy of the Obama grassroots would inspire a conservative movement and be re-imagined in the Tea Party, so yearning for the Age of Aquarius, as no hippie could have foreseen, seeded a surge of Christianity. Our popular culture has never been able to capture this shift. Our secular media has never understood it, focusing on the part--the rise of the evangelical political right--rather than the whole.

To be a new Christian -- what many call an Evangelical, although I dislike that term since by definition all Christians, having been called by Jesus, on Pentecost, to go out into the world and tell his story, are Evangelists -- is a mighty commitment. The "works" in faith without works is dead encompass more than helping our brothers and sisters. It is honoring (if not always keeping) the commandments, participating in a community of believers, reading the Bible every day, establishing a discipline of prayer, ministering to the poor, volunteering in the community, giving a substantial portion of one's wealth away and spreading the Gospel abroad.

Barack Obama is more old-school in his Christianity than new. He does not regularly attend church. He does not have the deep familiarity with the Bible of the late Robert Byrd -- not to mention new Christians. He has "spiritual advisors," but we never see or hear them at their appointed task. Most Americans do not know their names and must take them on faith. Apparently, Joshua DuBois, the 27-year-old Pentecostal minister who runs the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is Obama's "pastor-in-chief," emailing him a daily devotion. Americans don't need to know DuBois to grasp the lack of gravitas here. Obama's customary reticence about his faith, moreover, makes him a Christian many of his fellow believers no longer recognize, much less trust.

Most importantly, Obama, for all his faults of spirit -- arrogance, aloofness -- does not look like a sinner. This may sound counterintuitive, but in the end Christians know one another as sinners. George W. Bush was an alcoholic who came to Jesus. Bill Clinton was a philanderer and penny ante liar. Jimmy Carter "lusted in his heart." But they are all Christians recognized by other Christians. In a curious way, Obama is too good to be a Christian. He never acts like a man who needs saving. This persona, married to the particularities of his faith practice, coupled with his Muslim heritage and Muslim outreach, have made Barack Obama the Invisible Christian to many Americans.

Tomorrow: Part Two of "He Is Not One of Us." How the failures of American education and the mainstream media have allowed the Muslim delusion to thrive.

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