Books, Social & Political Issues

BOOK REVIEW: The Faith of Barack Obama

After an overt audience preference for John McCain at Saddleback’s faith forum last week, I found myself skeptical that another Christian mainstay (Thomas Nelson) could treat a democrat fairly. However, like moderator Rick Warren, author Stephen Mansfield does a respectable job proving for insight into the spiritual life of the current democratic presidential nominee in The Faith of Barack Obama.

The Faith of Barack Obama appears to be written for a more conservative, evangelical audience. At points, it feels as though Mansfield uses the views of the religious right as the measuring stick for the ‘correct’ faith. When speaking of faith, the perspective with which he compares Obama stems solely from the more conservative Christian viewpoint (as opposed to Muslim, Hindu, etc.) Given the audience, there is no fault in this, but it would be helpful to note this point to better understand the book’s perspective.

In spite of the audience, Mansfield works hard to highlight Obama’s message of unity to the traditionally divided factions of politics and faith. Chapter two opens with an example of then-presidential candidate Sam Brownback and Obama at Saddleback’s World AIDS Day summit. At the summit, Brownback commented that he felt more ‘comfortable’ than he’d felt when they’d shared the stage at the NAACP conference. Given evangelicals’ tendency to lean Republican, Brownback turned to Obama and commented, “Welcome to my house!” In his infamous eloquence, Obama responded, “There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”

Mansfield goes on to explore how Obama has worked to bring traditionally divided houses together, to break down long-standing barriers, and to forge common ground on hostile issues. Perhaps the most hostile of these issues is abortion, to which Mansfield dedicates an entire chapter on Obama’s voting record on abortion. While this chapter is the most negative tone, it is certainly an issue to be considered for those who espouse the value of human life. However, the examination of this one issue felt overemphasized as I would have liked to see a more in depth examination of his stance on other issues of life such as the death penalty, world poverty, and health care. (Mansfield does touch on some of these topics, just not as in depth as he does with abortion.)

Mansfield also includes a fascinating chapter entitled, “The Four Faces of Faith” which examines how George Bush, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama represent four distinct sectors of America. In it, he examines how each public figure has publically lived their faith and how they reflect a various sectors of the American public. I won’t elaborate more here or it would spoil his point.

“It is the healers who are best remembered,” he concludes, “those who teach us to live beyond the limitations of our lesser selves.” Comparing Obama to such historic figures as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Gerald Ford, Desmond Tutu, Manfield closes with deep respect for the message that Obama proclaims – that as a nation, we are broken and we need healing. He asserts that Obama’s presence is “more significant for who he is than for what he does politically” because he brings to light long neglected issues in our past: racism, the poor, the “restoration of religion to the political Left”, the recognition of the black church in America. While certain sections feel slightly biased, the majority of Mansfield’s book is objective and fair. Ultimately, it is a challenge to those on both sides of the church fence to be willing to dialog across difficult lines.

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