Belonging Before Believing

Belonging Before BelievingI started reading Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama mostly out of curiosity. I knew Mansfield had previously written The Faith of George W. Bush, a sympathetic religious biography of the 43rd president, so I wasn’t sure what his approach would be to a political figure who lands decidedly on the other end of the ideological spectrum. However, I must confess, though I started the book out of curiosity, I continued with it out of necessity.

As he did with Bush, Mansfield offers a genuinely objective overview of Obama’s faith journey and how it might give clues about the way he will govern. But what largely drew my interest were the insights the book reveals about embracing Christianity in today’s society. For anyone who wants to wrestle with the issues of faith in a postmodern context, this book is a must-read.

Mansfield writes:

Religiously, the majority of America’s young are postmodern, which means they do faith like jazz–informal, eclectic, and often without theme.

Faith in a postmodern era is largely about belonging. It has been said that in the past people believed before they belonged. That is, they would give their life to Jesus at a crusade by walking down the aisle during an altar call or by praying the Sinner’s Prayer with a friend. While the convert didn’t understand the intricacies of Christian doctrine, it was an ascent to believe. Then the search to belong would begin by joining a small group, attending Sunday School, or shopping for a church. Postmodern searching follows the same path but in the opposite direction: Belonging precedes believing.

The latter was true of Obama’s faith journey as well. For him, disconnectedness was a way of life. He grew up disconnected from his absentee father and his country because of the gypsy wandering of his mother. Identity was a hard-fought battle for connectedness. Was he Black or White? African or American? This produced a desire for harmony, reconnection … belonging.

Mansfield does a masterful job of this phase of Obama’s spiritual biography. On that Sunday when Barack was in tears at the end of the sermon and knelt before the cross, he was belonging before he was believing. Mansfield writes, “[I]t was a decision to enter a faith by joining a people of faith, to come home to a community and so come home to God.”

If we are going to do effective ministry today we must recognize that Obama is not unique in this journey.

Things get messy when belief follows belonging in the conversion experience. Obama appears to be “working out” what he believes as he goes. At times he gives safe answers about issues related to religion and life that clearly do not satisfy listeners–or Obama, for that matter. He goes away and reworks his answer, and the next time he’s asked the question it is obvious that he has spent time in the woodshed refining his true beliefs.

Other times he says things that seem to deny or call into question core Christian teaching. Like when he and his daughter, Sasha, were having a conversation about death and he was unable to give her assurance about heaven. On another occasion he questions the traditional view of hell. Perhaps the most troubling of all of his statements is when he said that, though he was “rooted in the Christian tradition,” he believes that “there are many paths to the same place …” When pressed about Jesus saying, “I am the way, truth and life,” he responds by saying that was only a “particular verse.”

What do we do with doubters in our midst? Do we say that they are not one of us until they believe the right thing? Do we refuse to let them call themselves Christian until they can pass an exam on basic Christian doctrine? Mansfield points out that Obama took his step of faith toward Jesus from a “foundation of doubt” because of the skepticism of Unitarian Grandparents and an atheistic mother.

What do we do with those who are simultaneously doubting and worshiping Christ? Perhaps we can take our cue from Jesus …

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted…. (Matt. 28.17)

Can you get past the first two words of The Lord’s Prayer? If I ever meet President Obama, that’s the question I want to ask him. As a man who never had a daddy, I know firsthand what it’s like to discover God as your father. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I rarely get past the words “Our Father” without having to pause for a moment.

On the one hand God meets the father void of the fatherless, but He gives us a family. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray, My Father but Our Father. Our Father knows that we need to belong to a family–a community of faith–so that we can truly believe in His love, grace, and mercy.

Mansfield says this of Obama: “Though he came to faith as a man, he carried the soul of a boy who yearned for a father and a tribe to call his own.”

The father void and the identity crisis it produced may be the crux to understanding the faith of Barack Obama. Why did he cling to Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Could it be as simple as the fact that Wright was his spiritual father? I think so. Why does Obama cling to a Christianity that he questions? Could it be that while he doesn’t understand it all, he knows in his heart that God is calling him to belong to this community that is bigger than himself?

In his bestseller The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes of his conversion experience:

It was because of these newfound understandings–that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved–that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. 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.

Mansfield does a good job of helping us understand the roots of Obama’s pursuit of God’s truth. If you’re interested in understanding the faith of our president-elect, or perhaps that of your postmodern neighbor next door, The Faith of Barack Obama is worth your time.

About the author, Robert Gelinas

Robert Gelinas is the lead pastor at Colorado Community Church in Denver and UrbanFaith.com's resident Jazz Theologian. He blogs at JazzTheologian.com. His latest book is Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith.
  1. Robert, based on certain statements in your review and other things I’ve read, I sometimes wonder if Barack Obama is really a Christian–at least in the orthodox, biblical sense. What do you think?

  2. Robert,
    I genuinely appreciated your thoughts on Barack’s spirituality.
    I find that questions are the hooks that lead us to find deeper meaning. And, it’s only when we let go of the questions that we never get to the root of the matter.
    With that said, you can probably guess that I appreciate Barack’s questioning nature and I applaud him for willingly sharing those questions.
    Also, I should point out that all assuredness is not from an inner knowing. Sometimes it’s because the thinker has stopped reaching for a new and fresh understanding.
    As someone who is continually growing in my understanding of Christ, I never want to stop or stifle the questions that come up. Each time I question, I get a deeper understanding of Christ in my life.
    I’m going to be in your area soon to screen a beautiful Christian film called Pastor Brown. You can see our trailer at http://www.rockcapitalstudios.com. I’d love for you and your church family to join us as my special guest.
    Pastor Brown has been described as ‘Fireproof for families.’ If you saw that film, then you know that Fireproof was an amazing resource for Christian marriages and marriages in general. Well, what Fireproof does for marriage, Pastor Brown does for family.