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Obama's Religious Rhetoric Puts Faith in Spotlight

In 2004, the Democrats had a religion problem. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), a committed Catholic, almost never talked about his faith, while George W. Bush spoke about it all the time. Then, one night during the Democratic National Convention, a young U.S. Senate candidate named Barack Obama broke the zone of silence:

"The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states," he called out to the cheering crowd. "Red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states."

The crowd roared. It was a remarkable moment for Democrats, who were tired of being cast at the Godless party.

"I thought 'how brilliant' because that's a trope from a contemporary Christian song," recalled Shaun Casey, who teaches Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary.

"It's sung in white evangelical churches, it's sung in African-American churches — Our God is an awesome God. So if you knew the code, it's like, 'This guy is not the typical secular Democrat.'"

'An Authentic Language of Faith'

Casey, who now advises Obama's campaign on religion issues, says Obama quickly made his personal beliefs central to his presidential campaign. He peppered his speeches with references to his faith and Scripture. In a speech he gave to the United Church of Christ last June, he describing how — as a 20-something, secular community organizer — he knelt before the cross and became a Christian.

"I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me," Obama said, noting he did not "fall out" of the pew. Rather, it was a cerebral decision. "I submitted myself to His will and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works."

It's this story of his adult conversion — something he shares with President Bush — that attracts even some white evangelicals, despite his liberal pro-choice politics.

"When I speak with evangelical young people, there's a real openness to Obama," says Michael Gerson, President Bush's speech writer, known for crafting the president's lofty religious rhetoric.

"He speaks an authentic language of faith rooted in his own conversion experience. He specifically rejects a kind of simplistic secularization as a message, that somehow religion has nothing to do with politics. So I think there is an authentic appeal there," Gerson says.

The Origins of 'The Audacity of Hope'

Gerson says he hears in Obama's speeches the theological activism and optimism of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also hears the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century Protestant theologian who believed that society will never be perfect because of human sinfulness. But the chief influence in Obama's spiritual odyssey is his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama titled his second book after Wright's 1985 sermon.

"Have the audacity to hope for that child of yours," Wright sang out in the sermon that Obama has said jumpstarted his own Christian journey. "Have the audacity to hope for that husband of yours. Have the audacity to hope for that home of yours. Have the audacity to hope for the homosexual of yours. Have the audacity to hope for that church of yours. Whatever it is you've been praying for, keep on praying, and you may find, like my grandmother sings, There's a bright side somewhere."

If Wright supplied the message of "hope" that Obama cites in virtually every speech, Wright has brought Obama a world of trouble. In recent weeks, some controversial excerpts from Wright's sermons — "God damn America" being the most memorable — brought down criticism on Obama for attending that church. Obama has rejected those statements.

But Anthony Pinn, a religion professor at Rice University, says Obama has absorbed Wright's emphasis on the "social gospel" — which focuses on Jesus' commands to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and free the oppressed.

"There are ways that Rev. Wright models for Obama a certain take on the social gospel, a certain type of engagement — a need for Christians to roll up their sleeves and be involved in community activities," Pinn notes. "I think he gets that from Rev Wright."

Preaching the 'Social Gospel'

In speech after speech, Obama made a case for the social gospel.

"My faith teaches me," he told the convention the United Church of Christ, "that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work."

But Obama's rhetoric combines the social gospel with language often heard in white evangelical churches, says Shaun Casey. That other gospel emphasizes personal morality, a relationship with Jesus, redemption and salvation. Casey says Obama often toggles between the plight of the poor and talk of his transformed soul.

"You don't have the classic split in his life that you do in many versions of Christianity where it's either all social justice and no personal redemption, or its all personal redemption and no social justice," Casey says. "He wants to hold those two together."

For example, in 2006, Obama told a group of liberal evangelicals that he believes in restricting guns in the inner cities, "But I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart — a hole that the government alone cannot fix."

Allusions to 'The Promised Land'

As a black politician, Obama echoes some of Martin Luther King's rhetoric, if not his preacher's style. He uses code words from King like the "beloved country," and borrows some lines, such as "the arc of the universe bends towards justice." Obama quotes black spirituals. He also includes Biblical allusions to David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions, and of course, to the Promised Land — a favorite and repeated theme of Martin Luther King. Not just in King's Mountaintop speech the day before he was assassinated, but in earlier speeches, as well:

"Moses might not get to see Canaan, but his children will see it," King said in his "Birth of a Nation" address in 1957. "He even got to the mountaintop enough to see it and that assured him that it was coming. But the beauty of the thing is that there's always a Joshua to take up his work and take the children on in."

Joshua was the man appointed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, and Obama has appropriated that mantle. He did so in an address in Selma, Alabama, in March 2007:

"The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way," he said to the audience, in which famous civil rights leaders like John Lewis listened from the front row. "They took us 90 percent of the way there. We still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side. So the question, I guess, that I have today is: What's called of us in this Joshua generation?"

Obama casts himself as that transition figure — one who can move the country into a land of unity and racial harmony, or at least less division. Obama hopes his message will appeal to religious people of all stripes, or at least, enough of them to win the White House.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Weekend Edition Sunday
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.