This presidential election has of course highlighted the issue of race in America, but the question of faith has become almost as consequential.
A cabal of Barack Obama opponents trades in a false underground innuendo designed to sow fear with a pernicious question: Is Obama a secret Muslim? In response, Obama proudly testifies to his Christian faith. Yet thankfully, given his liberal sensibility, Obama struggles to soften the implications of his vehement distancing from Islam. "I am respectful of the religion," he explains, "but it's not my own." Still, perhaps it is likely that it is mostly his own religion that's foremost when expressing his endorsement of certain government ties to religious institutions. Indeed, would Obama have pledged to establish a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships if he was indeed a Muslim?
"Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised as a Muslim, and is a committed Christian," Obama's Fight the Smear website boldly proclaims. Such is the state of our post-9/11 politics that the conflation of Muslim and epithet is a political reality.
Obama's faith should be irrelevant since he insists that he will not use government resources to promote either Christianity or Islam or any other particular religion, a charge that has been leveled against President Bush's Christian-dominated faith-based initiatives.
Legally, government funded faith-based programs are prohibited from proselytizing, which is why an Iowa court ruling struck down direct public funding of Chuck Colson's Christian Prison Fellowship, a favorite of President Bush that lives on as a privately funded operation with the overt support of prison officials in various states.
In practice, the ban against faith-based proselytizing is an oxymoron, especially when it comes to issues of substance abuse and prison reform where profound changes in worldview are often the catalyst for rehabilitation. Secular approaches are frequently unable to heal the spiritual damage that degenerates into addiction and violence. The toxic inner life of a person must be treated and transformed. Clerical drug counselors and prison chaplains tout the singular rewards of their own redemptive cures.
Faith-based organizations like Colson's Prison Fellowship teach prisoners that the God of the Bible alone is the source of inner healing. "Therapy emphasizes the management of behavior as it impacts on others," explains Fellowship leaders Henry Brandt and Kerry Skinner. "Transformation emphasizes the change in behavior as a result of encountering Jesus Christ."
As a committed Christian, Obama has testified to the transformative potency of his own "belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life." But what of the healing power of a faith in the Prophet Muhammad and the verses of the Koran, a theology that is not his own but one which he respects?
Our prisons are certainly fertile ground for a government-funded expansion of Muslim faith-based programs. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that although Muslims account for less than one percent of the U.S. population, nearly six percent of the prison population seek Islamic religious services. And these Muslim inmates are underserved. As the report reveals, there is a "crucial shortage" of Islamic clerics since only four percent of the federal prison system's chaplains are Muslims.
If the frenzied website declarations that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim were true, would he nevertheless still argue that his proposed Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships should provide additional government funds to mosques so they can help alleviate the shortage of Muslim clerics in federal prisons? You decide: Despite numerous invitations, Obama has not made a campaign appearance at a single mosque. His visits to churches and synagogues are mundanely routine.
Obama does express an appreciation of Islam that could serve us all once the electoral combat is over: "I absolutely believe that having lived in a country that was majority Muslim for a time and having distant relatives in Africa who are Muslim, that I'm less likely to demonize the Muslim faith."
Yet Obama's delicate balance between Islamic distance and embrace can get unseemly. Janet Afee of the Council of Islamic Organizations in Chicago grudgingly accepts the political need for Obama to constantly clarify misconceptions about his faith. "The problem, however, is the manner in which he corrects the record. He vociferously denies being a Muslim as if it were a slur."
While some decry Obama's graceless distancing from Islam, others chide him for his championing of a diversity that includes Muslims. Max Blumenthal of The Nation reported that during a meeting with evangelical leaders designed to garner fundamentalist Christian support for his candidacy, Rev. Franklin Graham demanded to know if Obama believed that "Jesus was the way to God or merely a way." Obama's response was more ecumenical than evangelical: "Jesus is the only way for me. I'm not in a position to judge other people."
Obama's answer mirrored a response to a similar question put to Franklin's famous father, Rev. Billy Graham. During an interview with the elder Graham, I asked him, "Do you believe that a person can be saved even if he doesn't accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior?" His response was, "It is not my job to decide who is to be saved and who is not. That's God's job."
Despite the humility and ecumenicalism of many of our spiritual teachers, we can see the political forces that are prompting Obama to constantly exalt his Christian faith at the expense of his father's Muslim heritage -- ones which make it nearly inconceivable that Obama would be calling for a revitalized office of faith-based programs if he was indeed a Muslim.
It may be too risky even for the most audacious of men to try and distinguish between good Muslims and bad when divvying up government funds. It may be impossible to avoid subsidizing the proselytizing Christian evangelists and the fervent Islamic clerics seeking converts when plying churches and mosques with taxpayer dollars. And it may be foolhardy for an African-American named Barack Hussein Obama to try and even-handedly promote faith-based ventures when our divided post-9/11 electorate is still being exploited by spiritual demagogues and intolerant religious warriors.
The wise path might be to let the preacher's preach with their own tithes, and the gods save in their own time, while enlightened presidents just govern, letting each of us pursue our spirituality in our own way.
Steve Posner's latest book is Spiritual Delights and Delusions: How to Bridge the Gap between Spiritual Fulfillment and Emotional Realities. Visit his website at steveposner.com