Forty years ago, college professors assured their students that our present moment in history would be "post-Christian" and probably "post-religious." It has not proven true. We live instead in an era of roiling religious sentiment and little reveals this as clearly as the religious themes at play in the 2012 presidential race.
In November, voters will choose between two candidates for president: a politically conservative Mormon bishop and a politically liberal president who says he has "trusted in Jesus Christ for forgiveness of my sins." Also of consequence will be a newly awakened religious left, the remnants of a religious right devastated in the last presidential election, and a new generation of voters for whom faith is made authentic by meaningful social action. Each of these are part of a broader society which is certain of spiritual realities but suspicious of religious institutions, confident of invisible truth but wary of the often self-serving nature of political religion. We are far from the secular society prophesied decades ago.
Nothing signifies this quite like the faith journey of Barack Obama, though most Americans know that journey only to the moment Obama entered the White House. Reports from the president's closest advisors indicate that his spiritual seeking has continued during his first term in office and if this testimony is true it is likely to have a profound effect upon the upcoming presidential race.
By the time Barack Obama began running for president in 2008, his journey to faith was already well known. He had spoken often of a moment decades before at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago when he "felt God's spirit beckoning me" and "submitted myself to His will." It was a turning point in his life, he said, an embrace of the religious certainty that had eluded him in his earlier years.
It all might have remained just this simple, but then Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, damned America in the name of God, and a Roman Catholic priest mocked Hillary Clinton from the Trinity pulpit. Phrases like "black liberation theology" and "Marxist Jesus" became media buzzwords. By the time these storms of faith lifted, Obama had distanced him himself from Wright and also from his church of more than 20 years. As he stepped into office, then, he was without a primary spiritual mentor, without a spiritual home and still bruised from the religious bludgeoning of the campaign.
Some administration officials report that it was just at this moment that a change began.
Obama's closest spiritual advisor as he entered the presidency was Joshua Dubois, who had headed faith-based outreach for the campaign and then agreed to manage the fledgling administration's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. A soft-spoken Pentecostal, Dubois says he sensed the new president's need and asked if he could form a team of "spiritual advisers" to help. Obama agreed. Dubois called upon nationally known religious leaders such as Joel Hunter, Otis T. Moss, Kirbyjon Caldwell and T.D. Jakes.
These were far different men from Jeremiah Wright. Some were white. Some were Pentecostal. Some were politically conservative. All were theologically more traditional than Wright. Together they tried to minister to the new president. They prayed with him during regularly scheduled phone conferences, they wrote personalized devotionals for him, and, when time allowed, they met with him personally.
According to Joel Hunter, pastor of Florida's Northland Church, these spiritual advisors brought change to Obama's life. "He was pretty busy during his Trinity years," Hunter says, "and so he wasn't learning very much. He had no significant theological training. He's now had more theological training in the last years than in all his earlier life. Now he has answers he did not have then. Obama is having a new encounter with truth." Hunter believes that Obama would no longer question the existence of an afterlife or suggest that all religions are essentially the same as candidate Obama famously did during the 2008 campaign. "He would not hold most of those views now," Hunter explains. "His views were not dogmatic when he issued them but they were where he was at the time. He is very much in transition."
Given the influence of these evangelical spiritual advisors, has Obama become a "born again" Christian?
Some would say he has.
"Yes," says Dubois, "I know he's born again. I've asked him and he's described his faith in detail. He believes what the majority of Christians believe. And the experience of the presidency is strengthening his Christian muscles, making him a calm, confident, certain believer in Jesus Christ." Joel Hunter agrees: "There is simply no question about it: Barack Obama is a born again man who has trusted in Jesus Christ with his whole heart."
Yet not everyone is as convinced. Among them is Jerome Corsi, the Harvard Ph.D. who wrote "The Obama Nation," raising serous questions about Barack Obama's birth, religion, political affiliations and policies during the presidential race of 2008. "Barack Obama's Christianity is a religion of political convenience," Corsi, a Roman Catholic, has said. "You find in him no orthodox Christian doctrine, a heavy dose of Marxism, a heavy dose of race, but a very poor brand of Christianity. His faith is essentially Marxism transplanted onto a watered-down version of Christianity. I just don't see much fruit that indicates he is a Christian regardless of what he has learned to say or read to the public."
Equally suspicious of Obama is David Barton, a historian whom Time magazine has called "a hero to millions" for his renditions of American religious history. Barton allows that Obama may be, in some form, a Christian, but insists that given the administration's policies it doesn't seem to matter. "He might have a Christian faith but it clearly isn't a biblical faith. What difference does it make, politically speaking, if the man is a Christian personally if he doesn't let that Christian faith shape his policies? And Obama clearly does not have biblical policies in any form."
These fault lines will continue to surface, particularly during the heated days of the 2012 presidential race. Obama will continue to speak openly of his Christian faith. He will continue to defend even his most radical political views from the perspective of his faith -- just as he did recently in defending same-sex marriage from the biblical Sermon on the Mount. And his critics will continue to claim that his administration has declared war on religion and that Obama is little more than a socialist without any meaningful spiritual life. This will all become even more significant given that Obama's opponent for president is a Mormon leader and given that, according to some surveys, religion continues to play a decisive role in how Americans choose their president.
More on this in Part II of "Religion and the 2012 Presidential Race."