Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Obama’s Tears, his Family, and his Faith: Part III of Reflections on

Our prayers are with Barack Obama as he visits his ailing grandmother, a woman who, with his late grandfather, raised him in Hawaii for several years. His affectionate portrayal of “Toot,” with all her many virtues graces the pages of Dreams from My Father. She came to public attention in his famous speech on race, in which he renounced the Reverend Wright for his belief that America could not change its racism. He could not disown him any more than he could disown his own grandmother, “who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street” and who indulged in racial and ethnic stereotypes “that made me cringe.” (The episode is more complex than Obama lets on his speech, as his autobiography makes clear, pp. 87-89).

Obama will doubtless shed tears as his grandmother fails. In Dreams from My Father he weeps at length twice—first, when he is moved by a sermon by the Reverend Wright, “The Audacity of Hope.” He does not weep because he has come to accept God and all his power and mercy (a point I misunderstood in my earlier post) but because he sees the power of God over others’ lives—a power he does not yet accept. He weeps because he is outside the community the Reverend Wright is calling into being in his stirring cadences. (In his later book, The Audacity of Hope, he will note that he was baptized—why doesn’t he mention this in the earlier book? This is a rare revisiting of his earlier book in the later.) The other time he weeps is when he visits the graves of his father and grandfather, in Kenya. Earlier he had declared to his Kenyan relatives, in jest, “I am Luo.” Obama sees himself as fulfilling their dreams, moving beyond the modernity that opened up their lives, while it threatened their control over life:

“For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about was not longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.” [429-430]

At book’s end, with his brother at Obama’s wedding, he follows the tribal custom of dribbling drinks on the floor, and toasts to “a happy ending.” “And for that moment, at least, I felt like the luckiest man alive.”

The world and Obama, Obama and the world. Who is Obama? How does he understand being an American? How does he understand being human?

What he writes about faith is central to understanding who he is. Thus, we cringe when we read in Audacity of Hope about the “the books of Timothy and Luke” and are reminded of Howard Dean’s claim that Job was his favorite New Testament reading (102, from the 2008 Vintage edition; add about 40 pages to get the correct citation in the first, 2006 edition). The focus on faith went beyond his anthropologist mother’s influence. She had gotten him interested in political philosophy (244), which he tried to apply in his community organizer work. His mother enabled him to float above cultures, but he willed himself to be rooted in the black community.

It was the Reverend Wright who changed his life, by making him part of the black church and giving him roots. Obama’s earlier book noted the political importance of being a church member ”to spur social change.” And he discovered that he could retain his modern skepticism and embrace this church that called sinners. “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” (Audacity, 246). This is social gospel Christianity. His later conversion account is prosaic, compared with his earlier, tearful encounter as one who held back. One is led to wonder whether the same man wrote both books. The key here is that when he wrote as a politician, he was a changed man.

But not completely different. We are reminded in all this of chapter 18 of Machiavelli’s Prince, “In What Mode Faith Should Be Kept by Princes.” A careful reading of this brief, rich chapter praising malleability or change helps illuminate Obama’s political character. Princes must keep up appearances but must always be in charge of the way they appear.

Critics have derided Obama as “the messiah,” ridiculed the Greek columns at his acceptance speech, and lampooned his “presidential” seal, with a Latin (!) motto expressing a rather un-classical view. But the criticism goes much deeper. The flaw of Marxism (and its competitor social gospel Christianity) on this point is making man into a God. Theoretically, there should be no place for tragedy, no place for tears. Toot’s decline restores Obama’s humanity, for the moment. As we pray for him and his family, we should pray for all the candidates and for the United States of America as well.

My first post on Obama’s autobiography is here , the second here . My next posts will focus on his view of the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln.

Discussions - 14 Comments

we cringe when we read in Audacity of Hope about the “the books of Timothy and Luke”

Hey Ken: what's the cringe for?

Timothy is a letter; Luke is a Gospel.

"Books of Timothy" (Google Books search)

"Book of Luke" (Google Books search).


The point Brett is that no Christian would ever say "the book of Timothy." It betrayed his Christianity to be, at the very least, feigned, if not wholly fraudulent.

Good piece, Ken. I like the humane tone along with the rigour.

I'm also unpleased by what appears to be the Social Gospel-laden perspective which Obama adopted at Trinity UCC. As you point out, his moving understanding of other's faith in DREAMS doesn't match the rigid formality of his own conversion description in AUDACITY.

When shown this inconsistency and distorted theology, I am not as worried (or as cynical or uncharitable) as Dan. For one, I'm somewhat reluctant to investigated the substance of a candidate's faith. For what it's worth, McCain lax Episcopalianism less inspiring than his qualities derived from military service and historical study. Besides, my own journey could be ridiculed many times over.

In the end, I'm less of a culture warrior and more drawn to the Founding era's view that God, truth, and the public good are better served by distinguishing religious orthodoxy (not religion, or religious people, but enforcement of True Religion) from public service. For example, calling Obama's national service plan too expansive and expensive is preferable to calling it IDOLATRY or his faith FRAUDULENT. Let the synods and other religious bodies battle over these terms, let Congress evaluate with its critera influenced by but changed from denominational principles.

I prefer to have leaders who firmly grasp the Protestant traditions that birthed modern republics. However, I'm heartened that constitutional and federal separation and checks & balances limit the hubris of individual leaders and parties. Besides, well-reported conversions and strong knowledge of Christian texts are surely not guarantees of prudential leadership.

My God, people -- Ken Thomas included: what a waste of ink and brain cells!

Dan writes:

no Christian would ever say "the book of Timothy." It betrayed his Christianity to be, at the very least, feigned, if not wholly fraudulent.

It is a little weird to call someone a fraud because they refer to books of the Bible as, well, "books." But let's consult Google and see if anyone else does this!

"With the books of Timothy, Titus, and Philemon comprising the only major exceptions, most of the rest of the Bible is written in the plural."

Source: Marva J. Dawn, Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society, 2003, p.138.

Minor errors can be revealing, but only if they are errors.

Agree with PVC. Pray for Obama? Did you also pray for Idi Amin?

It's a real race to the bottom today in terms of equivocations isn't it, Tom?

Brett, now you're really getting out there on a plank.

Christians don't look to Google as commanding authority on proper nomenclature. 1st and 2d Timothy aren't books; and Christians don't deem them books, despite your finding an author who mislabels them such.

Many people who aren't Christian have written about aspects of Christianity, and often betray a woeful ignorance thereof.

So Google notwithstanding, the point I made stands, no Christian would drop a line like "the books of Timothy and Luke."

I would hate for my ablity to quote chapter and verse to be the full measure of whether I am a Christian. It is perfectly reasonable (and charitable)to treat Obama's slip as just that. But imagine if Sarah Palin had made a similar slip...

This isn't about quoting chapter and verse. This is a rudimentary familiarity with basic Christian terms. It would be like saying there were 6 Gospels instead of 4, or suggesting that there were mulitiple "Acts" of the Apostles. It's just not done. What Obama did was betray that for him his membership in Trinity "church" was cynical, or worse than cynical. And I'll leave it to all of you to imagine what would be worse than naked cynicism in the case at instance.

Dan: I'm confused. Are you saying that Marva Dawn isn't a Christian? Or that she is a Christian, as everyone seems to think she is, but she "mislabeled" those books of the Bible as "books?"

The easiest answer is that it's not really a "mislabeling" to write "books of Luke and Timothy" rather than "the gospel of Luke and the first and second epistles to Timothy," as style dictates. That's kind of what Marva Dawn did. And when Francis Schaeffer writes "the Book of Luke," that's kind of what he did. This style choice is not evidence of fraud unless you already believe the fraud, i.e., it's not really evidence, just confirmation of a preexisting bias.

Just as he was doing with the question of internment in Hawaii, Ken was trying to use a "gotcha moment" as a window into the real Obama, and he failed, for better or worse. It turns out that Ken's instincts were probably wrong.

It's always easier (and more prudent and more enlightening, ultimately) to give your subjects the benefit of the doubt, especially if you aspire to serious interpretation. I suspect that Ken knows this, but he doesn't want to be charitable to Obama for some reason.

Brett, I don't give two damns about Marva Dawn, nor do I particularly care what her credentials may, or may not be.

This isn't an issue where you can pull a Google search, find some apparent "authority" who describes 1st and 2d Timothy as "books," and then smile brightly to yourself and come here and post a Q.E.D.

That won't work on this situation. May work on others, but not on this one. This isn't a problem of nomenclature. Occasionally you'll hear somebody ask, concerning a baseball game, how many "points" a particular team has. Now though the right term "runs" wasn't used, everybody understands the question, and people aren't overly worked up about it. Such things happen.

But Christianity has existed for two thousand years. During that long march through history certain terms have become accepted, across all denominations. 1st and 2d Timothy were LETTERS written by Paul himself, to a protege. The fact that they were letters isn't dispositive here though. It's the historic fact that Christians through the centuries have described them as letters, and as nothing else.

In every single Christian service, again, across all denominations, there are readings, and before those readings are performed the particular source from the Bible is noted.

Nowhere is the Book of Luke for instance, described as a "letter" from the Evangelist. Nor is the Book of John described as a missive, a "letter," a memo if you will. And as the major features of the New Testament are not marginalized by reduction to "letters," nor are the actual letters, such as those addressed to Timothy, hyped into something they're not, such as "books."

As for this Marva Dawn, her comments are an irrelevancy.

Whether she's a Christian or not, again, an irrelvancy.

I went to Villanova, one of my theology professors graduated Princeton's school of theology, knew Christianity backwards and forwards, and believed none of it himself, which he privately confided to me. But unbeliever that he was, he wouldn't have morphed 1st and 2d Timothy into "books."

Obama's comment was revealing. Pretending otherwise won't cut it. Nor will Google searches. The sad fact of the matter is that the single "Christian church" that Obama selected is so weighted down with one heresy after another, that it's connection with genuine Christianity is very much at issue.

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