Last week, Beliefnet.com reprinted the transcript of a fascinating March 2004 interview that Chicago Sun-Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani conducted with then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama. The interview generated lots of discussion back in ’04 and is still one of the most extensive records we have of Obama’s feelings about his personal faith and his view of the role of religion in society.
Among the highlights is Obama’s memory of first getting involved in the black church upon arriving in Chicago:
I probably didn’t get started getting active in church activities until I moved to Chicago.
The way I came to Chicago in 1985 was that I was interested in community organizing and I was inspired by the Civil Rights movement. And the idea that ordinary people could do extraordinary things. And there was a group of churches out on the South Side of Chicago that had come together to form an organization to try to deal with the devastation of steel plants that had closed. And didn’t have much money, but felt that if they formed an organization and hired somebody to organize them to work on issues that affected their community, that it would strengthen the church and also strengthen the community.
So they hired me, for $13,000 a year. The princely sum. And I drove out here and I didn’t know anybody and started working with both the ministers and the lay people in these churches on issues like creating job training programs, or after-school programs for youth, or making sure that city services were fairly allocated to underserved communities.
This would be in Roseland, West Pullman, Altgeld Gardens, far South Side working class and lower income communities.
And it was in those places where I think what had been more of an intellectual view of religion deepened because I’d be spending an enormous amount of time with church ladies, sort of surrogate mothers and fathers and everybody I was working with was 50 or 55 or 60, and here I was a 23-year-old kid running around.
I became much more familiar with the ongoing tradition of the historic black church and it’s importance in the community.
And the power of that culture to give people strength in very difficult circumstances, and the power of that church to give people courage against great odds. And it moved me deeply.
One of the churches that I became involved in was Trinity United Church of Christ. And the pastor there, Jeremiah Wright, became a good friend. So I joined that church and committed myself to Christ in that church.
The interview may raise questions about the orthodoxy of Obama’s faith. For instance, when asked what he believed to be the eternal fate of people who die without a personal faith in Jesus Christ, he said:
I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell. I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity. That’s just not part of my religious makeup.
Though Obama says he’s suspicious of “religious certainty expressing itself in politics,” he also believes that religiously-informed values should shape public policy. “I think sometimes Democrats have made the mistake of shying away from a conversation about values for fear that they sacrifice the important value of tolerance,” he tells Falsani. “And I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive.”
Obama’s responses will leave some Christians wishing for a more unequivocal declaration of biblical truth. Still other readers will find his sensitivity to the nuances of faith—and his candor about his beliefs (and doubts)—quite refreshing.