Former President Barack Obama’s new book, “A Promised Land,” only mentions four pages in its index under the category “faith and.”
But the title of the book by the 44th U.S. president invokes biblical imagery — a land promised by God to his people — and Obama includes the role of religious institutions, faith leaders and personal traditions throughout the 750-page book. On the page after his dedication of the tome to his wife and daughters, Obama features the words from an African American spiritual: “Fly and never tire/There’s a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.”
While friends and strangers have told him they believe God engineered his road to the White House, Obama says he didn’t view his political path as a call from God.
“I suspect that God’s plan, whatever it is, works on a scale too large to admit our mortal tribulations; that in a single lifetime, accidents and happenstance determine more than we care to admit,” he writes, “and that the best we can do is to try to align ourselves with what we feel is right and construct some meaning out of our confusion, and with grace and nerve play at each moment the hand that we’re dealt.”
Here are five faith facts about Obama from his highly anticipated book released Tuesday (Nov. 17):
He’d rephrase his ‘guns or religion’ remark.
Obama was asked at a 2008 California fundraising event for wealthy donors why he thought working-class Pennsylvania voters opted for Republicans. His response included the words “they cling to guns or religion,” referring to frustration over job losses in their region.
The former president calls that response “my biggest mistake of the campaign,” one that he said could have been due to fatigue or impatience.
“Even today, I want to take that sentence back and make a few simple edits,” Obama writes. “I would say in my revised version: ‘and they look to the traditions and way of life that have been constants in their lives, whether it’s their faith, or hunting, or blue-collar work, or more traditional notions of family and community.’”
He said “the best policies in the world don’t matter to them” when Republicans tell working-class people that Democrats oppose traditions they may cherish. He later notes that Sarah Palin, Republican opponent John McCain’s running mate, included his original words during her 2008 Republican National Convention speech.
He respected his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, before he had to part ways.
Obama writes that, especially from his perspective as a young man, “the good in Reverend Wright more than outweighed his flaws.” Obama had noted, as he attended and joined Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, that some of the pastor’s sermons were “a little over the top.” But when news coverage showed his pastor speaking of an America that believes in Black inferiority and white supremacy “more than we believe in God,” Obama chose to withdraw his invitation for Wright to give the invocation as he announced his candidacy.
And after more of Wright’s sermons started appearing in loops on broadcast media, Obama distanced himself from the minister with a speech on race that drew a record number of online watchers.
Then, after Wright “unleashed a rant for the ages” at a National Press Club appearance, Obama says he was forced to “permanently sever my relationship with someone who had played a small but significant part in making me the man that I was.”
Obama recalls a time later, as he awaited primary vote outcomes, how a couple of African American longtime friends reviewed campaign highs and lows and took turns “acting out some of the more excruciating lines” from Wright’s Press Club appearance: “we all started to laugh and couldn’t stop, the kind of deep, tear-inducing, falling-out-of-your-chair laughter that’s a kissing cousin to despair.”
Another minister helped him regain confidence.
While Wright’s use of “audacity of hope” gave Obama a book title and a key phrase for his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, another minister influenced him by shoring up his confidence.
The Rev. Otis Moss Jr., whose son succeeded Wright at Trinity UCC, called Obama early in the controversy surrounding Wright. Moss knew some Black Americans had questioned whether Obama was ready for the White House.
Obama writes that Moss described himself and other civil rights veterans as “the Moses generation” who marched, were jailed, ”got us out of Egypt,” but could only go so far.
“You, Barack, are part of the Joshua generation,” Obama says Moss told him. “Perhaps you can learn from some of our mistakes. But ultimately it will be up to you, with God’s help, to build on what we’ve done.”
Moss’ words about leading Americans “out of the wilderness” were what Obama says he needed to move on from the Wright controversy and forward in his campaign.
“It’s hard to overstate how these words fortified me, coming as they did almost a year before our Iowa victory, what it meant to have someone so intimately linked to the source of my earliest inspiration say that what I was trying to do was worth it, that it wasn’t just an exercise in vanity or ambition but rather a part of an unbroken chain of progress.”
Obama — who later spoke of successive generations in his speech about race — said Moss’ public support, along with that of other co-laborers with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., such as the Rev. Joseph Lowery and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, helped boost support of his campaign among Black Americans.
He tried to keep his prayer life private.
Obama mentions his “broader skepticism toward organized religion” but says he often turned to private prayer.
Not long after he was shown the Lincoln Bible on which he would be sworn in, Obama paused before entering the inaugural platform.
“For a brief moment, before trumpets sounded and I was announced, I closed my eyes,” he writes. “And summoned the prayer that had carried me here, one I would continue to repeat every night I was president. A prayer of thanks for all I’d been given. A prayer that my sins be forgiven. A prayer that my family and the American people be kept safe from harm. A prayer for guidance.”
Months before that moment, Obama had paid a visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall — where pilgrims have long left petitions to God — as he was feeling the weight of what lay ahead if he became president.
“I’d written my own prayer on a piece of hotel stationery,” he writes. “I had assumed those words were between me and God,” he said of the personal request he placed within a crack in the wall. “But the next day they showed up in an Israeli newspaper before achieving eternal life on the internet.”
He’s not superstitious but carried religious symbols among his collection of charms.
Obama writes that he never had a rabbit’s foot or lucky number as a child.
“Over the course of the campaign, though, I found myself making a few concessions to the spirit world,” he says.
He developed a habit during his campaign of carrying five or so tiny mementos people had given him, from a biker’s “lucky metal poker chip” to a nun’s silver cross.
“My assortment of charms grew steadily: a miniature Buddha, an Ohio buckeye, a laminated four-leaf clover, a tiny bronze likeness of Hanuman the monkey god, all manner of angels, rosary beads, crystals and rocks,” he writes.
Obama calls them a “tactile reminder” of the people he had met and of their hopes.
“If my cache of small treasures didn’t guarantee that the universe would tilt in my favor,” he writes, “I figured they didn’t hurt.’’
Former U.S. President Barack Obama, left, delivers his speech at the 16th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, July 17, 2018. In his highest-profile speech since leaving office, Obama urged people around the world to respect human rights and other values under threat in an address marking the 100th anniversary of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela’s birth. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
In his highest profile speech since leaving office, former U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday denounced the policies of President Donald Trump without mentioning his name, taking aim at the “politics of fear, resentment, retrenchment,” and decrying leaders who are caught lying and “just double down and lie some more.”
Obama was cheered by thousands in Johannesburg’s Wanderers Stadium as he marked the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth by urging respect for human rights, the free press and other values he said were under threat.
He rallied people to keep alive the ideals that the anti-apartheid activist worked for as the first black president of South Africa, including democracy, diversity, gender equality and tolerance.
Obama opened by calling today’s times “strange and uncertain,” adding that “each day’s news cycle is bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines.”
“We see much of the world threatening to return to a more dangerous, more brutal, way of doing business,” he said.
A day after Trump met in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama criticized “strongman politics.”
The “politics of fear, resentment, retrenchment” are on the move “at a pace unimaginable just a few years ago,” Obama added.
“Those in power seek to undermine every institution … that gives democracy meaning,” he said.
The first African-American president of the United States spoke up for equality in all forms, adding: “I would have thought we had figured that out by now.”
Obama praised the diversity of the World Cup champion French team, and he said that those countries engaging in xenophobia “eventually … find themselves consumed by civil war.”
He noted the “utter loss of shame among political leaders when they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more,” warning that the denial of facts — such as climate change — could be the undoing of democracy.
But Obama reminded the crowd that “we’ve been through darker times. We’ve been through lower valleys.”
He closed with a call to action: “I say if people can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
The crowd gave him a standing ovation in the chilly South African winter.
“Just by standing on the stage honoring Nelson Mandela, Obama is delivering an eloquent rebuke to Trump,” said John Stremlau, professor of international relations at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
He called the timing of Obama’s speech auspicious — one day after Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and said the commitments that defined Mandela’s life are “under assault.”
“Yesterday, we had Trump and Putin standing together; now we are seeing the opposing team: Obama and Mandela.”
This was Obama’s first trip to Africa since leaving office in 2017. Earlier this week, he stopped in Kenya, where he visited the rural birthplace of his late father.
Obama’s speech noted how Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years, kept up his campaign against what appeared to be insurmountable odds to end apartheid, South Africa’s harsh system of white minority rule.
Mandela, who was released from prison in 1990 and became president four years later, died in 2013 at the age of 95. He left a powerful legacy of reconciliation and diversity along with a resistance to inequality — economic and otherwise.
Since leaving the White House, Obama has shied away from public comment on the Trump administration, which has reversed or attacked his notable achievements. The U.S. under Trump has withdrawn from the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal while trying to undercut the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.”
Obama’s speech drew on his great admiration for Mandela, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner whom America’s first black president saw as a mentor.
When Obama was a U.S. senator, he had his picture taken with Mandela. After Obama became president he sent a copy of the photo to Mandela, who kept it in his office. Obama also made a point of visiting Mandela’s prison cell and gave a moving eulogy at Mandela’s memorial service in 2013, saying the South African had inspired him.
Many South Africans view Obama as a successor to Mandela because of his groundbreaking role and his support for racial equality in the U.S. and around the world.
Stremlau, who attended the speech, called it “a tough, strong condemnation of Trump and all that he stands for.”
“Obama hit out at lying, insecurity and putting down others. Obama said he can’t believe it is necessary to once again speak up for equality and human rights,” Stremlau said. “He pulled it together in a carefully worded, measured speech, which urged all to live up to Mandela’s standards and values.”
(RNS) In one of his last official acts, President Obama has designated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, Ala., as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
The designation protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in that city, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had their 1963 campaign headquarters, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.
And it includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in 1963 after Ku Klux Klan members detonated more than a dozen sticks of dynamite outside the church basement.
“This national monument will fortify Birmingham’s place in American history and will speak volumes to the place of African-Americans in history,” said the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the church, in a statement.
Obama’s proclamation also cites the role of Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and St. Paul United Methodist Church, from which protesters marched before being stopped by police dogs.
In his proclamation Thursday (Jan. 12), Obama said the various sites “all stand as a testament to the heroism of those who worked so hard to advance the cause of freedom.”
In other acts, all timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be observed on Monday, the president designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in coastal South Carolina.
He cited the role of congregations in all three areas — from sheltering civil rights activists at Bethel Baptist Church to hosting mass meetings at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to providing a school for former slaves at the Brick Baptist Church in St. Helena Island, S.C.
The designations instruct the National Park Service to manage the sites and consider them for visitor services and historic preservation.
“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Well, this year we vote. At some point, perhaps in the early morning hours of the day after the election, perhaps not for several days, we will find out who has been selected by our Electoral College system to serve as President for the next four years. I expect that the winner will not fulfill all the promises they have made. Nor will their presidency be as apocalyptic as the prophets of doom have predicted. Both of these candidates have virtues that are worthy of our admiration, and weaknesses that merit our concern. Nonetheless, based on the deluge of Facebook posts by my friends, I expect that while somewhere around a third of you will be ecstatic over the result, another third will be bitterly disappointed.
But this post isn’t really about who is President for the next four years. We’ll all survive that. This post is about our friends, our neighbors, the stranger we see on the street, the person driving in front of you whose bumper sticker you disagree with. It’s about all of us. For no matter who wins this election, the last election, the next election — most of us will still be here. There is an old saying that we get the government we deserve. And frankly, based on the vitriol and animosity I have seen in social media surrounding this year’s presidential campaign, we don’t deserve much.
The Facebooking of Politics
I have heard friends accuse friends of being bigots and racists because of who they are voting for. I have seen friends accuse friends of being “uninformed, misinformed, communists or opposed to this country’s values” if we vote for specific candidates. I have seen friends accuse friends of being haters, homophobes, misogynists, etc., if they vote for others. I have seen friends “unfriend” friends. Frankly, I’ve been tempted to unfriend some folks myself, although I have resisted the urge. I don’t know if we are reflecting the polarization of Washington, or if the Beltway reflects the hatred and spite of the American citizenry.
Here’s what I rarely, if ever, observed: People truly listening. People asking questions of people who view the world differently than them. People seeking to understand.
To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, it’s not that we have tried to engage in gracious, thoughtful political dialogue and found it wanting — it’s that we have found it difficult and not tried. We have told people what they think rather than asking them. We have refused to believe their reasons, choosing to trust our own stereotypes. We haven’t listened to their stories — we’ve made them shallow caricatures in a story of our own creation.
I expect I have noticed this acutely the past several years during the 2008 and 2012 elections, because those were the first elections when so many of us were on Facebook in a presidential election year. But of course, politics, not to mention religion, has been a taboo topic of discussion for years, long before the Internet. It is tragic that those two disciplines that capture the depths of human values and meaning — religion and politics — are considered off-limits for many of our conversations. I expect much of this revolves around our need to be right, and our fear of people who see the world differently.
I’ve given this a lot of thought, as a friend of mine has continually jabbed at supporters of the other candidate, goading them to respond to some of the more troublesome aspects of their candidate’s platform. Always done in a shaming, blaming way. Not surprisingly, no one took my friend up on the offer to explain.
But let me make a few friendly suggestions about how we might do this better four years from now.
The Wisdom of Listening
First, ask questions. And listen. Really listen. Don’t just wait for the person you disagree with to take a breath so you can shoot down their position. Listen seeking to understand. Assume that they are a person of good faith rather than an evil, bigoted hater. Don’t tell them why they’re wrong. Try to understand why they view the world the way they do. Affirm aspects of their values and perspectives that you can respect and admire, even if you might view things differently. Make it safe for them to share their deepest hopes and fears with you. In the Old Testament, Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (ESV). Are we practicing the wisdom of listening?
You will find that when you have asked questions, listened actively seeking to understand, and affirmed common ground, that you will develop trust. You will also have created a space where they may ask you questions and give you the same respect that you have shown them. They may even be willing to express respect for some of your values and vision.
Confession Is Good for the Soul
Then, admit to them the concerns you have about your own candidate/party, acknowledging that candidates, like the rest of humanity, have their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Then, and only then, might they feel safe enough to address the weaknesses in their candidate/party that trouble you. Few of us embrace the entire platform of the candidate we vote for. You may not change your friend’s vote. But you will have deepened a friendship. And opened a mind. You cannot wait for them to take the first step; you have to do it.
And whoever wins this election, be open to the possibility that some of their policies, all of which have been informed by advisors and embraced by close to half the population, might actually succeed. Hope and pray for the success of the candidate, even if you’re skeptical. Be more concerned about the good of the country than the success or failure of political parties.
When we remain open to the virtues and vision of our elected officials’ leadership, they may be more willing to listen to our legitimate concerns about those who might get left behind by their policies.
And maybe, just maybe, this sort of political engagement will catch on.