The arts of the possible & impossible: Obama on religion and politics

Having recently been given Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, and zipped through it from cover to cover, I was impressed with the quality of his writing and his ability to communicate his experience and thinking in an engaging way. In it he covers the American political and economic landscape and ‘The World Beyond Our Borders’, chapters that stirred in me the impression of an outstanding political mind.

But I found his chapter on ‘Faith’ to be particularly constructive, which he began with a lyrical telling of his upbringing.

[…] my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well. Moreover, as a child I rarely came in contact with those who might offer a substantially different view of faith. My father was almost entirely absent from my childhood, having been divorced from my mother when I was two years old; in any event, although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition, like the mumbo-jumbo of witch doctors that he had witnessed in the Kenyan villages of his youth.

When my mother remarried, it was to an Indonesian with an equally skeptical bent, a man who saw religion as not particularly useful in the practical business of making one’s way in the world, and who had grown up in a country of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient animist traditions. During the five years that we would live with my stepfather in Indonesia, I was sent first to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominantly Muslim school; in both cases, my mother was less concerned with me learning the catechism or puzzling out the meaning of the muezzin’s call to evening prayer than she was with whether I was properly learning my multiplication tables.

And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that would properly be described as devotional. During the course of the day, she might come across a painting, read a line of poetry, or hear a piece of music, and I would see tears well up in her eyes. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves. She loved to take children – any child – and sit them in her lap and tickle them or play games with them or examine their hands, tracing out the miracle of bone and tendon and skin and delighting at the truths to be found there. She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life.

- Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, pp.204-5

To my eyes, these are unusual words for a politican to write, to say the least. He follows them with what seems to be constructive commentary on being a politician in an increasingly fractious, multicultural world.

Below is a video, which conveys Obama’s maturity and wisdom, posted on the barackobama.com campaign blog with the following introduction -

Barack Obama is a committed Chrisitan who has been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s Southside for the past twenty years.

In June of 2006, Senator Obama delivered what was called the most important speech on religion and politics in 40 years. Speaking before an evangelical audience, Senator Obama candidly discussed his own religious conversion and doubts, and the need for a deeper, more substantive discussion about the role of faith in American life.

I particularly like the distinction between politics as the art of the possible compared with religion as the art of the impossible. In Obama, I think, we truly have a world statesman for our times.

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2 Responses to “The arts of the possible & impossible: Obama on religion and politics”

  1. Paul Maurice Martin Says:

    About as good as it can get for our times.

    Unfortunately, the fact that large corporations and wealthy individuals representing interests like the oil and health care lobbies have such a large influence in funding candidates that it assures no candidate will truly be a candidate of “change” rather than “status quo.”

    The problem is our system of campaign financing. Everybody who’s running is beholden to interests outside of the public good.

  2. drfrank Says:

    So what do you make of the groundswell of non-corporate, small, personal donations that has propelled Obama’s campaign forward to become such a formidable challenge to the corporate-funded Hillary campaign?

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