Obama's Path to Faith Has Been Eclectic

Joseph Lowery, 87, is a black liberal Methodist from the Deep South.
Joseph Lowery, 87, is a black liberal Methodist from the Deep South. (By Jason Fobart)
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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

The presidential inauguration ceremony on Tuesday will begin and end with prayers from two men whom Barack Obama considers role models, advisers and dear friends. One, Joseph Lowery, is an 87-year-old black liberal Methodist from the Deep South who spent his career fighting for civil rights. The other, Rick Warren,9 is a 54-year-old white conservative evangelical from Southern California who fights same-sex unions.

The two religious icons are, Lowery said, "usually on opposite sides of the chart." But Obama will step onstage with them, set his hand on a Bible and feel comfortable in the vast space in between.

For the president-elect, religion has always been less about theology than the power God inspires in communities that worship Him, friends and advisers said. It has been more than three months since he sat through a Sunday church service and at least five years since he attended regularly, but during the transition, Obama has spoken to religious leaders almost daily. They said Obama calls to seek advice, but rarely is it spiritual. Instead, he asks how to mobilize faith-based communities behind his administration.

Obama grew up the son of an atheist, spent two formative years in a predominantly Muslim school, worked out of an office in a Catholic rectory, accepted Jesus at a traditionally black church and married the cousin of a Chicago area rabbi. His personal journey to faith is a modern amalgamation that friends expect to be reflected not just at his inauguration but in his governing: Obama will reach out to a diverse set of leaders and try to join them in unconventional ways, unconcerned about their theological and political differences.

It's a risky tactic, considering that religion resulted in a litany of problems for Obama during his campaign. He stopped attending Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ after the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. made a series of bombastic remarks. Some Christians mistook him for Muslim. Some Catholic leaders expressed support for his Republican opponent, John McCain. Evangelical celebrity psychologist James C. Dobson accused Obama of "deliberately distorting" the Bible.

Now, as Obama prepares for the presidency, he has called on dozens of religious leaders to transcend their doctrinal or sectarian differences and focus instead on their common morality. It's that belief in universal truths that is the basis of Obama's faith, advisers said. He has devoted himself to what he considers God's truth and thereby internalized the golden rule.

"In terms of religious outreach, it will be as inclusive as anything you've ever seen," said Shaun Casey, who teaches religion and politics at Wesley Theological Seminary in the District and advised Obama during his campaign. "He's going to involve some different groups, like during the inauguration, that might come as a shock to people."

Many presidents have entered office with vague promises of broad inclusion, but Obama's early actions suggest that he intends to follow through. V. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, will deliver the invocation at an inaugural event today. On Wednesday, Protestant Rev. Sharon E. Watkins will become the first woman to deliver the sermon at the National Prayer Service, which traditionally concludes the inaugural festivities.

Obama has helped facilitate brainstorming groups that include rabbis, pastors and politicians. Ten hours before the polls closed on Election Day, he prayed via telephone with Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor from Florida who voted for Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary.

"The president-elect has a keen appreciation for the power of faith-based organizations that you don't see in many politicians, so he's reaching out," said Hunter, who preaches to a congregation of more than 10,000 each week. "I said something to him once about how evangelicals really need to walk out their faith to other people. And he said, 'Boy, that's where I am, too.' "

Said Martin Marty, a religious historian from Chicago: "What he's trying to do, rather daringly, is enact the plurality that he embodies. This is not unusual for a new president. There's a tendency to want to please everybody, but by doing that you run the risk of pleasing nobody."

Obama was born to parents who distrusted organized religion: a father who transitioned from Muslim to atheist as he became increasingly disillusioned with his place in the world; a mother who found solace in spirituality and good deeds but never showed interest in her family's Christian roots. Obama has said he accompanied his mother to church occasionally on holidays as a child but rarely contemplated religion until he left Hawaii for college.

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