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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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As an undergraduate student at Columbia University, Obama read some basic theological texts and felt drawn to Sunday morning services at predominantly black churches in Harlem. When he interviewed in 1985 for a community-organizing position on the South Side of Chicago that required working with churches, it was religion that persuaded him to take the job.

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"That was the one aspect that he was really drawn to and wanted to be a part of," said Jerry Kellman, who hired Obama for a salary of less than $10,000.

Obama took the job and moved into an office at Holy Rosary, a small Catholic church in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood where he mingled with a diverse congregation that included equal parts whites, blacks and second-generation Mexican immigrants. He spent 10-hour days at the church, absorbing its motto: "living in faith together."

Kellman took Obama to services on the South Side every Sunday to introduce him to community leaders, choosing their destinations based on which churches had the most neighborhood influence. Mega-churches, tiny congregations, Protestants, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians -- Obama worshiped with them all.

In his free moments, he sat in his office and wrote short stories about worship and church life. Other times, he smoked cigarettes with Bill Stenzel, the priest at Holy Rosary, and talked to him about faith.

"I would describe him as somebody who was intensely curious," Stenzel said. "He was seeking something. At first, coming into the church, he felt like he was stepping on foreign territory, and it gradually became his territory."

Obama could talk capably about some religious theory -- he studied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s faith, Catholic novelist Graham Greene and Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He never spoke in terms of experiencing an awakening, Kellman said. But what Obama lacked in spiritual nuance he compensated for in his reverence for the church's import in history. On Sundays in Chicago, he preferred to visit churches with services rich in emotion and interactivity, Kellman said.

"It was a very formative period for him," he added. "His sense of church and his sense of God became very much a community experience. It's how people survive, how people make it through difficult times. The churches we dealt with were extended families. They were a way of providing a vision of a better world. It was a broad sense of religion, and it fit. It fit for him very quickly."

A few years later, Obama returned to Chicago from Harvard Law School to be baptized at Trinity United Church of Christ, with a predominantly black congregation on the South Side led by Wright. Obama had come to realize, he wrote in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," that the church "had to serve as the center of the community's political, economic, and social as well as spiritual life." He described his baptism not as an epiphany but as a conscious choice.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, went to Trinity often after they married and sometimes stayed to eat lunch with other parishioners. Their attendance waned after their first daughter, Malia, was born in 1998, and Michelle remarked to friends that she couldn't imagine going to church every week. Obama, always the seeker, sometimes read the Bible for evening relaxation or listened to audiotapes on religious theory on his long drives down to the Illinois Senate in Springfield, friends said.

Just as he had used religion to galvanize residents of the South Side as a community organizer, Obama used it to identify with constituents as a politician. When he was starting his career in the state Senate in the late 1990s, Obama joined a 33-person brainstorming group called the Saguaro Seminar, a collection of activists, academics and politicians who gathered every few months and ruminated on politics and religion.

Through the Saguaro Seminar, Obama befriended the president of the Christian Coalition and Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Dallas area Methodist minister who became President Bush's closest spiritual adviser. Obama grew particularly close to Jim Wallis, an evangelical political activist from Washington who founded Sojourners magazine.

"We hit it off," Wallis said. "We had very similar ideas about how faith could contribute to public life. He wanted that to be a major part of his career going forward."

If at first it seemed unusual for a liberal Democrat to spend so much time talking about God, Obama's closest followers gradually came to expect it. He delivered a speech at Warren's Saddleback Church in 2006 despite protests from fellow Democrats. He wrote a chapter about faith for "The Audacity of Hope" and met with groups of 30 to 40 religious leaders more than a dozen times during his presidential campaign.

"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square," Obama said during a speech at the Call to Renewal conference in 2006. "Indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue their cause."

Obama has told friends that he expects he and his family to return to a more regular form of worship once they settle into Washington. The Obamas say they have not started looking for a church yet, and the president-elect has repeatedly expressed concern about his presence disrupting a local congregation. But friends and religious advisers said the Obamas probably will try a few churches and end up joining a historically black congregation in the next several months.

Even if Obama attends only occasionally, advisers said, he wants to join to connect himself to his new home town, just as he did in Chicago.

"He instinctively realizes that it's an important thing to do," said Caldwell, the Bush adviser who supported and advised Obama during the campaign. "I'm not saying he's somebody who will go every Sunday and stand up to talk about his personal faith. That's not him. But I do believe he understands that being a part of that faith community is something that's extremely important going forward."


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