Politics & Policy

A Jeremiad for Jeremiah

Stephen Mansfield's slim new volume on Barack Obama could have been even slimmer.

Writing a worthwhile book about a surprise presidential nominee in time for Election Day may be an impossible mission. Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of the American Soldier, took a crack at the task, picking his area of expertise and how it relates to the man who probably has a better-than-even chance of being the next president, Barack Obama.

The result is The Faith of Barack Obama, a large-print, 8.5-by-five-inch hardcover retailing at $19.99. Stripping out the introduction, end notes, bibliography, “chronology of Obama’s life,” eleven pages of photos and three blank pages opposite new chapters, the work is 130 pages, leaving a reader wondering why a book like this needs pull quotes.

Strangely, Mansfield begins his introduction with basically the same anecdote David Mendell used in his 2007 biography, Obama: From Promise to Power. (Mansfield must have known this, as he cites Mendell’s book.) We’re constantly told that Obama’s life is groundbreakingly exotic by the standards of American politicians, yet his biographers seem bizarrely attracted to the moment of him walking around the Democratic convention before his national debut.

In the introduction, Mansfield says his book is “an attempt to understand the religious life of Barack Obama and the changes in American religious history he has come to represent,” and emphasizes “there is no attempt here to press a political agenda, nor is there a desire to rage against the realities of his life.”

He may not have intended to write a hagiography, but the result comes close. Wright’s “Audacity of Hope” sermon and its influence on the candidate is mentioned, but Obama’s quote of “white folks’ greed runs a world in need” is omitted. Obama’s sudden recalculation of his church attendance — telling Newsweek that he stopped going to Trinity “for months at a time” once his first daughter was born — must have appeared too late for press time.

He attends Trinity United’s Easter service, and after hearing Rev. Otis Moss III, he declares, “Few sermons as good will be preached anywhere on this Sunday morning.” A paragraph later, in a description of that sermon, we’re told that “Trumped-up charges against Jesus at the hands of the Pharisees swiftly become the means of understanding how the Los Angeles police plant evidence or how George W. Bush will like have to place weapons of mass destruction in Iraq where there were none before.” Perhaps one of the few sermons that were better that Sunday morning managed to avoid accusing the president of a cover-up that he did not commit.

Even an Obama fan would have to acknowledge the book could have used a fact-checker on some fairly glaring matters. Mansfield mentions Oprah Winfrey as a member of Trinity United Church, but she stopped attending in the mid-90s. He says Obama is “drawing disaffected Republicans in surprising numbers.” I suppose if 11 percent surprises you, then yes, it is a surprising number, although polls often show McCain attracting a higher percentage of Democrats, and Bush won 11 percent of Democrats in 2004. There’s a sentence fragment in the first chapter.

Mansfield deserves a bit of credit for acknowledging the question of whether Obama, whose father and stepfather both practiced Islam at times during their lives, meets that faith’s definition of an apostate, and would thus face a fatwa demanding his death. Young Obama prayed at his stepfather’s side in Indonesia. But this possibility — not a good reason to vote against Obama, lest the world’s Muslims get a veto over America’s leader — is flicked away. “The question seems to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the majority opinion among Islamic teachers . . . is that a child must have reached puberty before the confession of faith amounts to a full conversion. Barack was years from puberty in his last months in Indonesia, so he is not to be considered a full convert to Islam, and therefore he is not an apostate now.”

But these matters don’t get settled by polls. Even if only one percent of the world’s billion or so Muslims believe Obama is an apostate, that leaves ten million believers concluding he must be killed for turning away from their faith. In a book about Obama and religion, this matter may warrant more than six paragraphs.

The book’s best section is by far the chapter “The Altars of State,” where examines Obama’s speech to Jim Wallis’ progressive Sojourner’s organization and his vision for the role of religion in politics, where believers are no longer asked “to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square” but the faithful must “translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values.” Here Mansfield is in his element, and his analysis of the ramifications of this vision is the book’s meatiest, most thought-provoking pages.

Unfortunately, just as the book gets good, the next chapter proceeds to Obama’s faith to John McCain’s, Hillary Clinton’s, and George W. Bush’s faith — an exercise that feels like a recycling of cursory research for alternative book proposals.

The tougher analytical chops and theological background that he displays in the “Altars of State” chapter disappear when the concluding chapter offers a surprisingly vigorous defense of Jeremiah Wright, concluding “to claim him crazy and dismiss him from the scene without a hearing is to miss an opportunity to heal a grievous, festering wound.” In a book where the author’s inability to interview his subject is painfully apparent, the full-throated defense makes more sense when Wright is thanked in the acknowledgements for “taking time to gently help this white man understand.”)

Even Wright’s claim that the government created the AIDS virus is half-defended with, “the fact is that the American government has in the past engaged in medical abuse of blacks. Wright’s suspicions that his government may not have his race’s best interest at heart are not fantasy, and the compassionate in American society should try to understand why.” After detailing the Tuskeegee Syphilis Study, the author concludes, “the meaning here is not that everything Rev. Wright contends is true, but that there is enough truth for a compassionate people to examine and treat redemptively.” Twice, the instinctive reaction to call “horsepuckey” on the slander that a cast of thousands within our government would orchestrate one of the world’s great health threats in a deliberate mission of genocide is deemed insufficiently compassionate.

When confronted with a paranoid falsehood, declaring “that is a lie” seems sufficiently redemptive.

If Obama becomes president, his life and his faith will indeed offer a lot to chew over. But when historians, political scientists, and theologians decide to study the faith of Barack Obama, they can skip all but one chapter of The Faith of Barack Obama.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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