The Corner

Obama’s Observance

Following on from some remarks in my column today, reader/blogger Sean Higgins raises an issue a lot of us have been wondering about: What is the nature of Barack Obama’s religious convictions?  Sean thinks the senator is a yuppie agnostic.

This is a delicate area. Speculations about another person’s inner beliefs, unless he has laid them out plainly for you, is hazardous. We know of course that Obama attended Trinity United Church for twenty years and made big contributions to church funds. People go to church for all sorts of reasons, though. For some, it’s just what respectable people they know do, and they want to be respectable. Others are moved by a vague sense of obligation to family or tribe.  (Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, cites the case of Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, who  “told me that he goes to church as an ‘unbelieving Anglican … out of loyalty to the tribe’.”)

Yet others sincerely want to be believers, and attend church in the hope that if they just keep practicing the observances, one day a light will go on and they will be getting the same kind of enriching experience that, as they can plainly see, their fellow congregants are getting. “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”  For some dogged seekers, it hasn’t been; but they keep knocking, and hoping.

And of course, if you want to take the most cynical view of Obama’s case (which I don’t), there are excellent reasons for an ambitious young black politician in a big city to affiliate himself with a church, whatever he believes.

My best guess, based on the relevant snippets of Obama’s autobiography that I have seen, is that his church-going is motivated by a combination of tribal loyalty, identity seeking, and spiritual hope as above, all reinforced at this point by sheer habit and social obligation. I wouldn’t rule out Sean’s yuppie-agnostic hypothesis; but unless and until Obama sees fit to share this part of his inner life with us, I’ll keep an open mind.


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