Cover Story

Leap of faith

"Leap of faith" Continued...

Issue: "Preach it," Oct. 6, 2007

But Obama didn't always identify himself as a Christian. The senator grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, raised by grandparents and a single mother who later remarried. Obama's father, a Kenyan whom he met only a short time before his death, grew up a nominal Muslim but embraced atheism later in life. Obama's mother encouraged her son to learn about all religions-he attended both Islamic and Catholic schools-but was skeptical of religious systems.

Obama embraced his mother's skepticism and didn't seriously consider religion until after college when he took a job as a community organizer for a group of inner-city churches in Chicago. He visited Trinity UCC on a Sunday morning in 1988 and heard pastor Jeremiah Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." "And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ," says Obama. "I learned that my sins could be redeemed."

Obama says he embraced Christianity and was especially drawn to Wright's emphasis on black liberation theology: The pastor interpreted the Bible as a story of the struggles of black people and emphasized social justice.

"Inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones," Obama wrote in his autobiography Dreams from My Father. "Those stories of survival, and freedom, and hope-became our story, my story."

Obama's story continued to unfold at Harvard, where he earned a law degree in 1991 and became the first black student to head the prestigious Harvard Law Review. While practicing as a civil-rights lawyer and teaching constitutional law, Obama served in the Illinois state Senate for eight years. In 2004, he became just the third African-American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, and his widely praised keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention established him as a rising star in the party.

Today when Obama speaks about faith, he still focuses on human struggle and the need for social change, but he doesn't focus only on race. And since running for the White House he has distanced himself from his pastor's political views: Wright often preaches in scorching terms about "the Great White West," and he declared that 9/11 was the result of violent American policies.

Obama has said the Bible is not "a static text" and says he "must be continually open to new revelations"-and he has acknowledged that those who believe the Bible is inerrant and that it teaches, for example, that abortion is wrong aren't likely to accept his "ground rules for collaboration." So as the campaign reaches out to religious voters, the discussion typically steers clear of such controversial subjects. On a recent Saturday morning at a campaign-organized "faith forum" in rural South Carolina, the subject didn't come up at all.

About 20 people gathered in a meeting room at a small hotel in Greenwood, S.C., mostly from black Baptist churches in the area. At least six staffers from Obama's state campaign met with the pastors and church members to discuss how faith affects politics, and to assure the group of Obama's commitment to Christianity.

Most of the participants expressed concerns over issues like health care and unemployment in the economically depressed region. An elderly pastor with a strong voice and dark blue suspenders lamented his struggles to afford good health care: "Here we live in this big democratic country, and there ain't no medicine for the poor people." He spoke of choosing between buying food or prescription medicine. He recounted sometimes asking the pharmacist to fill only half a prescription so that he could afford it.

Campaign staffers told the group about Obama's plan for health care. The candidate favors a universal health-care proposal similar to those of Democratic opponents Clinton and John Edwards: It requires employers to provide insurance to employees, but also allows individuals to purchase their own insurance from a regulated marketplace of competing health plans.

The plan would also offer incentives for improving preventative care, and provide subsidies for individuals who cannot afford health-care premiums. Obama says the plan would cost the federal government $50 billion to $60 billion a year once fully implemented. Like Clinton and Edwards, he says he'll pay for the plan by allowing tax cuts to expire for those making over $250,000 a year.

Obama concedes his plan is not substantially different from his opponents' plans, except for one thing: The Clinton and Edwards plans would make coverage mandatory for all Americans. Obama says he wants to make sure coverage is affordable before it is mandatory.


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