Obama's Religious Beliefs
An Interview with Barack Obama on His Religious Beliefs
In March of 2004, before Barack Obama became known to the world, Cathleen Falsani, the religion reporter for the respected Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, interviewed Obama about his religious beliefs and views. The interview is amazingly revealing of personal religious beliefs that few politicians are willing to share. I've edited the interview for brevity and clarity and highlighted key sections in bold. For the entire unedited interview, click here. For an engaging article based on this interview published in the Sun-Times in 2004, click here.
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Fred Burks for PEERS and WantToKnow.info
Barack Obama: The 2004 "God Factor" Interview
On Saturday, March 27, 2004, when I was the religion
reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, I
met State Sen. Barack Obama at Café Baci, a small coffee joint in Chicago, to
interview him exclusively about his spirituality. Our conversation took place
a few days after he'd clinched the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate
seat that he eventually won. We spoke for more than an hour. He came alone.
He answered everything I asked without notes
or hesitation. The profile of Obama that grew from that interview
became the first in a series in the Sun-Times called "The
God Factor," that eventually became my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public
People. Because of the staggering interest in Obama's faith and
spiritual predilections, I thought it might be helpful to share that interview
Interview with State Sen. Barack Obama
March 27, 3:30 p.m.
Café Baci, 330 S. Michigan Avenue
He: alone, on time, grabs a Naked juice protein
I am a
Christian. So, I have a deep faith. I draw from the Christian faith. On the
other hand, I was born in Hawaii where obviously there are a lot of Eastern
influences. I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world,
between the ages of six and 10. My father was from Kenya, and although he was
probably most accurately labeled an agnostic, his father was Muslim. And I'd
say, probably, intellectually I've drawn as much from Judaism as any other
(A patron stops and says,
"Congratulations," shakes his hand. "Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
So, I'm rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same
place, and that there is a higher power, that we are connected as a people.
There are values that transcend race or culture that move us forward, and
there's an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to
take responsibility to make those values lived.
And so, part of
my project in life was to spend the first 40 years of my life figuring out
what I did believe – I'm 42 now. And it's not that I had it all completely
worked out, but I'm spending a lot of time now trying to apply what I believe
and trying to live up to those values.
Have you always been a
raised more by my mother, and my mother was Christian.
Any particular flavor?
No. My grandparents were from small
towns in Kansas. My grandmother was Methodist. My grandfather was Baptist. And
by the time I was born, I think, my grandparents had joined a Universalist
church. My mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody,
was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve. We'd go to church for
Easter. She wasn't a church lady.
As I said, we moved to Indonesia. She
remarried an Indonesian who wasn't a practicing Muslim. I went to a Catholic
school in a Muslim country. So I was studying the Bible and catechisms by day,
and at night you'd hear the prayer call.
I don't think as a child I had a structured
religious education. But my mother was a deeply spiritual person. She would
spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world's
religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view was that
underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat
other people and how you aspire to act not just for yourself, but also for the
greater good. And, so that, I think, was what I carried with me through
I didn't start getting active in church activities until I
moved to Chicago. The way I came to Chicago in
1985 was that I was interested in community organizing. I was inspired by the
Civil Rights movement and the idea that ordinary people could do extraordinary
things. And there was a group of churches out on the South Side of
Chicago that had come together to form an organization to try to deal with the
devastation of steel plants that had closed. They didn't have much money, but
felt that if they formed an organization and hired somebody to organize them
to work on issues that affected their community, that would strengthen the
church and also strengthen the community.
So they hired me, for $13,000
a year. A princely sum. And I drove out here and I didn't know anybody and
started working with both the ministers and the lay people in these churches
on issues like creating job training programs, or afterschool programs for
youth, or making sure that city services were fairly allocated to underserved
And it was in those places where I think what had been
more of an intellectual view of religion deepened, because I'd be spending an
enormous amount of time with church ladies, sort of surrogate mothers and
fathers. Everybody I was working with was 50 or 55 or 60, and here I was a
23-year-old kid running around.
I became much more familiar with the
ongoing tradition of the historic black church and it's importance in the
community, and the power of that culture to give people strength in very
difficult circumstances, and the power of that church to give people courage
against great odds. And it moved me deeply.
One of the churches that I
became involved in was Trinity United Church of Christ. And the pastor there,
Jeremiah Wright, became a good friend. So I joined that church and committed
myself to Christ in that church.
Did you actually go up for an altar
It was during a daytime service. And it was a powerful moment. It was powerful
for me because it not only confirmed my faith, it not only gave shape to my
faith, but I think, also, allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing
with my faith.
16, 17 years ago.
1987 or 88
So you got
yourself born again?
Yeah, although I retain from my
childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. And I'm not
somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I've got a
monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to
I'm a big believer in
tolerance. I think that religion at it's best comes with a big dose of doubt.
I'm suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just
because I think people are limited in their understanding.
I think that – particularly as somebody who's now
in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what
drives them apart – there's an enormous amount of damage done around the
world in the name of religion and certainty.
Do you pray often?
Uh, yeah, I guess I do.
Its' not formal, me getting on my knees. I
have an ongoing conversation with God. Throughout the day I'm constantly
asking myself questions about what I'm doing, why am I doing it.
One of the interesting things about being in public life is
there are constantly these pressures being placed on you from different sides.
To be effective, you have to be able to listen to a variety of points of view.
You also have to know when to be just a strong advocate, and when to push back
against certain people or views that you think aren't right or don't serve
challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass. Those are the
conversations I'm having internally. I'm measuring my actions against that
inner voice that for me is audible, is active. It tells me where I think I'm
on track and where I'm off track.
I always think of politics as having two sides.
There's a vanity aspect to politics, and then there's a substantive part of
politics. Now you need some sizzle with the steak to be effective, but I think
it's easy to get swept up in the vanity side of it, the desire to be liked and
recognized and important. It's important for me throughout the day to measure
and to take stock and to say, "Now am I doing this because I think it's
advantageous to me politically, or because I think it's the right thing to do?
Am I doing this to get my name in the papers or am I doing this because it's
necessary to accomplish my motives?"
Checking for altruism?
Yeah. I mean, something
like it. It's interesting, the most powerful
political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a
certain truth. I can feel it. When I'm talking to a group and I'm saying
something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that
is different than when I'm just being glib or clever.
What's that power? Is it the holy
think it's the power of the recognition of God, or the recognition of a larger
truth that is being shared between me and an audience.
you learn watching ministers. What they call the Holy Spirit. They want the
Holy Spirit to come down before they're preaching, right? Not to try to
intellectualize it, but what I see is there
are moments that happen within a sermon where the minister gets out of his ego
and is speaking from a deeper source. And it's powerful.
are also times when you can see the ego getting in the way, where the minister
is performing and clearly straining for applause or an Amen. And those are
distinct moments. I think those former moments are sacred.
Who's Jesus to you?
Right. Jesus is an historical
figure for me. And he's also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian
faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that
means of us reaching something higher. And he's also a wonderful teacher. I
think it's important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the
flesh and also teachers in history.
Is Jesus someone who you feel you
have a regular connection with now, a personal connection with in your
Yes. I think
some of the things I talked about earlier are channeled through my Christian
faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Have you read the bible?
Absolutely. I read it not as
regularly as I would like. These days I don't have much time for reading or
you try to take some time for whatever, meditation, prayer reading?
I'll be honest with you. I
used to all the time, in a fairly disciplined way. But during the course of
this campaign, I don't. And I probably need to and would like to, but that's
where that internal monologue, or dialogue I think supplants my opportunity to
read and reflect in a structured way these days. It's much more sort of as I'm
going through the day trying to take a moment here and a moment there to take
stock. Why am I here, how does this connect with a larger sense of
Jack Ryan [Obama's Republican opponent
in the U.S. Senate race at the time] said talking about your faith is frought
with peril for a public figure.
Which is why you generally will not
see me spending a lot of time talking about it on the stump.
my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion. I
am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am a big believer
in our constitutional structure. I mean, I'm a law professor at the University
of Chicago teaching constitutional law. I am a great admirer of our founding
charter, and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming, and its resolve
to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root in this
I'm very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself
in politics. Now, that's different from a belief that values have to inform
our public policy. I think it's perfectly consistent to say that I want my
government to be operating for all faiths and all peoples, including atheists
and agnostics, while also insisting that there are values that inform my
politics that are appropriate to talk about.
A standard line in my stump speech during this
campaign is that my politics are informed by a belief that we're all
connected. That if there's a child on the South Side of Chicago that can't
read, that makes a difference in my life, even if it's not my own child. If
there's a senior citizen in downstate Illinois that's struggling to pay for
their medicine and having to chose between medicine and the rent, that makes
my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent. And if there's an Arab
American family that's being rounded up by John Ashcroft without the benefit
of due process, that threatens my civil liberties.
I can give religious expression to that. I am my
brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper, we are all children of God.
Or I can express it in secular terms. But the basic premise remains the same.
I think sometimes Democrats have made the mistake of shying away from a
conversation about values for fear that they sacrifice the important value of
tolerance. And I don't think those two things are mutually
Do you think
it's wrong for people to want to know about a civic leader's
think it's wrong. I think that political leaders are subject to all sorts of
vetting by the public, and this can be a component of that. I think there is
an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalize or justify
their actions by claiming God's mandate. I think there is this tendency that I
don't think is healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as
a means to insulate themselves from criticism.
The conversation stopper, when you say
you're a Christian and leave it at that.
Where do you move forward
with that? This is something that I'm sure I'd have serious debates with my
fellow Christians about. I think that the difficult thing about any religion,
including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize
and proselytize. There's the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people
who haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior, that they're going
You don't believe
I find it hard to believe that my God would consign
four-fifths of the world to hell. I can't imagine that my God would allow some
little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to
somehow burn for all eternity. That's just not part of my religious
Part of the reason I think it's always difficult for
public figures to talk about this is that the nature of politics is that you
want to have everybody like you and project the best possible traits onto you.
Oftentimes that's by being as vague as possible, or appealing to the lowest
common denominators. The more specific and detailed you are on issues as
personal and fundamental as your faith, the more potentially dangerous it
Do you ever have
people who know you're a Christian question a particular stance you take on an
issue? How can you be a Christian and …?
I haven't been
challenged in those direct ways. And to that extent, I give the public a lot
of credit. I'm always struck by how much common sense the American people
have. They get confused sometimes, watch FoxNews or listen to talk radio.
That's dangerous sometimes. But generally, Americans are tolerant, and I think
recognize that faith is a personal thing. They may feel very strongly about an
issue like abortion or gay marriage, but if they discuss it with me as an
elected official they will discuss it with me in those terms and not say, 'you
call yourself a Christian.' I cannot recall that ever happening.
Do you believe in heaven?
Do I believe in the harps
and clouds and wings?
place spiritually you go to after you die?
What I believe in is that if I live
my life as well as I can, I will be rewarded. I don't presume to have
knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether
the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, aligning myself to my
faith and my values is a good thing.
When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like
I've been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring
values that I got from my mother, and that they're kind people and that
they're honest people and they're curious people, that's a little piece of
believe in sin?
What is sin?
Being out of alignment with
if you have sin in your life?
I think it's the same thing
as the question about heaven. If I'm true to myself and my faith, that is
its own reward. When I'm not true to it, that's its own
do you find spiritual inspiration? Music, nature, literature, people, a
conduit you plug into?
There are so many. Nothing
is more powerful than the black church experience. A good choir and a good
sermon in the black church, it's pretty hard not to be move and be
transported. I can also be transported by watching a good performance of
Hamlet, or reading Toni Morrison's Song of
Solomon, or listening to Miles Davis.
Is there something that you go
back to as a touchstone, a book, a particular piece of music, a place ...
As I said before, in my own
sort of mental library, the Civil Rights
movement has a powerful hold on me. It's a point in time where I think heaven
and earth meet. Because it's a moment in which a collective faith transforms
everything. So when I read Gandhi or I read King or I read certain passages of
Abraham Lincoln, and I think about those times where people's values are
tested, those inspire me.
What are you doing when you feel the
most centered, the most aligned spiritually?
I think I already described
it. It's when I'm being true to myself. And that can happen in me making a speech or it can happen in me playing with my
kids, or it can happen in a small interaction with a security guard in a
building when I'm recognizing them and exchanging a good
someone you would look to as an example of how not to do it?
... An example of a role model, who
combined everything you said you want to do in your life, and your
I think Gandhi
is a great example of a profoundly spiritual man who acted and risked
everything on behalf of those values but never slipped into intolerance or
dogma. He seemed to always maintain an air of doubt about him. I also think of
Dr. King, and Lincoln. Those three are good examples for me of people who
applied their faith to a larger canvas without allowing that faith to
metasticize into something that is hurtful.
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