I recently read Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, and it took a couple of weeks before something about it dawned on me. While Obama gained a lot of early national political credibility when he began to strongly advocate for more engagement with and embrace of faith in the Democratic Party, and often espoused his own religiousness and Christian-ness during the campaign, these themes seemed wholly absent from Dreams.
When Obama does deal with religion in the book’s narrative, it is almost exclusively raw pragmatism, figuring out how to harness existing religious institutions in Chicago and learning how to navigate their politics. To the best of my memory, at no point does Obama claim a “come-to-Jesus” moment in which he sees the proverbial light and converts from idealistic wanderer to committed Christian.
Perhaps this is more apparent in The Audacity of Hope, which, I have to admit, I have no inclination to read whatsoever. For while our president is obviously a very skilled and fluid writer, I am not inclined to use up my time on what from what I understand is essentially a campaign book, primarily published as an excuse for a by Rev. You-Know-God-Damn-America-Who, and I take it that it elaborates on his position on religious engagement Obama takes in his semi-famous 2006 Call to Renewal speech.
But it strikes me as interesting that his since-super-hyped Christianity is not apparent in Dreams. I suppose he could have had his Francis-Collins-meets-a-waterfall moment after having written the book, but somehow, I can’t help but think that Dreams serves as a truer foundation for where Obama is spiritually. The mysteries of the cosmos are too vast to be dealt with by mere mortals (“above his pay grade,” as it were), but only a stupid politician or community organizer would overlook the potential force behind an already-unified and malleable contingent of believers, and in the quest to do some good, not think to oneself, “I need to get them on my side.”
I’m not jumping on the Obama-as-closet-atheist bandwagon, because I see no evidence for it. But Dreams makes me suspect that if Obama is a Christian, it is more in the philosophical sense than in the theological. But, I stress, it is just a guess.