Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book Notes: The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield

Since 312AD when Constantine professed Christian faith, a debate has raged about the spiritual sincerity or political expediency of his declaration. There can be no doubt that his conversion, whether genuine or merely outward - has had enormous consequences, which would have amazed both the Emperor and his contemporaries. When a young, black political organiser on Chicago's South Side, named Barack Obama, professed faith in Christ at Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ - a strikingly similar debate was launched.

Was climbing the greasy pole of African American politics simply not possible without membership of a mainstream faith community which Obama used in order to unite people around his political vision and aspirations? Or did the young man experience a spiritual awakening, and 'come home to God' (his words) that night under Wright's influence?

Stephen Mansfield has written an excellent book which in 149 straightforward pages, assesses the sincerity and content of the faith of Barack Obama. This book does not seem to be written with any direct agenda, except that of accurately describing and informing. Unlike most of the stuff knocking around in this US election season, this book neither sets out to assure white-evangelicals that Obama is OK; nor is it seeking to demonise him. As such it provides a helpful assessment of the sincerity of the religious vision that Obama brings to his politics, which will enlighten readers who both share the content of that vision, and those who reject it.

One of the most helpful aspects of this book is the way in which it sets Obama's spiritual experiences and religious outlook (along with a fascinating assessment of the colourful Jeremiah Wright) firmly within the context of African American history and culture. In fact, the chapter on Trinity church reads as a very good little introduction to 'Black Theology', from Cone to Wright - a theological trajectory of which the author is not uncritical.

Readers in a British church context will be fascinated to read of the way in which theological liberalism is strangely wedded to spiritual experiences typical of evangelicalism, in the Black Churches of the States. Liberation theology and altar-calls do not sit together in UK churches, as they do in Jeremiah Wright's church! Also, the author's charting of the rise of the 'religious-left' in America is the documentation of the passing of a fascinating milestone in the political landscape of the USA. This is deftly and helpfully achieved.

Remarkably fair-minded, this book is short, easy to read and insightful. Whilst the conclusion might be in favour of Obama's religio-political vision; for the most part this book enables the reader to make an assessment themselves, aside from the shrill pro or anti propaganda that dominates the airwaves.

(a good present, thanks Mum!)

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