Americans have long been fascinated with and sometimes disturbed by the faith of their presidents, and Barack Obama’s faith is no exception. U.S. News and World Report recently claimed that "Obama has embraced faith in a more visible way" than any other recent president, a remarkable statement given his predecessor. This issue also featured the "10 Most Important Obama Faith Moments." Americans have generally praised the faith commitments and religious observances of some presidents—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower—while frequently criticizing or questioning the beliefs and practices of others—Thomas Jefferson, William Howard Taft, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. Precisely how Obama’s faith is regarded remains to be seen.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama’s religious convictions became a major issue for several reasons: the false belief that he is a Muslim (according to an April 2009 Pew Research Center poll, 11 percent of Americans still believe this); he made concerted efforts to woo religiously committed Americans; and, most significantly, the pastor of his church in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright, who made inflammatory statements about race and religion.
Since his election, Obama’s faith has continued to attract substantial public and political attention. Interest in where the Obamas will attend church, several statements he has made, and various policies he has adopted have all shone a spotlight on his religious views. Many Washington congregations have invited the president and his family to attend. Obama’s aides have vetted several leading possibilities, but since taking office Obama has attended church only once—at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a congregation where many presidents have worshipped—on Easter.
Religious conservatives have expressed concern about several of Obama’s public declarations, especially his pronouncement in Turkey last month that "We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." While acknowledging that various ideals and values helped shape our nation, many conservatives contend that Judeo-Christian principles played a significant role in forming and sustaining our republic, which Obama seemed to downplay in this and other statements.
Some religious conservatives also protested when Georgetown University complied with the Obama administration’s request to remove all Christian symbols from the hall where he spoke in late April. They argued that a Jesuit university should not have to hide its religious identity and that religious commitments have a proper place in the public square.
Many of Obama’s policies have religious dimensions. Generally speaking, his judicial nominees and policies on abortion, stem-cell research, and faith-based community initiatives have troubled religious conservatives, while in some cases they have not gone far enough for political liberals. Numerous religious conservatives disapproved of Obama’s appointment of Judge David Hamilton to the U.S 7th Circuit Court of Appeals because of his support for abortion and opposition to opening legislative sessions with prayer. Conservatives also denounced Obama’s repeal of federal rules that restricted federal money for international organizations that promote or provide abortions. Both conservatives and liberals alike were disappointed by Obama’s proposal to fund research on stem-cell lines created from surplus embryos at fertility clinics but not on lines created in laboratories to study specific diseases. Conservatives argue that federal funds should be used only to do research on adult stem cells, while liberals protest that Obama’s policy inhibits potentially promising research.
While many conservatives applaud Obama’s promise to expand aid to faith-based organizations that provide social services, some conservatives and many liberals protest his policy. Conservatives, most notably Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, warn that relying on government money is dangerous because religious agencies may become dependent on these funds, which may someday be removed. Secularists and civil libertarians like Susan Jacoby complain that Obama has yet to act on his promise to prohibit religious hiring discrimination or proselytizing in all organizations that receive federal funds to provide social assistance. Mohler counters that the right of religious organizations to hire workers who share their commitments and to proselytize while dispensing social aid is central to their mission.
Perhaps the most controversial religious issue during Obama’s first four months in office is the commencement address he gave this past Sunday at Notre Dame. About 350,000 people signed a petition sponsored by the Cardinal Newman Society, a group that seeks to strengthen the ideals of the nation’s 224 Catholic colleges and universities. Calling Obama’s actions the "most anti-life" "of any American president," the petition protested his expanding of "federal funding for abortions" and "research on stem cells from human embryos," practices that clash with traditional Catholic values.
In "The Faith of Barack Obama," Stephen Mansfield argues that Obama is an "everyman in a heroic tale of spiritual seeking," who many see as either "a fellow traveler" or a leader in "a new era of American spirituality." Obama’s faith, Mansfield contends, is "transforming, lifelong, and real." It "infuses his public policy" and "informs his leadership." Considering these claims, how divided Americans are over religion, and the integral relationship of religious values to many public policies, interest in and controversy over Obama’s faith is likely to continue for the next four years and to play a central role in our nation’s ongoing cultural wars.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College, is a fellow for Faith and the Presidency with The Center for Vision & Values, and is the author of "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush" (Oxford University Press, 2006).