Thomas Nelson recently published “The Faith of Barack Obama” by Stephen Mansfield. The CEO, Michael Hyatt, made a very interesting offer to bloggers: Thomas Nelson would provide a free copy to the first 100 bloggers willing to write a minimum 200 word review of the book. Michael Hyatt had been linking to promotional videos by the author in his Twitter feed, and those videos got me very interested in the book. Though I am hardly a supporter of Obama, the promotional videos piqued my interest. A comment by the author stating that “Even if he loses this election, Barack Obama can run for President every four years for the next 24, and he will still be younger than John McCain is now. He’s going to be around for a long time” really gave me a desire to understand the man.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first opened the book. Thomas Nelson emailed me the introduction and the first two chapters to get started, and they only made me want to finish the book, which arrived about a week later. This is not a very long book, but I found it to be packed with interesting information. I can’t say I’ve ever gone out of my way to read a book about a candidate in an election year, but I find that most fall into one of two categories: the puff-piece and the hatchet job. This book was neither. I found it to be an honest attempt to understand a prominent man in our politics who will likely be a fixture on the public scene for many years.
“The Faith of Barack Obama” contains 144 pages of content, plus acknowledgements, references, and a bibliography and index in the back. It totals 164 pages with the “back matter.” Keep in mind that the definition of “content” in this review is my own, and I do count the endnotes and bibliography as valuable. The book is organized into an introduction and 6 chapters.
Chapter 1, “To Walk Between Worlds,” is about the man: his background and upbringing. It traces the formation of Barack Obama’s background through his grandparents, his mother, his father, and stepfather. It deals with the “urban legend” that Obama was raised as a Muslim. I do personally know Christians who believe that because Obama has a school document from Indonesia declaring his religion as “Muslim,” then obviously he must be part of some Islamic plot to take over America from the inside. I’m all for a good conspiracy theory, and I do believe several that are very well documented, but this one is easily handled by Mansfield in this chapter. Barack Obama also attended a Catholic school, but does that make him part of a plot to take over America for the pope? His mom was an Atheist, does that mean Christopher Hitchens will be Secretary of State? Anyway, I’m getting off base here. This chapter also traces Obama’s growing up and going to college, trying to find his way between worlds of black and white. What was his identity? The chapter ends with Obama sitting in Trinity United Church of Christ listening to Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Chapter 2, “My House Too,” speaks about Obama’s longtime church, his pastor’s background, and black liberation theology. The concept of Black Liberation Theology is not new to me. I have heard and read of it in the past. This is a key to understanding Barack Obama.
Chapter 3, “Faith Fit for the Age,” speaks about Obama’s conversion and his beliefs and politics. Obama clearly does claim that he believes the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his words to me as an “Evangelical” clearly do indicate an honest belief and conversion. Obama also seems to subscribe to a postmodern philosophy, and claims to believe that there are other paths to God. This chapter examines these issues, as well as the issue of why Obama remained at Trinity when some of his former pastor’s statements made it out into the media. I must admit, Stephen Mansfield’s explanation of this made my ears pick up. I came to realize that I could not make the same claims currently about my church. Stephen Mansfield says that Obama stayed at Trinity because the church met his needs. The church was his family, and it fed him intellectually and in other areas. My wife and I are struggling with an issue at our church with whether it is meeting our needs or making us feel like we truly belong to the group, and when I read those paragraphs to my wife, we were about ready to just not go back to our church. I even wrote a note in the book “If only our church met our needs like that.” That has no bearing on the review; I just can’t help but adding TMI (Too Much Information) every time I open my mouth or start pounding on a keyboard. Our personal reasons for our reaction go very deep and I have no idea if I will blog about it or not, ever.
Between Chapters 3 and 4 are a series of pictures from Obama’s life, from childhood to present.
Chapter 4, “The Altars of State,” explores the formation of Obama’s political career and how he had to reconcile his Christian faith with his politics in the Democratic party, which has been secular for a long time. Even men such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, with claims of being “born again,” have tried to push faith and politics far apart. This chapter explores Obama’s race against Alan Keys, a man I have supported in the past, for the Senate seat from Illinois. Obama did win, but the race against Keys, a very eloquent and well spoken man, left him shaken. This chapter examines that.
Chapter 5, “The Four Faces of Faith,” contrasts the faith of Obama against John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush. I found this chapter particularly fascinating, though I think I’d rather open another discussion on them rather than sidetracking this review.
The final Chapter, 6, “A Time To Heal,” speaks of the issue of healing and Obama’s desire to help with some of that healing in our culture and our politics.
All told, I thought this was a very good book. It did not inflate Obama, nor did it skewer him. I took it as an honest attempt to understand the man and the issues surrounding him, and to pass that understanding to others. To me, this is what journalism should be. This book did help me to better understand Barack Obama. It challenges the seeming notion that Christianity in American politics belongs to the “Religious Right,” and that Democrats can’t be Christian and Christians can’t be Democrats. (I dropped my normal facetious “Demoncrats” for this review.)
This book did not in any way give me a desire to support or vote for Obama, but I believe it gave me something much better: it gave me the idea that I could like him. It even gave me the thought that perhaps I could like Hillary Clinton. Yikes! Our two party political system (I currently support neither, though I once considered myself part of one of them, you guess) seems to encourage demonization of the “other side.” I can’t say I haven’t fallen prey to that idea in the past myself. I’m finding it to be liberating that I can disagree with somebody and still like them, that disagreement does not need to mean lack of association. This is something I have been thinking through on my own prior to this book.
My final comment about the book itself is the price. During one of my discussions with my wife about my use of time during the evenings, as in, should I be reading a book or doing something she prefers, I said “Look, Thomas Nelson GAVE me this book on the promise to write a review. This book would have cost me…” I looked at the back and saw the price listed as $19.99. This is the MSRP, but my eyes must have popped out of my head and I had to restrain my urge to make a comment about some variation of “sacred fecal matter” in front of the kids. I’ll be honest; I have absolutely no idea what goes in to the pricing of a book, but I have bought thousands of books in my life so I can only go on the relative cost of them. $20 for a 6 chapter, total of 164 page book does sound kind of high. It is listed for $13.59 on Amazon with “39 new and used from $9.25.” Maybe some fellow Michael Hyatt readers can join me to ask him for a primer on how books get priced one of these days. I find him to be a very open CEO and I believe he would respond if we asked him. His blog has been a tremendous source of inspiration and advice to me over the years.
I would like to make one final comment on our political system. I’m not sure why, but so many people seem to treat the Presidential election as if we’re choosing our Messiah (already got one, thanks.) It’s as if we put the right man in and he’ll save us all, and the wrong man will destroy our country, ruin our lives, and make George Orwell’s 1984 sound like the recounting of a stay at a vacation resort. Please, people, read our Constitution and keep this all in perspective. Don’t look to the President to save you. He’s only the head of one branch of government. You still have one Representative and two Senators that you can call or write or email about any issue you wish.
If you’d like to read The Faith of Barack Obama, I highly recommend it. You can buy it from the Amazon affiliate link in my sidebar on the left under “Books I’m currently reading.” I’ll probably move it to the “Books I’ve recently read” sidebar at some point. I know, that’s a shameless plug, but if you buy enough of them from my affiliation, maybe you can help feed my gadget habit.