a (GASP) spiritual nomad.
That's what Newsweek implies in a surprisingly suspicious and hostile article on Obama's path to faith, which seems almost designed to create the self-fulfilling prophecy that "Obama's religious biography is unconventional and politically problematic." Unusual for the mainstream media, which usually have the opposite problem of being unable to put themselves in Obama critics' non-Earth Shoes, the article seems written from the point of view that "he's different, he's too intellectual, we can't quickly pigeonhole where he's coming from, he can't be trusted."
There is no question that Obama's mother was a spiritual nomad -- as if that was his fault, or his choice (well, if you're a doctrinaire New Ager I suppose you'd say it was).
[S]he lived and traveled throughout the world appreciating all religions but confessing to none. One of Ann's favorite spiritual texts was "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth," a set of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers that traces the common themes of religion and mythology, Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, tells NEWSWEEK. When the family lived in Indonesia, Ann, on occasion, would take the children to Catholic mass; after returning to Hawaii, they would celebrate Easter and Christmas at United Church of Christ congregations. Ann later went back to Indonesia with Maya, and when Obama visited, they would take him to Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Later, while working in India, Ann lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery.
Visiting temples was not just tourism for Ann. "These kinds of experiences were a regular part of our childhood and our upbringing, and were important to [our mother] because they involved ritual," says Maya. "She thought that ritual was very beautiful. The idea of human beings' striving to be better, having the curiosity and questions about all these things, [was] perpetual and constant inside her."
Did Ann believe in God? Obama calls his mother "an agnostic." "I think she believed in a higher power," he says. "She believed in the fundamental order and goodness of the universe. She would have been very comfortable with Einstein's idea that God doesn't play dice. But I think she was very suspicious of the notion that one particular organized religion offered one truth." [...]
Maya [Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half sister] says their mother would not have made the same choice [to commit to Christianity]—but that Ann understood and approved of Obama's decision: "She didn't feel the same need, because for her, she felt like we can still be good to one another and serve, but we don't have to choose. She was, of course, always a wanderer, and I think he was more inclined to be rooted and make the choice to set down his commitments more firmly." [...]
Yet his mother's spiritual-nomadism has left a sort of homeopathic watermark on the son's Christianity:
When Franklin Graham asked Obama recently how, as a Christian, he could reconcile New Testament claims that salvation was attainable only through Christ with a campaign that embraces pluralism and diversity, Obama tells NEWSWEEK he said: "It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I've said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know … I do not believe she went to hell."
Obama's father, of course, was a double whammy -- a lapsed Muslim turned atheist who thought religion was "mumbo jumbo." Talk about "politically problematic" -- a member of both of America's most mistrusted and despised minorities! -- never mind that he left the family when Obama junior was two and had negligible influence on his son, except by his absence.
But what surprised me was Newsweek's tone of mistrust and disapproval (just channeling the conventional wisdom?) toward those who don't come from a simple, single tradition and have refused or failed to slot themselves into one. (You'd think, then, that they'd approve of Obama for having repudiated his mother's waffling and declared himself.) Only in the third paragraph from the end, almost as an afterthought, does the article mention that "Presidents such as Lincoln and Jefferson were unorthodox Christians."