Barack Obama - Incumbent President:
During Barack Obama’s tenure as president, and during the campaign leading up to his election in November 2008, there has been a significant amount of speculation – mostly from the conservative right – about where his religious allegiances lie. Let’s take a look at the very diverse religious upbringing and beliefs of Barack Obama, as well as how his religious background may have shaped some of his policy decisions.
Barack Obama was born to an American mother and a Kenyan father. His mother was raised by non-practicing Christians, and later embraced the knowledge of a number of different world religions. Obama states that growing up, his mother had copies of a variety of religious texts, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita to the Norse eddas sitting on the bookshelves. His father was raised as a Muslim but had become an atheist by the time he married Obama's mother, whom he later divorced. His stepfather was also a Muslim, but incorporated Eastern belief systems into his worldview.
As a child, Barack Obama attended both a Muslim school and a Catholic school. He was baptized as an adult in the Trinity United Church of Christ, which is a fairly moderate Christian denomination.
The Secret Muslim Conspiracy Theory:
During the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election, rumors began rapidly spreading throughout the blogosphere that Barack Obama was a secret “radical Muslim,” who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance and would open the door for Shariah law to be infused into America. So-called “proof” of this was that his middle name is Hussein, and that he attended a Muslim school for two years during his childhood in Indonesia.
CNN and the Associated Press both looked into these claims, and both observed that the school Obama attended from 1969 – 1971 is simply an elementary school full of children in neatly pressed uniforms. The school is open to local children of all faiths, and does not have any links to the various radical forms of Islam.
One of the anti-Obama emails that circulated during the campaign stated that Obama refused to use the Bible when sworn into office as the governor of Illinois, and instead insisted on using the Koran. This is patently false as well, and actually is in reference to a congressman from Minnesota, Keith Ellison, who is the first Muslim elected to Congress.
Barack Obama is a Christian, but says of his conversion, “It wasn’t an epiphany for me… it was much more of a gradual process for me."
Faith and Politics:
Barack Obama’s administration has not been without scrutiny when it comes to religious matters. At his inauguration, Obama outraged a number of people when he selected well-known pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. Liberals were troubled by Warren’s conservative and anti-gay stance, but conservatives were upset because they felt Warren was far too moderate of a preacher.
In 2009, Obama signed an executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which was designed to “work on behalf of Americans committed to improving their communities, no matter their religious or political beliefs.” One of the appointees to the task force was Welton Gaddy, a pastor who has vocally supported the separation of church and state.
Like many Christians, Obama has often said that faith is a way to solve the problems of the country. However, unlike some of his more conservative peers, he has also consistently recognized that religion can’t be legislated, and has used his background as a Constitutional attorney to emphasize the separation of church and state, despite the use of federal funds to support the faith-based initiative program.
Obama has not attempted to use religion as a justification for legislation, and has publicly stated that America is not just “a Christian nation.”
Public Statements on Faith and Religion
Barack Obama has said that despite his own personal Christian beliefs, he does support the separation of Church and State. The New York Times (About.com’s parent company) quotes him as saying, “Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square ... But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups.” He also made clear that he would “work to ensure that charitable groups receiving government funds be carefully monitored to prevent them from using the money to proselytize and to prevent any religion-based discrimination against potential recipients or employees.”
He has also spoken up against the public display of the Ten Commandments, and the idea of administratively-led school prayer, both of which are hot-button issues in the political forum.
In general, conservatives are troubled by Obama’s religious flexibility, and criticized him for the statement, “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 Obama's political and judicial appointees are often not conservative enough for the right, they’re often a bit too conservative for left-leaning voters.
For more information on the religious views of key political figures, be sure to read: