Who among us will ever forget those audio tapes of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright damning America from his Chicago pulpit and the impression that the Obamas sat in that congregation for years, affirming this stridency with their "Amens"?
We also all know that once the Wright tapes — and his speech at the National Press Club — proved to be politically wrong, candidate Obama had an epiphany and — as if he was hearing the higher authority from Mission Impossible headquarters in his brain — knew he had to deny any knowledge of the Wright operation.
Newsweek did a cover article on Obama entitled “Finding His Faith” and revealed the President-elect to be a self-styled spiritual seeker. He was exposed to many faith traditions before deciding to be baptized as a Christian when he was an adult.
So what’s up now — theologically — with our President Elect? Granted, he’s been too busy to go to church during the campaign and has said he will not attend one while in office. As Ronald Reagan had discerned during his Presidency, it is unfair to the members of any congregation to have their worship services subject to the untender mercies of Secret Service protection and the inevitable press invasions. Can’t fault him for that.
But there are some behind-the-scenes Obama religious encounters that have received very little U.S. media attention. Once again, the Times of London scooped the lethargic American media. The most unusual of these encounters requires a preface in the form of a breaking domestic religious news item.
Last week, the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, became the fourth such entity to break with the U.S. Episcopal Church hierarchy, choosing to align itself with a traditionalist South American province. The vote to secede — which passed by a wide majority — is part of an on-going denominational dispute that began with the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay Bishop. To refer to the New Hampshire Bishop as a controversial figure in the religious world is an understatement.
Not once, or twice, but three times it emerges — during May and June — candidate Obama and the Bishop had private talks. Robinson broke the story during an interview with The Times. He was in London to receive the “Hero of the Year” award from the gay rights organization, Stonewall. According to Robinson, the first thing Sen. Obama said to him was: “Well, you’re certainly causing a lot of trouble,” to which the Bishop replied: “Well, that makes two of us.”
Robinson described the entire series of encounters with Obama as “a religious experience,” (clever). They reportedly talked about “what it was like to be first,” about how to handle being demonized by one’s opponents, and the place of religion in state affairs.
Robinson claims that these conversations are illustrative of Obama’s extraordinary outreach to all religious communities, not just Christian groups. Candidates for office are, of course, entitled to seek out advice from anyone they chose, but it is curious that the Obama campaign kept this trio of chats under wraps. When the news spreads, it will certainly add fuel to the Episcopal fire that has brought that church to the brink of a schism.
It can also be construed as an insult to the members of the Worldwide Anglican Communion in Africa. The Bishops of Africa find great difficulty in being part of a church that supports gay rights. They are competing for members against Islam, which regards homosexuality as a sin punishable by death. The cultural bias in African countries favors the Muslim position on gender issues. By seeking out an openly gay clergyman for private counsel, Obama risks alienating both Christians and Muslims in Africa.
There are no reports that the President-elect sought out any Catholic clergy during his campaign. He, did, however, receive a phone call from Pope Benedict after the election. That courtesy call came on the same day in which the Vatican also warned Obama not to lift the current U.S. ban on stem cell research, which he has promised to do. The Vice President-elect, Joe Biden, is already in hot water with the Catholic Church for misrepresenting Church teachings on abortion. Ditto Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. But election demographics indicate that Catholics no longer vote according to doctrine but according to their stances on social issues.
Which brings us — finally — to the lost tribe of Barack Obama, a family tale with religious and political overtones. Once again, it was The Times of London which reported this intriguing story. It all began when a 95-year-old woman in the Bedouin community of Bir al-Maksour — located in the very Biblical area of Galilee — noticed a family resemblance between Obama and some of the women in the tribe. This group of Bedouins was once a semi-nomadic group with roots in Syria. Many are converts to Islam.
Abdul Rahman Sheikh Abdullah, a local council member, saw the resemblance too. It seems that African migrant workers used to be employed by the rich sheikhs who resided just north of the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1930s. The Africans often married local Bedouin girls and one of those migrant men was apparently a relative of Obama’s Kenyan grandmother (who is still alive). The tribe of 8000 kept quiet about their possible family ties to candidate Obama, not wishing to inject this element into the American electoral process. Word of Obama’s connection to the tribe has caused great excitement in the Arab community in Northern Israel. A party is being planned. The question — yet to be addressed — is how Obama’s family ties could affect U.S. foreign policy in the already muddled Middle East situation.