Sunday, December 19, 2004


In its cover-story, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter examines Barack Obama's work to help the Democrats identify its moral core. And it is clear that Mr. Obama thinks that there is more to it than Dems just getting their Jesus on.
After thanking his family in his victory speech, Obama next mentioned his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., of the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side, the African-American minister and community leader who first introduced Obama to "the audacity of hope." "That said it all," [Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid] concludes. "People don't know where he stands on issues, but they know he's an honest, God-fearing man."

It wasn't always so in the Obama family, as chronicled in his lyrical (if, by his own admission, overly long) 1995 memoir, "Dreams From My Father," now reissued and a best seller. Barack's paternal grandfather, a Luo tribesman who was raised wearing nothing but a goatskin loincloth, worked as a servant for British colonialists in Nairobi and converted to Islam before returning to farm on the shores of Lake Victoria. But the new senator's father, Barack Sr. (the name means "blessing from God"), had no discernible religious convictions. After growing up herding goats, he became the first African student at the University of Hawaii, where in 1959 he met an 18-year-old white girl from the mainland, descended from Cherokees, Baptists, Methodists, Kansas abolitionists and, indirectly, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

Over the objections of their families (the white side was more accepting), they married, but when Obama was 2, his father left Hawaii, first for Harvard, then back to Kenya, where he worked for the government and was later killed in a car accident. He returned to Hawaii to see his son only once, when Barack was 10.

Barack, often called "Barry" inside his family, was raised in a secular home: "My mother saw religion as an impediment to broader values, like tolerance and racial inclusivity. She remembered churchgoing folks [in Kansas and Texas] who also called people niggers. But she was a deeply spiritual person, and when I moved to Chicago [after graduating from Columbia] and worked with church-based community organizations, I kept hearing her values expressed in the church." That tapped into "the hurt and pain" he felt as a fatherless biracial child and spoke to his sense of "the fragility and power and mystery of life."

The Democrats, Obama believes, need to speak to that power and mystery, too. He stops short of calling for a "religious left" to counter the political power of the religious right, but he wants the party to reconnect to what he sees as its roots in a moral imperative: "This shouldn't be hard to do. Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day [of the Catholic Workers] did it. Most of the reform movements that have changed this country have been grounded in religious models. We don't have to start from scratch."

*** Obama remains concerned about how some Democrats may go about finding religion. "It's dangerous to try to engineer this in some synthetic way through the party. If it's not organic, it comes off as phony. People can sniff it out," he cautions. "Democrats have to say to themselves, 'What are the values we care most deeply about?' then do the hard spiritual work ahead of time. You can't every once in a while just throw in the word 'God'."
The article is also filled with Obama trivia like this (emphasis added):
[W]hen Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. decided not to run for the U.S. Senate, Jackson became one of Obama's earliest supporters. (Jackson's sister Santita was a bridesmaid for Michelle.)
It also contains another classic Michelle Obama quote:
Michelle's got it all figured out: "Giving a good speech doesn't make you Superman."
She's right of course, but the themes in that speech can guide the Democrats in their "never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way."

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