Obama’s religious roots

Obama’s religious roots

Despite his childhood exposure to Unitarian Universalism, Barack Obama found his religious home elsewhere, just as too many of our young people do.

Obama as a child

© 2012 Joseph Adolphe

©2012 Joseph Adolphe


East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, was too good a deal to pass up for Stanley Dunham, a freethinking bargain hunter for religious ideas. So in the early 1950s he enrolled his family in the church and sent his daughter, Stanley Ann, to the Sunday school.

“It’s like you get five religions in one,” Dunham liked to say. His wife, Madelyn Lee Payne Dunham, shot back, “For Christ’s sake, Stanley, religion is not supposed to be like buying breakfast cereal.”

So their grandson, Barack Obama, recalled about his grandfather’s “only skirmish into organized religion” in his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. The family’s engagement with Unitarianism was not limited to Stanley Ann’s childhood in the suburbs of Seattle, however. Later, when she sent her almost eleven-year-old son to Hawaii to live with his grandparents from 1971 to 1972, they sent the young Obama to the Sunday school of First Unitarian Church of Honolulu. (He lived with his grandparents again from 1975 until he graduated from high school in 1979.)

Barack Obama with his grandparents, 1979
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Barack Obama’s Unitarian Universalist connection: Where to learn more about President Obama’s family history with Unitarian Universalism. (Fall 2012)

© AP Photo/Obama Presidential Campaign

“Gramps” liked investigating religions as sampling cuisines, Obama suggests. So, too, did Stanley Ann, who took her son on religion sampling tours. On Easter or Christmas, Obama tells us in The Audacity of Hope (2006), his mother “might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.” With each new venture, however, Stanley Ann made certain her son understood the protocol: taste the cuisine, chew on it, but don’t swallow the dip.

These religion samplings, Obama notes, “required no sustained commitment on my part—no introspective exertion or self-flagellation.” Nor was there any requirement for personal reflection when he read the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, Greek, Norse, and African mythology, or any of the other religious texts that sat side by side on a bookshelf in his home. He studied religions for the sake of a well-rounded education. “It was one of many ways—and not necessarily the best way—that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.”

The story of Barack Obama’s childhood Unitarian Universalism appears to be a tale about religious sampling, little more. When the Rev. Mike Young, minister of the Honolulu congregation from 1995 to 2009, combed through records looking for details of Obama’s life in the church, he came up empty-handed. But on December 23, 2008, when the Honolulu church hosted a memorial service for Madelyn Dunham, Young confirmed that Obama had indeed attended it as a child.

In late October 2008, Obama had suspended his presidential campaign for two days and flown to Hawaii to spend time with and say goodbye to his beloved “Toot,” who was dying of cancer. She died on November 2, 2008, two days before Obama was elected the forty-fourth President of the United States. Obama returned just before Christmas to pay his final respects to his grandmother during a private memorial service at the Honolulu church.

While there, Obama asked Young where the men’s restroom was located. Young took Obama and his Secret Service men upstairs to the restroom. After Obama returned to the first floor, Young told Obama he had passed by the religious education area where he had attended classes. Obama immediately turned to his wife and said, “Hey, that’s right,” Young recalls. “This is where I went to Sunday school.” But the area didn’t look familiar to Obama, he said. “That’s because we renovated it a few years ago,” Young explained.

Young now had firsthand evidence that Obama had indeed attended the youth program at the church. “The hitch here,” Young said to me, “is that we don’t know how long he came.” So, Young continued, “it’s unfair to publicly characterize him as a UU youth.” Unfair, perhaps, but not unprecedented.

Some of Obama’s political enemies have portrayed his exposure to Unitarian Universalism as evidence of his “socialist” or even “Marxist” upbringing. When Young told a reporter for the conservative website WorldNetDaily that the Unitarian Sunday school “has always been and to this day is involved in political activism,” the website launched a scathing attack against Obama, citing Young’s statement to prove that Obama’s presence as an eleven-year-old in the Sunday school exposed him to a “far-left activist church” that participated in “draft-dodging activism” linked to the Students for a Democratic Society and its Weatherman subgroup leader Bill Ayers. Obama probably learned his values, the reporter Aaron Klein concluded, “during his Sunday school days at the First Unitarian.”

Another conservative journalist also trumped up the Unitarian Universalist activist charges against President Obama in June 2009, shortly after the introduction of legislation that would become “Obamacare.” Obama, Andrew Walden alleged, kept secret this radical link during the 2008 presidential campaign because he didn’t want people to know “the church was part of the 1968–1970 sanctuary for deserters movement.” If this isn’t enough evidence of Obama’s far-left, un-American activities, Walden continued, the Unitarian church that Obama’s grandparents attended near Seattle “was infamous as ‘The Little Red Church on the Hill.’”

Conservatives, Mike Young wisely notes, are trying to hang the 1960s social activities of the Honolulu congregation “around Obama’s neck at eleven years old.” “That’s not fair to him,” Young said. “He is a liberal and the conservatives are going to attempt to paint him as pink as possible.”

Obama’s Unitarian Universalist connection is “very, very tenuous,” Young believes. “It’s really easy to overstate.” Nevertheless, it can help us explore a defining issue confronting Unitarian Universalists today. Barack Obama is not a Unitarian Universalist, but far too many young people raised in our congregations share his religious story. Raised among us, they only find a religious home—if they find one—elsewhere.

Unitarian Universalism’s ‘age fracture’

Keep in mind three problems as this story unfolds:

First, our youth exit problem: When most of our kids “exit their Sunday school program,” as Young puts it, they “don’t come back.” They go somewhere else, to some other church, or they don’t go to church at all.

Second, the size of our youth exit problem: Nine out of ten of our young people leave us, according to the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s director of Congregational Life. We’re much better at attracting converts than we are at providing a lifelong home: Only 12 percent of the 161,500 members of our congregations say they were raised as Unitarian Universalists. In mainline Protestant denominations, by contrast, half the current members grew up within the tradition. Many who grew up UU still think of themselves as UUs, however, without a congregation. After all, there are approximately 600,000 self-identified Unitarian Universalists in the United States (see “Three in a Thousand,” UU World, Summer 2008). But more of our youth probably become “nones,” part of the fasting-growing religious group in the country—people who do not identify themselves with any particular religion, even if they say they are “spiritual but not religious.”

Third, a major source of our youth exit problem: We give our youth free choice about their religious beliefs and then add something else: emotional distance. “We stay at arm’s length” from our youth, as Young puts it. He calls this separation between youth and adults our congregational “age fracture.”

One of the major problems in every congregation he has served, Young explained, is the “uneasiness of really getting people involved across the age lines—the demographic lines. The middle-aged folks are uneasy when dealing with the young adults and the young adults are uneasy when dealing with the kids.”

“Why?” I asked.

The kind of personalities we attract to our congregations, says Young, are “not touchy-feely.” It is difficult for us, Young said, “to reach across these divides and find comfortable ways to be together. One of the constant challenges is, How do you do stuff together for intergenerational activities?” UU adults tend to be reserved, emotionally cautious, wary of “spirituality.” Young people, however, are seeking emotional connections and a strong sense of identity with a group. When they leave our congregations, unsatisfied, we lose the very people we’ve raised to be Unitarian Universalists—and we miss out on sharing the experiences that would satisfy them, experiences that would enlarge and deepen our tradition.

Obama’s odyssey

To resolve this three-fold exit problem, we adults must not only see what’s missing in our religious lives, we must feel this missing part of our life together and be transformed by the experience. Obama’s personal story shows us how such a discovery, emotional feeling, and experience of transformation happened to him. The process began as he thought about his mom.

Obama’s Discovery. Stanley Ann Dunham, as Obama tells us in The Audacity of Hope, was the most spiritually awakened person he has ever known: “she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional.”

In college, Obama studied political philosophy to learn how to codify her values. And he created a conceptual language and a system of action for building community and making justice that exemplified his mother’s spiritual life. Then he hit the streets in Chicago as a community organizer for a group of churches.

The congregation-based organizing work Obama did in Chicago, however, cast a harsh light on his religious credentials and his mother’s spiritual life. Even though the people he worked with in the Chicago congregations recognized themselves in him because, as he puts it, he knew their Book, shared their values, and sang their songs, they were not sure that he recognized himself in them. Some part of him seemed aloof and removed, like a detached observer sampling their beliefs without personal investment. Obama felt the distance, too, and for the first time in his life he didn’t like the distinction he made between religious ideas and the people who held them.

Obama now realized, as he explains in The Audacity of Hope, that without a vessel, an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, he would be “consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone.”

He made these personal discoveries in African-American religious communities because they were steeped in the black church tradition: “Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation.” This tradition created within its individual members a collective feeling of community that sustained them in the starkest of times and the direst of circumstance. This vessel consisted of feelings of loyalty, family, love, embrace, care, nurture, endurance, and also heightened experiences of salvation while still on earth—every Sunday morning during the worship service. These religious communities born of hard times created individuals who were sustained by these communities in hard times.

Consider the contrast. Our Unitarian Universalist congregations have the so-called “luxury” Obama talked about of separating individual interests from collective salvation. As a religious association whose individual congregational members constitute the second wealthiest religious group in the country and the most highly educated, we can keep our individual spiritual needs at arm’s length from the collective needs of our congregational life.

Obama’s story focuses our attention on the rupture between our individual and collective needs. The spotlight here is not on a race story, but on a religious story with a racial backdrop. Obama, after all, didn’t become black through the experience. He became Christian.

Obama’s Emotional Feelings. Obama could not tour the Chicago congregations as sampling venues for religious ideas because the churches were also the center of the community’s political, economic, and social life. The churches spurred social change, as he put it, without separating individual salvation from collective salvation. Their faith was grounded in struggle and gained through an “intimate knowledge of hardship.” Religion, Obama now realized, was more than “just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather it was an active, palpable agent in the world.” It was, as he put it, a way of maintaining hope and dignity, and spurring action in the direst of circumstances.

The common ground between individual and collective religious experiences of renewal, Obama discovered, was transformed and exalted feelings. Religious communities, he now realized, are not just sources of wisdom for moral ideas; they are also healing vessels for the regeneration of broken emotional souls. “The gospel songs, the happy feet, and the tears and shouts all spoke of a release, an acknowledgment and finally a channeling of those emotions.”

Obama’s Transformation. Obama became a Christian because his emotional life was not only touched, but also transformed. He now felt loyalty to a particular religious community for the first time in his life. This is why Obama joined Trinity United Church of Christ.

The pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became—by Obama’s own account—like family to him. Wright strengthened Obama’s faith, officiated at his wedding, and baptized his children. This new religious commitment, Obama noted, “did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved.” His new religious community didn’t dampen his mind; it opened his heart. The community was now part of his emotional life.

And thus the result of this threefold process: when Obama, as presidential candidate, renounced his membership in the church because of Wright’s deeply divisive racial comments, Obama could not disown Wright, as he put it, any more than he could disown the black community—or “Toot,” who sometimes uttered racial and ethnic slurs that made him cringe. “These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love,” Obama said in his March 18, 2008, speech on race.

Obama’s religious story highlights what is waiting to be acknowledged and experienced by many of us when we gather together as Unitarian Universalists: emotional connection and renewal. We can do this work. The first step, however, is the hardest. It was for Obama. It will be for us, too.

Giving up the ‘luxury’ of isolation

Discovery—the first stage of this process—is particularly difficult for us to achieve because the emotional disconnections within our congregational life are often mistaken for and then treated as if they are, strictly speaking, race problems. They’re not. The age fracture and the racial divides in our religious communities meet up at the same unacknowledged place: raw emotional feelings longing for recognition, reconciliation, and regeneration.

A case in point: Several years ago, I was the keynote speaker at one of our youth conferences. The adult conference planners told me to talk about my book Learning to Be White and about white racism. They told me to be hard on the teens. I was surprised.

I knew the teens present would be mostly middle-class kids who went to middle-class schools and lived with middle-class families in middle-class communities. But I had yet to meet a bunch of Amer­ican middle-class teens who, collectively, didn’t feel afflicted. I had no desire to afflict the afflicted.

So I began my presentation by asking for a volunteer to give the speech on race and racism the teens expected to hear from me. One of the most popular boys took center stage. He explained why prejudice is bad and racism is wrong. There is really only one race, the human race, so everybody should cross the racial divides and become one loving community.

The teens laughed and applauded. The speaker bowed. I next invited the teens to ask the speaker the questions they would have asked me. Now things got serious. One of the teens summarized their collective complaints, saying, “Tell us something that will make a difference in our lives right now.”

I thanked the speaker, we applauded him again for his courage and aplomb, and I then said to the group: “Let’s talk about things that will make a difference in our life right now—our feelings.” I told them harsh stories from my own “perfect” middle-class life as a teen, about experiences that made me feel alone and afraid in the midst of my own highly educated liberal and professionally successful parental environment. These weren’t stories about race. They were stories about feeling defaced and ignored.

I then left the stage and sat down on the floor in the midst of the teens. They formed a large circle in which I was simply one of the points of its circumference. And then we waited.

One by one the teens stood up and talked about their feelings. They disclosed stories of abuse, of being racially profiled at school, about being the unwanted child, stories about not feeling loved, appreciated, or adored by the people who were supposed to love them. Some of the teens cried as they spoke. The teens held and comforted one another. And at the end of each story, we said together, “We hear you and hold you in our hearts.”

I then talked about why we were able to be so open and honest with each other: We are Unitarian Universalists, I said, and this is what we are called upon to do when we come together. Our religious tradition tells us to listen to one another, to cherish one another, to hold one another in our hearts until we, together, are healed. We can do this work at youth cons, I told the youth, and you can do this work when you are together in other settings because you are Unitarian Universalists. This is what we do. We love rather than dismiss others. We hear rather than ignore aching hearts. We love each other beyond belief—now.

At the end of the session, one of the chaperones came up to me and held my hand. She told me how her mother used to hold her hand tightly as a child, whenever they went downtown. Whenever a black person passed by, the woman now confessed, her mother would squeeze the little girl’s hand even tighter. This tightness terrified the child because she could feel her mother’s panic. Then came her second confession: It’s taken her a long time to learn not to panic when she’s around black people.

She held onto my hand tightly as I held her hand. The core content of her racial fears wasn’t racism or racist ideas. It was panic. And this raw feeling needed to be healed. Our faith as Unitarian Universalists helped both of us stay the course, go below the panic, until, together, we felt love beyond belief.

Obama’s personal story, like my youth con stories, show us what happens when we enter the divide between our minds and our hearts, our youth and our adults, our race talk and our terrified feelings and we stay the course: We are transformed. We give up the so-called “luxury” of feeling isolated and alone. Not because we have to, but now because we want to.

This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (pages 20–25).

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