Editor’s Note: At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, 2004, when I was the religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, I met then-State Sen. Barack Obama at Café Baci, a small coffee shop at 330 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago, for an interview about his faith. Our conversation took place a few days after he’d clinched the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that he eventually won, and four months before he’d be formally introduced to the rest of the nation during his famous keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
We spoke for more than an hour. He came alone. He answered everything I asked without notes or hesitation. The profile of Obama that grew from the interview at Cafe Baci became the first in a series in the Sun-Times called “The God Factor,” which would eventually became my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, in which Obama and 31 other high-profile “culture shapers” — including Bono of U2, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the author Anne Rice and President George W. Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson — are profiled.
Because of the seemingly evergreen interest in President Obama’s faith and spiritual predilections, and because that 2004 interview remains the longest and most in-depth he’s granted publicly about his faith, I thought it might be helpful to share the transcript of our conversation — uncut and in its entirety — here on God’s Politics.
~ Cathleen Falsani
Interview with State Sen. Barack Obama
3:30 p.m., Saturday March 27
Café Baci, 330 S. Michigan Avenue
Me: decaf coffee
He: alone, on time, grabs a Naked juice protein shake
Cathleeen Falsani: What do you believe?
Barack Obama: I am a Christian. So, I have a deep faith. So, I draw from the Christian faith. On the other hand, I was born in Hawaii where obviously there are a lot of Eastern influences. I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, between the ages of six and 10. My father was from Kenya, and although he was probably most accurately labeled an agnostic, his father was Muslim. And I’d say, probably, intellectually I’ve drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith.
(A patron stops and says, “Congratulations,” shakes Obama’s hand. “Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Thank you,” Obama says.)
So, I’m rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there’s an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.
And so, part of my project in life was probably to spend the first 40 years of my life figuring out what I did believe – I’m 42 now – and it’s not that I had it all completely worked out, but I’m spending a lot of time now trying to apply what I believe and trying to live up to those values.
Falsani: Have you always been a Christian?
OBAMA: I was raised more by my mother and my mother was Christian.
Falsani: Any particular flavor?
OBAMA: No. My grandparents who were from small towns in Kansas. My grandmother was Methodist. My grandfather was Baptist. This was at a time when I think the Methodists felt slightly superior to the Baptists. And by the time I was born, they were, I think, my grandparents had joined a Universalist church.
So, my mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody, was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve. We’d go to church for Easter. She wasn’t a church lady.
As I said, we moved to Indonesia. She remarried an Indonesian who wasn’t particularly, he wasn’t a practicing Muslim. I went to a Catholic school in a Muslim country. So I was studying the Bible and catechisms by day, and at night you’d hear the prayer call.
So I don’t think as a child we were, or I had a structured religious education. But my mother was deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good.
And, so that, I think, was what I carried with me through college. I probably didn’t get started getting active in church activities until I moved to Chicago.
The way I came to Chicago in 1985 was that I was interested in community organizing and I was inspired by the Civil Rights movement. And the idea that ordinary people could do extraordinary things. And there was a group of churches out on the South Side of Chicago that had come together to form an organization to try to deal with the devastation of steel plants that had closed. And didn’t have much money, but felt that if they formed an organization and hired somebody to organize them to work on issues that affected their community, that it would strengthen the church and also strengthen the community.
So they hired me, for $13,000 a year. The princely sum. And I drove out here and I didn’t know anybody and started working with both the ministers and the lay people in these churches on issues like creating job training programs, or after school programs for youth, or making sure that city services were fairly allocated to under served communities.
This would be in Roseland, West Pullman, Altgeld Gardens, far South Side working class and lower income communities.
And it was in those places where I think what had been more of an intellectual view of religion deepened because I’d be spending an enormous amount of time with church ladies, sort of surrogate mothers and fathers and everybody I was working with was 50 or 55 or 60, and here I was a 23-year-old kid running around.
I became much more familiar with the ongoing tradition of the historic black church and it’s importance in the community.
And the power of that culture to give people strength in very difficult circumstances, and the power of that church to give people courage against great odds. And it moved me deeply.
So that, one of the churches I met, or one of the churches that I became involved in was Trinity United Church of Christ. And the pastor there, Jeremiah Wright, became a good friend. So I joined that church and committed myself to Christ in that church.
Falsani: Did you actually go up for an altar call?
OBAMA: Yes. Absolutely. It was a daytime service, during a daytime service. And it was a powerful moment. Because, ti was powerful for me because it not only confirmed my faith, it not only gave shape to my faith, but I think, also, allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.
Falsani: How long ago?
OBAMA: Sixteen, 17 years ago
1987 or 88
Falsani: So you got yourself born again?
OBAMA: Yeah, although I don’t — I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up, a suspicion of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.
I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.
I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.
Falsani: Do you still attend Trinity?
OBAMA: Yep. Every week. Eleven o’clock service.
Ever been there? Good service.
I actually wrote a book called Dreams from My Father, it’s kind of a meditation on race. There’s a whole chapter on the church in that, and my first visits to Trinity.
Falsani: Do you pray often?
OBAMA: Uh, yeah, I guess I do. It’s not formal —me getting on my knees. I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. I think throughout the day, I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why am I doing it.
One of the interesting things about being in public life is there are constantly these pressures being placed on you from different sides. To be effective, you have to be able to listen to a variety of points of view, synthesize viewpoints. You also have to know when to be just a strong advocate, and push back against certain people or views that you think aren’t right or don’t serve your constituents.
And so, the biggest challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass. Those are the conversations I’m having internally. I’m measuring my actions against that inner voice that for me at least is audible, is active, it tells me where I think I’m on track and where I think I’m off track.
It’s interesting particularly now after this election, comes with it a lot of celebrity. And I always think of politics as having two sides. There’s a vanity aspect to politics, and then there’s a substantive part of politics. Now you need some sizzle with the steak to be effective, but I think it’s easy to get swept up in the vanity side of it, the desire to be liked and recognized and important. It’s important for me throughout the day to measure and to take stock and to say, now, am I doing this because I think it’s advantageous to me politically, or because I think it’s the right thing to do? Am I doing this to get my name in the papers or am I doing this because it’s necessary to accomplish my motives.
Falsani: Checking for altruism?
OBAMA: Yeah. I mean, something like it. Looking for, … It’s interesting, the most powerful political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a certain truth. I can feel it. When I’m talking to a group and I’m saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I’m just being glib or clever.
Falsani: What’s that power? Is it the holy spirit? God?
OBAMA: Well, I think it’s the power of the recognition of God, or the recognition of a larger truth that is being shared between me and an audience.
That’s something you learn watching ministers, quite a bit. What they call the Holy Spirit. They want the Holy Spirit to come down before they’re preaching, right? Not to try to intellectualize it but what I see is there are moments that happen within a sermon where the minister gets out of his ego and is speaking from a deeper source. And it’s powerful.
There are also times when you can see the ego getting in the way. Where the minister is performing and clearly straining for applause or an Amen. And those are distinct moments. I think those former moments are sacred.
Falsani: Who’s Jesus to you?
(He laughs nervously)
OBAMA: Right. Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.
And he’s also a wonderful teacher. I think it’s important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history.
Falsani: Is Jesus someone who you feel you have a regular connection with now, a personal connection with in your life?
OBAMA: Yeah. Yes. I think some of the things I talked about earlier are addressed through, are channeled through my Christian faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Falsani: Have you read the Bible?
OBAMA: Absolutely. I read it not as regularly as I would like. These days I don’t have much time for reading or reflection, period.
Falsani: Do you try to take some time for whatever, meditation prayer reading?
OBAMA: I’ll be honest with you, I used to all the time, in a fairly disciplined way. But during the course of this campaign, I don’t. And I probably need to and would like to, but that’s where that internal monologue, or dialogue I think supplants my opportunity to read and reflect in a structured way these days.
It’s much more sort of as I’m going through the day trying to take stock and take a moment here and a moment there to take stock, why am I here, how does this connect with a larger sense of purpose.
Falsani: Do you have people in your life that you look to for guidance?
OBAMA: Well, my pastor is certainly someone who I have an enormous amount of respect for. I have a number of friends who are ministers. Reverend Meeks is a close friend and colleague of mine in the state Senate. Father Michael Pfleger is a dear friend, and somebody I interact with closely.
Falsani: Those two will keep you on your toes.
OBAMA: And they’re good friends. Because both of them are in the public eye, there are ways we can all reflect on what’s happening to each of us in ways that are useful.
I think they can help me, they can appreciate certain specific challenges that I go through as a public figure.
Falsani: Jack Ryan [Obama's Republican opponent in the U.S. Senate race at the time] said talking about your faith is fraught with peril for a public figure.
OBAMA: Which is why you generally will not see me spending a lot of time talking about it on the stump.
Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion. I am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am a big believer in our constitutional structure. I mean, I’m a law professor at the University of Chicago teaching constitutional law. I am a great admirer of our founding charter, and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming, and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root ion this country.
As I said before, in my own public policy, I’m very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.
Now, that’s different form a belief that values have to inform our public policy. I think it’s perfectly consistent to say that I want my government to be operating for all faiths and all peoples, including atheists and agnostics, while also insisting that there are values that inform my politics that are appropriate to talk about.
A standard line in my stump speech during this campaign is that my politics are informed by a belief that we’re all connected. That if there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago that can’t read, that makes a difference in my life even if it’s not my own child. If there’s a senior citizen in downstate Illinois that’s struggling to pay for their medicine and having to chose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer even if it’s not my grandparent. And if there’s an Arab American family that’s being rounded up by John Ashcroft without the benefit of due process, that threatens my civil liberties.
I can give religious expression to that. I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, we are all children of God. Or I can express it in secular terms. But the basic premise remains the same. I think sometimes Democrats have made the mistake of shying away from a conversation about values for fear that they sacrifice the important value of tolerance. And I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive.
Falsani: Do you think it’s wrong for people to want to know about a civic leader’s spirituality?
OBAMA: I don’t’ think it’s wrong. I think that political leaders are subject to all sorts of vetting by the public, and this can be a component of that.
I think that I am disturbed by, let me put it this way: I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalize or justify their actions by claiming God’s mandate.
I think there is this tendency that I don’t think is healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or dialogue with people who disagree with them.
Falsani: The conversation stopper, when you say you’re a Christian and leave it at that.
OBAMA: Where do you move forward with that?
This is something that I’m sure I’d have serious debates with my fellow Christians about. I think that the difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize. There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they’re going to hell.
Falsani: You don’t believe that?
OBAMA: I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell. I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity. That’s just not part of my religious makeup.
Part of the reason I think it’s always difficult for public figures to talk about this is that the nature of politics is that you want to have everybody like you and project the best possible traits onto you. Often times that’s by being as vague as possible, or appealing to the lowest common denominators. The more specific and detailed you are on issues as personal and fundamental as your faith, the more potentially dangerous it is.
Falsani: Do you ever have people who know you’re a Christian question a particular stance you take on an issue, how can you be a Christian and …
OBAMA: Like the right to choose. I haven’t been challenged in those direct ways. And to that extent, I give the public a lot of credit. I’m always stuck by how much common sense the American people have. They get confused sometimes, watch Fox News or listen to talk radio. That’s dangerous sometimes. But generally, Americans are tolerant and I think recognize that faith is a personal thing, and they may feel very strongly about an issue like abortion or gay marriage, but if they discuss it with me as an elected official they will discuss it with me in those terms and not, say, as ‘you call yourself a Christian.’ I cannot recall that ever happening.
Falsani: : Do you get questions about your faith?
OBAMA: Obviously as an African American politician rooted in the African American community, I spend a lot of time in the black church. I have no qualms in those settings in participating fully in those services and celebrating my God in that wonderful community that is the black church.
But I also try to be . . . Rarely in those settings do people come up to me and say, what are your beliefs. They are going to presume, and rightly so. Although they may presume a set of doctrines that I subscribe to that I don’t necessarily subscribe to.
But I don’t think that’s unique to me. I think that each of us when we walk into our church or mosque or synagogue are interpreting that experience in different ways, are reading scriptures in different ways and are arriving at our own understanding at different ways and in different phases.
I don’t know a healthy congregation or an effective minister who doesn’t recognize that.
If all it took was someone proclaiming I believe Jesus Christ and that he died for my sins, and that was all there was to it, people wouldn’t have to keep coming to church, would they.
Falsani: Do you believe in heaven?
OBAMA: Do I believe in the harps and clouds and wings?
Falsani: A place spiritually you go to after you die?
OBAMA: What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.
When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people, and they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.
Falsani: Do you believe in sin?
Falsani: What is sin?
OBAMA: Being out of alignment with my values.
Falsani: What happens if you have sin in your life?
OBAMA: I think it’s the same thing as the question about heaven. In the same way that if I’m true to myself and my faith that that is its own reward, when I’m not true to it, it’s its own punishment.
Falsani: Where do you find spiritual inspiration? Music, nature, literature, people, a conduit you plug into?
OBAMA: There are so many. Nothing is more powerful than the black church experience. A good choir and a good sermon in the black church, it’s pretty hard not to be move and be transported.
I can be transported by watching a good performance of Hamlet, or reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, or listening to Miles Davis. CF: Is there something that you go back to as a touchstone, a book, a particular piece of music, a place …
OBAMA: As I said before, in my own sort of mental library, the Civil Rights movement has a powerful hold on me. IT’s a point in time where I think heaven and earth meet. Because it’s a moment in which a collective faith transforms everything. So when I read Gandhi or I read King or I read certain passages of Abraham Lincoln and I think about those times where people’s values are tested, I think those inspire me.
Falsani: What are you doing when you feel the most centered, the most aligned spiritually?
OBAMA: I think I already described it. It’s when I’m being true to myself. And that can happen in me making a speech or it can happen in me playing with my kids, or it can happen in a small interaction with a security guard in a building when I’m recognizing them and exchanging a good word.
Falsani: Is there someone you would look to as an example of how not to do it?
OBAMA: Bin Laden.
Falsani: … An example of a role model, who combined everything you said you want to do in your life, and your faith?
OBAMA: I think Gandhi is a great example of a profoundly spiritual man who acted and risked everything on behalf of those values but never slipped into intolerance or dogma. He seemed to always maintain an air of doubt about him.
I think Dr. King, and Lincoln. Those three are good examples for me of people who applied their faith to a larger canvas without allowing that faith to metastasize into something that is hurtful.
Falsani: Can we go back to that morning service in 1987 or 88 — when you have a moment that you can go back to that as an epiphany…
OBAMA: It wasn’t an epiphany. It was much more of a gradual process for me. I know there are some people who fall out. Which is wonderful. God bless them. For me it was probably because there is a certain self-consciousness that I possess as somebody with probably too much book learning, and also a very polyglot background.
Falsani: It wasn’t like a moment where you finally got it? It was a symbol of that decision?
OBAMA: Exactly. I think it was just a moment to certify or publicly affirm a growing faith in me.