Kennedy and Obama: The Faith Question

Jan. 20, 2011, marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, our nation's first (and still only) Roman Catholic head of state. At the time, Kennedy's Catholicism was a matter of great public debate and, in some quarters, great alarm.

What did it mean to the presidency to have a "papist" sitting in the Oval Office? Would his first allegiance be to the pope rather than the American people? Collective hand-wringing ensued. But no one doubted whether Kennedy was what he said he was: a Catholic.

Half a century later, interest in the president’s spirituality has not waned. The religious predilections of our current president, Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president -- and the only U.S. commander in chief to have familial ties, however tenuous and nominal they may be, to the Islamic tradition -- is perpetual fodder for heated debates in the public square.

But something has changed since Hatless Jack took the oath of office. Today, some don't believe the president when he says what he believes about God. It is a troubling progression.

Nearly seven years ago, I sat down with Obama, then a young state senator running for national office for the first time, for a lengthy interview about his faith. When my "spiritual profile" of Obama ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, it was greeted with modest interest, mostly for the novelty of a Democratic candidate speaking at length about religion. To date, that interview remains the most exhaustive Obama has granted publicly about his faith.

When a Pew poll last summer showed that nearly one in five Americans believes Obama is a Muslim (rather than the Christian he actually is), a virtual tidal wave of renewed interest in that old interview hit my email inbox.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2011
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