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.

Scores of pundits, from loud-hailers such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to average-Jane armchair political enthusiasts, unearthed the transcript of that 2004 interview. Hundreds emailed me directly to share their conclusions about the president's spiritual leanings.

Depending on who was doing the reading, two polar-opposite portraits of Obama emerged. Some concluded that he is, in fact, a spiritual charlatan who says he is a Christian but who is actually something wholly "other." A Muslim. A Universalist. A secular humanist. Perhaps even, as more than a few have suggested, the Antichrist.

Still others read the interview transcript and saw the portrait of a man of a complicated and modern, refreshingly honest Christian faith -- warts, doubts, and all. They saw a person of faith much like themselves, for whom traditional labels of "liberal," "conservative," or "progressive" do not apply -- at least not neatly.

Obama told me in no uncertain terms that he has a "personal relationship with Jesus," and that he is "rooted in the Christian tradition." Yet plenty of people persist in believing that Obama is lying when he speaks of his Christian beliefs.Why? It is a question that persists for me as a journalist and, more poignantly, as a person of faith.

Is it because President Obama is a person of color, different in that way from all the presidents before him? Is it fear of the unknown, in much the same way that Kennedy's Catholicism was cause for anxiety in some quarters 50 years ago? Or does doubt linger -- and fear prevail -- because Obama is a Christian and even uses certain "religionese" from evangelical Christian culture when he talks about his faith, yet governs, thinks, and believes politically in ways that make some of his evangelical constituents uncomfortable?

That old Obama interview is a mirror. What readers see reflected in it says far more about the condition of their own souls than it does about the president's. They find a kindred spirit or a supernatural enemy, depending on preconceived political and spiritual notions established long before they began reading.

They do not take the president at face value. They believe their own assumptions or fears, reflected brilliantly or grotesquely in the mirror of Obama's naked words, to be the gospel truth, as if anyone besides the Creator can judge the quality of a person’s heart. They see only what they want to see.

Hindsight is 20-20. Fifty years hence, history has proven there was nothing to fear in Kennedy’s Catholicism -- except perhaps fear itself.

Cathleen Falsani is author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.

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