The most detailed and fascinating explication of Barack Obama's faith came in a 2004 interview he gave Chicago Sun-Times columnist Cathleen Falsani when he was running for U.S. Senate in Illinois. The column she wrote about the interview has been quoted and misquoted many times over, but she'd never before published the full transcript in a major publication.
Because of how controversial that interview became, Falsani has graciously allowed us to print the full conversation here.
Falsani is one of the most gifted interviewers on matters of faith, and has recently published an outstanding memoir called Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. To get a free download of the audio book, click here.
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At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, 2004, when I was the religion reporter (I am now its religion columnist) at the Chicago Sun-Times, I met then-State Sen. Barack Obama at Café Baci, a small coffee joint at 330 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago, to interview him exclusively about his spirituality. Our conversation took place a few days after he'd clinched the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that he eventually won. 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," that eventually became my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People (FSG, March 2006.) Because of the staggering interest in now President-Elect Obama's faith and spiritual predilections, I thought it might be helpful to share that interivew, uncut and in its entirety, here.
Interview with State Sen. Barack Obama
3:30 p.m., Saturday March 27, 2004
Café Baci, 330 S. Michigan Avenue
He: alone, on time, grabs a Naked juice protein shake
What do you believe?
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 his hand. "Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Thank you.")
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.
Have you always been a Christian?
I was raised more by my mother and my mother was Christian.
Any particular flavor?
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 afterschool programs for youth, or making sure that city services were fairly allocated to underserved communites.
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.