Obama has spoken often and eloquently about the importance of religion in public life. But like many political leaders wary of offending potential backers, he has been less revealing about what he believes—about God, about prayer, about the connection between salvation and personal responsibility. In some respects, his reticence is understandable. Obama’s religious biography is unconventional and politically problematic. Born to a Christian-turned-secular mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist African father, Obama grew up living all across the world with plenty of spiritual influences, but without any particular religion. He is now a Christian, having been baptized in the early 1990s at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. But rumors about Obama’s religion persist. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 12 percent of voters incorrectly believe he’s Muslim; more than a quarter believe he was raised in a Muslim home.
His baptism presents its own problems. The senior pastor at Trinity at the time of Obama’s baptism was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the preacher who was seen damning America on cable TV for weeks last spring—and will doubtless be seen again this fall. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, almost half of the respondents say Obama shares at least some of Wright’s views; nearly a third say Wright might prevent them from voting for the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The story of Obama’s religious journey is a uniquely American tale. It’s one of a seeker, an intellectually curious young man trying to cobble together a religious identity out of myriad influences. Always drawn to life’s Big Questions, Obama embarked on a spiritual quest in which he tried to reconcile his rational side with his yearning for transcendence. He found Christ—but that hasn’t stopped him from asking questions. “I’m on my own faith journey and I’m searching,” he says. “I leave open the possibility that I’m entirely wrong.”