Where is the old Obama?: Lisa Miller talks religion

Aug 11, 2011

Join religion columnist Lisa Miller as she chats about how religion impacts the news. Have a question? Join her Thursday August 11 at 12 p.m. ET as she answers your questions and discusses the week's big religious story.

This week, Miller will talk about her recent column, "Believers wonder: Where is the old Obama?," in which she writes, "What a relief this was for millions of believers exhausted by the mean certainties of the religious right. Here was a man who would strive for perfection even as he failed to achieve it, and who would use government as the instrument of that striving. Where is that man now?"

Rick Perry's prayer rally was organized, I understand, by the New Apostolic Reformation. What can you tell us about them? If they believe the Rapture is going to happen soon, how soon?


the best source for this story is the Texas Observer https://www.texasobserver.org/cover-story/rick-perrys-army-of-god, which published on the connection between Perry and New Apostolic Reformantion. I haven't delved deeply into this, but I will say, based on a quick scan of the conversation that we should be very careful when we look at various charismatic/pentecostal sects as freakish. All religions -- especially those with miracles -- can look bizarre to outsiders. (Think about what the Hebrews must've thought when Moses described the burning bush!) Why is a dead carpenter coming alive after three days any more credible than the Angel Moroni pointing Joseph Smith to golden tablets? Etc.


Where do you think he lost his values along the way? Or is it even a matter of "losing" them?

I think the story addresses  your question. Obama puts compromise/diversity/pluralism at the very top of his list of values. But unfortunately, compromising doesn't give you much if you don't know what you're compromising FOR. You need a fixed principle, first and foremost.

It seems as though Obama has been beaten senseless by the hatred from the far right. How should a man stand up to such hatred, especially a man that is so willing to bend that it seems he has no backbone?

I like James Forbes's answer. "Here I stand, I can do no other." In that same conversation, he also quoted Esther. "If I perish, I perish." He needs to take a big risk now, articulate his values/principles clearly and make it clear that he's more than a politician seeking a second term


Barack Obama is the reincarnation of Jimmy Carter. Neither had sufficiently long high-level political experience to prepare them for the job. Neither campaigned on policy specifics, but ran on "I personally embody what you want in a President." They won because the Republicans had totally messed things up.
Both are honorable men, whose personal virtues are admirable, but neither could make the rough and tumble of nuts and bolts politics work.

I'm not sure I agree with this. I do agree that "why can't we all get along" isn't an appropriate stance for a president right now. But Obama has achieved much. No matter what you think about it, he passed the health care bill. I think about his race speech often. The daggers were out for him and with incredible imagination he took control of the conversation. 

Why is it important to have a religious president in office? Is there any sort of proof that this helps?

I personally don't think it's necessary. I think Americans expect it and they don't generally like atheists in office. However, I do think it's necessary for a president to have thought through --deeply -- what his values are, what they're rooted in, and to have some humility in the face of great trouble.

What should Obama be compromising for? I think many feel like he's compromising too much - so should he be better at compromising for certain things? And not everything?

Exactly. My column argues he needs to be clearer with us (and maybe with himself) about what his first principles are, so when he does compromise we know what he's compromising for.

Can you tell me where to find the verse where "Jesus says 'Occupy 'till I come'"?

luke 19 -- the parable of Jesus and the tax collector

Frankly, I don't think that the right has attacked Obama any more or any worse than Bush was attacked by the left. Bush was reviled, attacked, mocked as much as Obama is now. Let's face it, that's just part of the political games we play here. And I think in both cases, the men's religious faith allowed them to move forward despite the hatred. Allowing you to find inner strength under outside attack is one of the more positive aspects of having a strong faith.

I think he has the creativity and imagination to do it. But he needs to do it in a strong way and not let himself be too handled/managed.

I remember the first time I first heard about Barack Obama. Not being from Illinois, didn't hear about his victory there or the 2004 DNC keynote address in Boston. He was on the cover of some Newsweek-style magazine (might have been Newsweek actually) and I was read it in the waiting room of my dentist. What struck me was how overtly religious he was. He would have put Rick Perry to shame. Then Jeremiah Wright came along and you suddenly didn't hear then Sen. Obama talk about his faith anymore and thank the Lord for that. "My faith guides me" from leaders always bugs me a bit.

No question that Wright put Obama in a box when it came to telling his religion story. But if you read "Dreams From My Father," you see just how much Trinity meant to him, and how much relief he got from being in a church community. I've always thought of Obama as extremely cerebral, and I think the experience of church genuinely affected him. Because of Wright, he couldn't draw clear lines from his church experience to himself, but even so, his broad sense of faithfulness came through during the campaign. I interviewed him about his religion (for Newsweek!) during the campaign and I found him genuine and thoughtful on matters of faith.

How do reputed "religious" members of Congress square their deep cuts to social programs that help the poorest of the poor with their espoused religious views? There isn't much in the bible about helping the rich, but there does seem to be a passage or two about taking care of the poor, downtrodden, etc.

I wrote about this last week! http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/christians-on-both-sides-of-budget-battle-claim-to-fight-for-the-poor/2011/08/04/gIQA1EzLuI_story.html

So, in a sense, the values of the political figure is what matters, not necessarily religion. This is interesting considering all the hoopla around the potential of a Mormon president or the deal that was made when Kennedy (a Catholic) was elected. Can you separate values from religion? Or are the two too intertwined?

My answer is personal.  I firmly believe that you can be a good president and not religious. However, if I were advising a presidential candidate about this question, I'd say he/she has to tell a convincing religion story. I think people don't like religions that seem strange/foreign/threatening. Which is what Catholicism was when Kennedy ran and Mormonism is today. I do think, though, that public acceptance of Mormonism, while still low, is growing.

How does Pres. Obama (or anybody really) square the cherrypicking of their religious views esp. in terms of same-sex marriage? I mean his religious prohibits capital punishment yet Obama supports that or religion prohibits the marriage between a divorced man an a woman if the man's first wife is still alive. I don't get the cherrypicking views.

Yes. It's frustrating. Everyone does it and has always done it. We've cherry picked the bible to support and oppose slavery. women's rights/suffrage. divorce. Re: gay marriage, I like to think the Bible's message of love and acceptance  is stronger than its sanctions against homosexuality.

Did Obama really move many religious folks in his rise to the Presidency? I mean, he moved people to vote for him, but I don't think that his religious views were key to this. As an evangelical Christian, most of the evangelicals that I know would not and did not vote for him because of what they viewed as an inconsistency between his stated religious belief (Christianity) and some of his stands on what I'll call moral issues.

Evangelical voters did go for Obama but not in dramatically high numbers. Especially younger evangels (18-29) who are broadening their concernst to the environment and social justice stuff and AIDS -- they did vote for him much more than they did for Kerry, eg.
But older evangels did not. Obama got more evangel votes than Kerry did but you couldn't say that he represented a sea change in the evangelical world. You could say, though, that his concerns and the concerns of a new generation of evangels were aligned.


Which is worth for the so-called "value voters" or Evangelical Protestant electorate? That Pres. Obama's father was a Muslim or an Atheist?

both are pretty bad in their view. polls say that people like atheists slightly less than they do muslims. A Gallup poll says that half of americans (48) say they'd refuse to vote for an atheist and more than a third (38 percent) say they'd refuse to vote for a muslim for president.

How do you quantify how much Romney's Mormon fatih will effect voters who are evangelical? Won't Perry's outspoken evangelical voice hurt him with more centrists and general public so it will be a wash politically?

too soon to say, but yes. The republican party is already divided between fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. the fiscal conservatives will want an establishment candidate like romney -- and they won't care so much about religion, as long as he says the right things (that's why he signed the anti-gay marriage pledge) . the social conservatives will go for perry or bachmann. These aren't absolutely discreet groups, of course. 

I've always wondered and still unsure if how Obama and his campaign reacted to him being called a Muslim by them calling it a "smear" or pointing out a lot that his mother was never a Muslim and he was devout Protestant and canceling events at Mosques (he was suppose to speak at a Mosque near me in Iowa but never came)... was that good or bad for American Muslims? It is a "smear" to be Muslim if you're not or just no worst then calling Obama right-handed and he's actually left-handed?

Well, it's a smear because there isn't widespread bias against right-handed ppl and there is widespread bias against Muslims.

Perhaps President Obama has failed by not framing issues in a way that would essentailly say it is truly a Christian belief to help the poor and feed the hungry. To say that to love each other is really how we can show that we love God.

Yes, I think he has failed by not emphasizing our responsiblity to each other enough. This goes for the investment bank folks and the poor and everyone in between. We share a common future.

Do you think the issue of displaying the Ten Commandments on state property will figure much in the 2012 election ?

No. I think the issue will always crop up and from time to time will make headlines but in 2012 folks will have a lot more important things to think about when it comes to casting votes.

The President would do well to take your advice on this, because I think it would not take him long to rearticulate his sense of purpose. I cannot imagine what 24 months of withering, personal attack does to a leader, esp. one predisposed to look for (and expect) the best in people. He is not the same man he was even a year and a half ago, but can be again.

thanks! I hope he does.

Historically, did religion always play a big part in Pres. elections? I don't remember Regan talking publicly about his religon or even going to church very often. I doubt if Jefferson would be about to even get elected now with his views. When did this change?

Absolutely. Reagan was essentially elected by the religious right/Moral Majority who got together and decided he was their candidate. Ironic, of course, because he was divorced and didn't go to church much. But he was a kind of old-school pro-life, anti-porn "family values" candidate who could reflect their views about what family life should look like.


that's it for me! thanks for chatting. see you next week.

In This Chat
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
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