One measure of the usefulness of any book lies in its power to provoke a reader to mindfulness of alarming conditions in one's community, one's universe, or one's own spirit. As I read and pondered Stephen Mansfield's The Faith of Barack Obama, I became increasingly mindful of certain alarming paradoxes in American political life in 2008:
* How bizarre it is that personal character is usually kept off the table in political discourse while a candidate's religion is now considered fair game. When a scandal occurs, as it so often does nowadays with Democrats, Republicans, and preachers, it is always a scandal of character, not of one's stated religion.
* The central organizing principle that underlies the uses of religion and spirituality in American political life is bold hypocrisy and outright deceit. This has been true for decades, or perhaps as long as religion has been so used, but it seems especially clear today.
* Despite abundant evidence - not least in Obama's presence itself - that we live in a post-homogeneous America, our politics are relentlessly constrained by homogenizing talking heads who are always willing to stoop low to achieve the populist posture of a "gotcha" moment in which they use association or innuendo to say, of Obama or anyone else, "See, he's not like us!"
The aforementioned condition of rampant hypocrisy is not limited to one political party or one religious denomination. It is widespread. It is not my intention to cast stones here, but simply to state what should be obvious.
Religious self-presentation has become a routine element of political campaigns, often with no more rigor than might be involved in a candidate's assertion, for instance, that she had "always been a Yankees fan." No wonder, then, how often such calculations backfire with the drawing back of the curtains and the attendant protestations that we should "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
I recall a long period in my own adult life when I might have argued that Stephen Mansfield's inquiry into the spiritual journey of Barack Obama, however elegant in its composition and thorough in its supporting research, was insignificant almost by definition. Like millions of others who were inspired by John F. Kennedy's public persona, I grew up believing that religion should have no role in politics. Even if America's mid-century notions of pluralism and tolerance operated within the boundaries of a seemingly homogeneous culture, they appealed both to our basic sense of decency and to our fuzzy notions of a living constitution that worked.
Those notions have come under relentless attack for decades, so that we are less likely to recoil reflexively from the very idea of a book such as Mansfield's, as I and many others once did at titles such as Senator Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative or William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale.
I wonder if Mansfield's book would have the same bookshelf appeal that it has today if it had been published under the title The Character of Barack Obama. That seems a bland alternative. But when I finished reading Mansfield's book and put it down, what impressed me most was that I felt that I had just read a book of considerable rigor and thoughtfulness about Obama's character and its origins, rather than anything so specific as a book about his religious faith.
I cannot fault Obama for fronting his "faith" as he has done, or Mansfield for writing about it. Without falling into a potentially dull recitation of second-hand news, Mansfield's narrative manages to do justice to the extremely damaging - and, of course, deceitful -- smear campaigns of guilt-by-innuendo and guilt-by-association that have tarred Obama as a Muslim extremist and, by selective use of the quotations of former Pastor Jeremiah Wright, as a bitter and unpatriotic black man. Under such stress, I don't know if there is any other way for Obama to fight back, and I appreciate Mansfield's chronicle.
But I admit that I will be somewhat more interested, if Obama is elected (as I hope that he will be), in an updated chronicle of the testing of his faith during his tenure as president. Whatever the ability of any campaigner to dance righteously across the religious dance floor of contemporary presidential politics, it is when a candidate becomes president that he (or, in the event of two very plausible circumstances, she) embarks upon a season of relentless preaching from America's most powerful pulpit.
Should such a book become appropriate, I hope that Stephen Mansfield will write it.