Religion in the Age of Obama

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Editor(s): 
Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Anthony B. Pinn
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     2018.
     264 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350041035.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Wedged between two Republican presidents—one a self-avowed Evangelical and the other, the recipient of more of the white evangelical vote than his Republican predecessor—Barack Obama and his presidency’s relationship to religion should arouse curiosity. In Religion in the Age of Obama, editors Juan M. Floyd-Thomas and Anthony B. Pinn acknowledge that the curiosity over a man who garners equal amounts “public love and hate” (2) has led to countless attempts to analyze the Obama phenomenon. But what motivates this book, according to the editors, is the politically massaged, theologically nuanced nature of not only Obama’s religious language, but also the religio/political climate that set the stage for his presidential candidacy. From insidious questions about Obama’s own faith, to some of Obama’s policies that seem to run counter to his religious values, to Obama achieving almost divine status for many (Satan to others), to the difficulty inherent in a black president leading a predominantly white country, there is much to explore. Religion in the Age of Obama expertly addresses these and more as we look back at the significance of Obama’s eight years in office through the prism of Trumpism. 

In their introduction, the editors foreground Obama’s improbable rise against the previous eight years of the [George W.] Bush presidency—one marked by “ineptitude, terror, and belligerence” (5). Obama emerges as the “sepia-toned smiling savior” (5) who nods at the authenticity of social gospel theology but dulls its edges by continually advocating for a retrieval of “a shared moral and ethical standard” (5). The editors note that Obama’s biraciality, his exposure to wildly varying religious ideologies as a child, and his desire to enter high-level politics encouraged him “to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything” (7). It was Obama’s political dexterity that was enabled by this ambivalence which garnered broad appeal and produced novel policy involving religion.

The first of the three sections of the book, entitled “Faith in Politics,” contain essays that approach “the intersection of government and personal faith claims” (12) from assorted angles. Max Perry Mueller offers a penetrating look at the ways in which 2008 candidates Obama and Mitt Romney navigated their own political difficulties that were entangled with religious issues. Kathryn Lofton, in her inimitable style, highlights Obama’s attractive qualities that make us “feel good” in a spiritual sense—Obama could save us, redeem us (43). His story, style, and personality need a certain packaging and distribution to resonate. It is the “Oprahfication” of Obama that commodifies his image into a shiny, salable product that Lofton critically dissects. 

The next section, “The Politics of Moral Vision,” tacks from personal faith in the Obama age to the “moral-ethical underpinning of activities and policies during the Obama years” (13). Essays that historically situate Obama era policy on social welfare, capitalism, and women’s rights as viewed through the Hobby Lobby case populate this section. Of particular note is Floyd-Thomas’s essay on the role of “Black Prophetic Discourse” as it is made manifest in response to the post 9/11 global war on terrorism. Floyd-Thomas adroitly weaves the “moral outrage” of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and rapper Lupe Fiasco, who direct their indignation at Bush and Obama respectively, with Obama’s own “optimistic pragmatism” towards the wars that he inherited (127). Without championing one stance over the other, Floyd-Thomas manages to call our attention to the diversity, and therefore strength, of African American voices speaking on just wars.

Part 3, “On Race/ing Belief,” contains essays addressing “embodied human difference and issues of justice” as they interface with the presidency of the first black leader of the United States. In one essay, Pinn evaluates the relationship between the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement that arose during Obama’s presidency and Obama’s own politics of race. Obama’s “allegiance to a racial ‘uplift’” (145) based on overarching ideals that apply to all individuals is critiqued by BLM’s “interrogation of the structuring” of those very ideals that fail to reckon with racist policies (147). Keri Day’s chapter, “When White Is the ‘New Black,’” offers the reader a particularly insightful analysis of the somewhat ironic rise of radical white populism alongside Obama’s election. Day persuasively argues that the mere presence of a black man in the Oval Office ran cover for a sly resurgence of white supremacy as purportedly, “structural racism no longer exist(s).” Therefore, Obama’s rhetoric and policy that highlighted racial disparity proved to many Americans that whites are now the new victims of “structural oppression” (135). Day’s assertion that the desire to return to a mythical state of “Christian purity” helped—and continues to help in the new Age of Trump—buttress this white populist ideology.

Any endeavor to capture a concept as multivalent as “religion” within an “age,” no matter the time period, is daunting and sure to disappoint. Yet Floyd-Thomas and Pinn furnish us with a much needed book that begins a conversation rather than ending it. They admit that their focus on the domestic realm of Obama’s administrative outreach neglects its international policies and effects, but scope demands exclusion (15). In addition to their conscious blind spot, there were several essays that performed admirable historical, cultural, and political surveys of certain landscapes, but either did not discuss religion or merely mentioned it in passing. Some of those surveys end with a very brief treatment of the Obama years, but the title of the book suggests that religion plus Obama would be central throughout.

Still, Religion in the Age of Obama stands out amongst the spate of books on his presidency. Often, it is the task of the religion scholar to excavate religion where it is not explicit. Oddly, religion was often center stage in Obama’s overall presentation, and right behind enemy lines in the mouths and pens of his detractors. It is for this reason that this book, which moves deftly between overt religious expression and covert religious ideology, is not only a crucial addition to the scholarship on the Obama years but also to the field of religion and politics. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey Scholes is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
March 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Juan M. Floyd-Thomas is Associate Professor of African American Religious History at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Anthony B. Pinn is Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, and Director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning (CERCL) at Rice University.

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