Shortly after Barack Obama was first elected, a young man from Texas drove a thousand miles to the president’s former sanctuary, the Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC) in Chicago. He felt its teachings were evil, and that he had to do something about it. During the service he had a change of heart. Afterwards, he approached the pastor. “I came here to hate you,” he confessed tearfully. “But while I’ve been here, I’ve experienced the love of God.” He turned and fled the sanctuary before the pastor could find the words to respond.
A few years later, during Obama’s second term, a different young white man journeyed to a different black church. He too felt he had to take action against an evil he believed to be nourished there. And he too was surprised to find himself moved by the kindness he encountered. In this case, however, it was not enough to stop him. He drew his handgun and killed nine parishioners in the sanctuary, one by one.
Barack Obama, through no fault of his own, was implicated in both events. After his first presidential campaign brought intense scrutiny upon his hometown church, anti-American remarks uttered during sermons in the early 2000s incubated fevered conspiracy theories in the young Texan and countless others. Years later Dylann Roof massacred a Bible study group at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, because he felt blacks were “taking over” the country. It does not take much imagination to conclude the president was among those he had in mind.
Obama responded in both instances with characteristic grace. In 2008, he resigned from his beloved congregation of twenty years “with some sadness,” so that Trinity worshippers might be relieved of the constant harassment. Seven years later he delivered a eulogy for the slain worshippers in Charleston with what many consider the finest public address of his presidency.
Obama’s eulogy—and particularly his spontaneous rendition of “Amazing Grace”—reminded Americans that his Christianity had once been considered an essential part of his identity as a public figure. An enthusiastic convert when he joined Trinity UCC at age 26, Obama wrote in detail about his spiritual journey in both of his books, criticized fellow Democrats for “shying away” from religion, and kept a Bible in his car as he traveled to and from campaign events when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2004. As a candidate for president, he explicitly embraced the foreign policy doctrine of the mid-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, leading pundits to dub him a “Christian realist.”
Yet his identity as a mainline liberal Protestant has largely been forgotten. This can in part be attributed to the right’s long smear campaign against him, which has led large swaths of the population to identify him as Muslim or atheist in opinion polls. But some of it has to do with apparent changes in the man himself. After his departure from Trinity in 2008, Obama’s religiosity became far less pronounced. Unlike his two predecessors, he never joined a D.C. church and very rarely attended services on Sunday. Instead, he carried on the mainline tradition privately, through his study of and correspondence with that tradition’s most prominent contemporary writer.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, the future president picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel narrated by a fictional Congregationalist minister. (Robinson, like Obama, is a longtime UCC member.) It quickly became one of his favorite books. When the author visited the White House to receive the National Humanities Medal in 2013, the president could barely contain his enthusiasm. “Your writings have fundamentally changed me,” he said in his prepared remarks to the two dozen medal recipients, before pausing to praise one of them in particular. “I think for the better, Marilynne. I believe that.” The two spoke at length over the awards dinner and have corresponded ever since.
“I knew from our conversation at the dinner that the President is a brilliant man, and a very gracious man,” Robinson wrote later. She has called their friendship “singularly precious” and told the Daily Beast that Obama “would make a fine theologian. That’s about the highest praise I can offer to anyone.”
Obama and Robinson’s correspondence culminated with the two meeting in Iowa City in 2015 for a formal conversation, which the White House arranged for publication in the New York Review of Books. The discussion’s focus is the contrast between the basic decency that Obama and Robinson attribute to Americans—arguably the central subject of Gilead and its two sequels—and the rise of a paranoid, distrustful political culture. “I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people,” Robinson says. They agree that when Americans cease to presume the goodness of their fellow citizens, political life is debased by the imagined infiltration of a “sinister other.”
Obama then inquires about Robinson’s theological views. “Well, I believe people are images of God,” she responds. “Democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this religious humanism at its highest level.” Robinson has long argued some version of this in her lectures and essays. And she has insisted that for Obama, as for her, “faith in democracy is simultaneous with his religious faith.” With the above account she has outlined the worldview for which this is true: I recognize in myself the image of a God that I can never fully comprehend. Because of this, I must assume that others like me are endowed with a divine grace that is equally unique to them. Therefore, they must be just as worthy of political rights and privileges. In Robinson’s view, this is the intellectual tradition responsible for America’s greatest democratic achievements: abolition, common education, voting rights.
I opened this essay with two vignettes that epitomize what Robinson and Obama call grace—the wondrous incomprehensibility of the divine manifest on earth—which can forge redemption from even the most unforgiving sources. In the first of these encounters, a man had so thoroughly internalized myths about the “sinister other” that he drove one thousand miles to castigate a church full of people he did not know. Instead, their devotion thawed his hardened heart. If there is such a thing as divine grace, it is what dislodged years of indoctrination in the young Texan, moving him to proclaim that he found the “love of God” at the temple of those he considered evil.
That the second of these encounters ended in violence rather than reconciliation does not mean that God’s grace was absent. Instead, according to Obama, it was simply deferred. “Out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us,” he declared in his eulogy for the parishioners in Charleston. Dylann Roof was unwittingly “used by God,” because what followed his intrusion was not the race war he sought but instead, in Obama’s view, “big-hearted generosity and, more importantly… a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.”
Introspection, self-examination, generosity—these are the virtues cultivated by Obama and Robinson’s theology. Robinson’s novels center on characters who exercise these virtues in the face of an incomprehensible, sometimes cruel universe. Obama surely had these books in mind when he composed his speech. “What’s called upon,” he said, is “what a friend of mine, the writer Marilynne Robinson, calls ‘that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.” He continued to applause, “If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”
Obama’s plea in Charleston was for the nation to carry over these common virtues, so prevalent in local contexts, into the political realm. “It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits,” he implored the nation, “whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.”
It’s been more than a year since the president delivered this plea, and many would argue that we have in fact slipped into old habits. Yet the former president’s faith remains strong. “I’m asking you to believe,” he implored the American people in his final speech in office, “Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours.” It is ironic that, more than a decade after he delivered his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama would again find himself calling on us to eschew a “politics of cynicism” and embrace a common denominator of goodness and decency and hope. I do not use the word “ironic” lightly. Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama’s other theological touchstone, argued that a person (or nation) might suffer an ironic failure when the exercise of a particular virtue is so stringent that it becomes a vanity, a mere reflex that harms the ends it seeks.
When Niebuhr assessed postwar America in The Irony of American History, he identified it as simultaneously tragic, pathetic and ironic. It was tragic because the rise of totalitarianism forced it to engage in war to maintain global peace, pathetic because its own unlikely rise to global preeminence was due largely to factors Americans themselves could neither predict nor control. Obama the realist understood both the country’s tragic responsibilities and its pathetic contingencies. (What a relief this was after the messianic certainty of the Bush administration.)
It’s not clear, however, whether the former president thought much about irony, which Niebuhr argued was a “more revealing” aspect of the American experience than tragedy or pathos. “Our age is involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history,” he wrote. In calling attention to irony, Niebuhr emphasized “an existential awareness of the limits, as well as the possibilities of human power and goodness.” For Niebuhr, the irony of the American experience was that the same qualities that made it exceptional could be embraced so thoroughly and fanatically that they became pretensions. One must wonder if the former president, with his eschatological faith in the triumph of American democracy through the good faith and good sense of its citizens, embodies one such pretension.
Marilynne Robinson, too, seems uninterested in irony. One turns to her novels instead for pathos. Niebuhr wrote that one could “transmute pathos into beauty by the patience with which pain is borne or by a vicarious effort to share the burdens of another.” This is a near perfect description of the effect of Robinson’s fiction—and of what she and Obama call grace.
At the end of Gilead, the narrator John Ames writes to his young son, “What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and old hope?” Ames sees these ruins manifest in the dying town that he loves, which relives the virtuous glories of its abolitionist past because there is nothing else left for it to do. “This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary some more,” he admits. “But hope deferred is still hope.” It’s a conclusion reached with such effortless elegance that it feels wrong to expect any irony from it. But politics is a worldly discipline. Had Obama been the disciple of Niebuhr that he claimed to be, at some point he would have had to acknowledge that a hope deferred ceases to be hope.