Barack Obama's Religious Beliefs and Background

The Former President Is More Religiously Diverse and Secular Than Most

Former President Obama with his head bowed

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Barack Obama's religious background is more diverse than that of most prominent politicians. But it may prove to be representative of future generations of Americans who grow up in an increasingly diverse America. His mother was raised by non-practicing Christians; his father was raised a Muslim but was an atheist by the time he had married Obama's mother.

Obama's stepfather was also Muslim, but of an eclectic kind who could make room for animist and Hindu beliefs. Neither Obama nor his mother were ever atheists or identified with atheism in any way, but she raised him in a relatively secular household where he learned about religion and the different beliefs people had about them.

Not Raised in a Religious Household

In his book "The Audacity of Hope", Barack Obama writes:

I was not raised in a religious household. For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness. However, in her mind, a working knowledge of the world's great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology.
On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.In sum, my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well.

Some Religious Education

As a child in Indonesia, Obama studied for two years at one Muslim school and then two years at a Catholic school. In both places he experienced religious indoctrination, but in neither case did the indoctrination take hold. During Quranic studies he made faces and during Catholic prayers, he would look around the room.

Chooses Baptism in Christian Church as an Adult

Eventually, Barack Obama abandoned this non-conformism and skepticism to be baptized as an adult in the Trinity United Church of Christ, a denomination which emphasizes the freedom of the individual conscience over adherence to creeds or hierarchical authority. This is similar to traditional Baptist Christianity and something that is honored more in theory than in practice when it comes to the Southern Baptist Convention. Several historical creeds and catechisms are used by the United Church of Christ as statements of what their faith, but none are used as "tests of faith" which a person must swear upon.

Beliefs of the United Church of Christ

A 2001 study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found the denomination's churches are fairly evenly split between conservative and liberal/progressive beliefs. Official policy statements from the church leaders tend to be more liberal than conservative, but the denomination is organized in such a way that disagreements by individuals churches are allowed. For example, the United Church of Christ is the largest Christian denomination to come out in favor of "equal marriage rights for all," which means full marriage rights for gay couples, but there are many individual churches which do not support this.

Other famous members of the United Church of Christ include Barry Lynn, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Dean, and Jim Jeffords.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Barack Obama's Religious Beliefs and Background." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Cline, Austin. (2020, August 27). Barack Obama's Religious Beliefs and Background. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Barack Obama's Religious Beliefs and Background." Learn Religions. (accessed June 1, 2023).