An unlikely speculation about Mr O

florida avenue meetinghouseThe BBC’s outgoing North America editor, Justin Webb, writes:

The other fascinating development in recent days has been the end – or not – of the Obamas’ search for a church.

I have suggested it before but let me lay it on the line here in black and white: THE MAN IS A QUAKER. He may not yet know it but that is where his search should end. There is a lovely Meeting House somewhere around Dupont Circle as well so he could get there easily.

I think the meetinghouse Webb is referring to is the one on Florida Avenue, which was originally built so that Herbert Hoover, the first Quaker to occupy the US presidency, would have a grand place to worship. 

Elsewhere, Webb identifies himself as “the product of a Quaker school so am incapable of lying.”  So I suppose he must be in earnest, though I can’t seem to find why he thinks that Mr O is a Quaker.  Perhaps it has something to do with his ethnic background.  The country with the largest number of the world’s Quakers is Kenya, B. H. Obama, Senior’s homeland; though virtually all of them are members of the Luhya tribe of western Kenya, not the Luo tribe from which the elder Mr O sprang.  Despite the similarity in the names “Luo” and “Luhya,” the two peoples are quite unrelated.  So I doubt that would be it.

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  1. cymast

     /  July 7, 2009

    Presumptive statements from Webb! I’ll make a less presumptive statement: Obama’s church will always be Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, in his heart. And if Webb’s Quaker schooling makes him incapable of lying, it also makes him incapable of several other things.

  2. acilius

     /  July 8, 2009

    I don’t get the impression that Obama has many beliefs, either as regards religion or any other topic. You could interpret that favorably, and say that he isn’t weighted down with a lot of unnecessary opinions; that interpretation might come naturally to an Obama fan like Webb. And Quakers often do try to keep from getting too attached to particular ideas, so that might be what he’s thinking of when he declares that Mr O is a Quaker. A less friendly observer might think that Mr O is unprincipled, willing to do whatever seems likely to help him get ahead. The fact that he has been elected US president would certainly support this hypothesis.

  3. cymast

     /  July 8, 2009

    The longer you support a doctrine (for example, regularly attending a specific cult/church for many years), the more you tend to believe that doctrine.

    Obama may not have many beliefs, but from what I’ve read about him- written by supporters, detractors, and by Obama himself- I think the beliefs he has are egocentric, naive, and racist.

  4. acilius

     /  July 8, 2009

    I certainly agree that people tend to fit their beliefs to suit their actions, and that the more involved a pattern of behavior is, the more deeply the beliefs that suit it are likely to be ingrained in them. On the other hand, I don’t believe that Mr O’s attendance at Trinity UCC reflects any belief other than his belief that Trinity was a well connected church that could help him get elected. As a mostly African American church with a charismatic, well-known pastor who occasionally made Afrocentric noises, it could help him appeal to poor blacks in Kenwood. As a parish of the socially liberal United Church of Christ, it could allow him to make the unambiguously pro-gay, pro-science remarks he had to make to keep from alienating highly educated white liberals in Hyde Park.

  5. cymast

     /  July 8, 2009

    Obama was a signed member of and attended TUCC for over 2 decades. Rev. White, as Obama put it, was his “spiritual mentor.” Obama was married in the church. I don’t know how all that could’ve happened without Obama being indoctrinated to some degree. Sure, Obama was/is an opportunist, a glad-hander, and a showman, but he is also human. BTW Obama is also anti-gay by his actions/inactions.

  6. acilius

     /  July 8, 2009

    The topic of cognitive dissonance and religious belief has come up in an email discussion I’ve been having with some friends lately. Here are extracts:

    Interlocutor, discussing “Islamic finance“:

    I guess it can be “viewed” as “extreme,” when people apply “religious guidelines” to seemingly “curious” areas like banking.
    Hence vigorous sarcastic “hand washing”,,,
    But coming out of a “religio-cultural zone” where norms are routinely cast in religious idiom,
    these “Islamic-norm financiers” might be simply deploying their religious “materiel” in a different fashion
    from what we’re accustomed to, without truly being “more religious” than the typical “Great Satanite.”

    Acilius, responding:

    Good point! Of course it raises a question of whether you really can have a habit of casting norms in a religious idiom “without truly being “more religious”” than someone who doesn’t have that habit. Some say you can’t. Pascal, in the Pensees, writes that a non-believing friend who wanted to become religious once asked him how he could do it. Pascal’s answer was, go to church. Light candles. Say prayers all day, and fast at the appointed times. Offer a tithe. Keep pious company. Soon, you’ll find yourself believing in all the things you wish you could believe in. Psychologists talk about “cognitive dissonance,” saying that when people find themselves behaving in ways that conflict with their beliefs, they usually change their beliefs to suit their behavior. So Pascal’s friend might have asked himself, “Why the heck am I doing all this stuff?” and been ill at ease until he answered himself “Because I believe in it.”

    Second interlocutor:

    I like Pascal’s thought about ritual leading to belief, that’s true for many people. Ritual reinforces community and religious thinking (if performed with a lot of like-minded folks with sincerity). Alternatively, that comment could also be seen as a jab at such behavior: religious conviction isn’t so strong, it’s simple obedience and repetition of symbolic actions with like-minded folks. I know you believe the force of habit to be strong, A. For myself, I know that I participated in Catholic ritual for years and never came close to feeling I was religious, that I had the particular faith of those around me, or even that I belonged there. Leaving aside individual issues, family, etc., I’ll agree that many other people go through the same rituals I did and do in fact come out Catholic in the end, due in no small part to their repetitious actions.

    I’d draw a line between true religiosity/belief and a religious culture. We probably all know people who aren’t truly, deeply committed to their faith and its implications, yet who participate in religious communities and outwardly, perhaps even inwardly, consider themselves good, pious people. For many this is satisfaction enough. For others, even non-believers, the rituals and community are themselves of value–belief doesn’t really matter anyway.

    Some Muslim countries–Iraq, I’m looking at you–appear to look, smell, and act all Islam-y all the time, but even there the split is evident between true believers and workaday participants in a dominant religio-cultural zone. Not everyone in Iraq is a flagellating pilgrim. I’m sure many are agnostic or even unconcerned about G–, etc., even as they live basically according to the ZONE’s norms.

    In the USA, for G–‘s sake, virtually every politician has to act all X-istiany, because the politico-religio-culturo-zone-o requires it. Doesn’t make them Christians, certainly doesn’t make them good Christians.


    I think Pascal’s story is most valuable coupled with the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance. If you can’t make sense of your actions without changing your beliefs to suit them, that’s when you are likely to change your beliefs. If you can be satisfied with “Man, why does my Dad keep dragging me to this fucking church?,” then you’ll probably stay the same. Likewise with politicians. If the guy is actually getting votes by going to church, it doesn’t matter what is being preached around him. He probably won’t feel any anxiety if his beliefs contradict it, or if he doesn’t have any beliefs at all aside from “This will help me win, that won’t.”

  7. cymast

     /  July 8, 2009

    Wow, thanks for putting that up!

    For my own personal note, I attended Sunday school growing up, went to a Christian college, had all Christian friends, and attended my friends’ Christian churches for a while. After school I worked as a child care provider at a Christian church. The whole time I was in that religious/Christian environment, I felt I was different, that I was missing something that they had that made them believers. Or maybe I had something that they didn’t that made me a non-believer. So I guess I was in the “Man, why does my Dad keep dragging me to this fucking church?” category. Except it wasn’t my Dad dragging me, it was me.

  8. believer1

     /  July 9, 2009

    If Obama is religous I hope he continues his search for a place to worship. He will need it in the years to come to give him some peace while he does a very inportant, stressful job called being president of the USA.

  9. acilius

     /  July 9, 2009

    I’m sure you’re right, Believer. Judging by the Quaker meetings we’ve seen, I’d expect that to be a peaceful place.

  10. cymast

     /  July 10, 2009

    Yes, a Quaker church would be peaceful, but I think he should be true to his heart. That is, if he knows how.

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