Interfaith Family Lens: Obama at the Mosque

Persian Carpet, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

President Obama gave a moving speech about inclusion and preventing extremism at the Islamic Society of Baltimore yesterday. I saw this event, his first visit to a US mosque, through the lens of an adult interfaith child, a lens that President Obama inevitably shares. Every interfaith child (actually, every human being) has the right to choose a religious identity, and Barack Obama made a clear choice to be a Christian. As someone born into an interfaith family, as someone who has had to defend my own religious identity, I empathize with the constant battle President Obama must fight against those who try to mislabel him. My hope is that after he steps down, he will be able to speak more freely about the ways in which his interfaith family background has inspired him as a bridge-builder and peacemaker in the world.

Back in 2009, I wrote the following on this blog:

While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefited from it.

Listening to the speech yesterday, one phrase in particular caught my attention. Here is the slightly inexact quote as tweeted by Rep. Keith Ellison, the progressive Democratic congressman from Minnesota, who was there at the mosque:

Woodlawn, MD “We are one American family and when any part of it is made to feel separate or excluded it tears at fabric of whole American family” BHO

The point the President is making here is that we must counter the recent rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions. But note the metaphor: he describes America as a giant interfaith family. President Obama’s own extended interfaith family is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish in two different branches. And Rep. Ellison, who chose this sentence to tweet, is a Muslim-American from an extended interfaith family. He was brought up Catholic, has a brother who is a Protestant pastor, and raised his children as Muslims in the context of an interfaith marriage.

My point here is that we are all moving together into a world of greater religious complexity and interconnection. I see the formative interfaith family experiences of our elected officials inspiring more effective interfaith diplomacy, and the desire to reduce religious violence in the world. I heard this theme the very first time I heard Obama speak, in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. I look forward to hearing him speak out even more boldly after his term is over. And now, it looks like our next Democratic presidential nominee will be either a Christian woman with a Jewish son-in-law, or a Jewish man with a Catholic wife. Either way, it seems our nominee will see the world through an interfaith family lens.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Inauguration: Celebrating President Barack Obama and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller
Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller

Four years ago this week, we awoke before dawn, bundled our children into layers of clothing, and walked from our house to the Metro station. We wedged our family onto a subway car with throngs of neighbors and tourists, and emerged in downtown Washington DC, just as the sky began to turn pink. As we sleep-walked past the grand Constitution Hall heading towards the Washington Monument, I told my children how the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) prevented opera singer Marian Anderson from performing in that Hall in 1939. They were amazed that their own grandparents had lived through such times.

At the base of the Monument, we found a place to wait, and wait, and wait, for hours in the freezing cold, far from the Inaugural stage, facing a huge video screen. We found ourselves part of a vast, diverse crowd, our collective spirits so high that we were able to endure the long hours standing on the frosted grass, packed in side by side. The point was not to try to glimpse the tiny figure of the distant President, so much as it was to be a part of this sea of humanity–to find ourselves part of the America we had voted for when we elected President Barack Obama.

Four years later, I could complain about whether President Obama has been progressive enough. But it remains true that our image of ourselves as a country changed forever, and for the better, with his election. And his re-election proves that we meant what we said the first time. We want to try to live up to the dream Obama represents, the dream of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The convergence of this year’s Presidential Inauguration and the remembrance of Dr. King’s birthday heightens the significance of both events. For those of us in interfaith families, some of whom are also in mixed-race families, Dr. King’s dream has special resonance. The vision that “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands” inspires us as we hold hands every day with our partners, spouses, children.

President Obama chose Christianity, and he chose to identify as an African-American. As Americans, we are lucky to live in a country that does not issue ID cards stamped with race or religion: we have the right to choose our own labels. At the same time, I recognize in Barack Obama the child of a global village. I know the stories of his white grandparents, his extended African family, his years in Indonesia, his Catholic school, his love for the diversity of Hawaii. As an interfaith child and an interfaith parent, this week I celebrate Dr. King’s dream, and President Obama’s re-election. Now, we have four more years to come a little bit closer to making that dream a reality.

Being Both: Biracial, Bireligious, Multiracial, Multireligious

Today’s front-page story in the New York Times under the headline “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above” describes how mixed-race youth are claiming their right to what I call “the joy of being both.” I often write about the parallels between biracial and interfaith children. A lot of the quotes in the article from students at the University of Maryland will resonate with those of us who are “mixed-religion” children. The President of the university’s Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, when asked how she marks her race on a form, replies, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.” This is exactly my response to forms that ask for my religion.

The reporter does an excellent job of explaining that these youth are not necessarily trying to transcend the categories, they are simply “asserting their freedom to identify as they choose.” And an interfaith child should have the right to choose to be a Jew or a Christian (or whatever religion they want), or to keep the interfaith label. “All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” says another biracial Maryland student. “I want us to have a say.” And that’s what interfaith children want.

On the other hand, the realities of African-American history, of Jewish history, of the minority experience, mean that the two sides are weighted and freighted unequally. One mother of biracial black/white children told me, “I have always been crystal clear with my kids: you are black.” Many interfaith families choose Judaism for their children, for similar reasons. Be proud and stand with your people, others are going to identify you as black (Jewish) anyway, do not try to “pass.”

Nevertheless, the US census began allowing mixed-race children to check more than one box for race in 2000. A somewhat snarky line in the New York Times article attributes this change to “years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by the white mothers of biracial children.” This ignores the contributions of adult mixed-race people such as psychology researcher Maria Root, whose work was considered by the government in their decision to change the census format.

With her permission, I adapted Root’s powerful “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” into a parallel “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.” Less well known is her equally compelling “50 Experiences of Mixed Race People.” The first experience on this list: “You have to choose; you can’t be both.” Familiar, indeed.

President Barack Obama, born as both a biracial and an interfaith child, writes in his first memoir of choosing to be black, and choosing to be Christian. Part of the point that mixed-race students make in today’s article is the right to this self-identification. On the other hand, some of us claiming and exploring the positive aspects of mixedness, or bothness, can be zealous in our newfound enthusiasm. We cannot help spotting and pridefully claiming fellow interfaith (or multiracial) children. The reporter describes tension between students who claim Obama as a mixed-race President, and an African-American student who pleads, “Stop taking away our black president.”

As an interfaith child, I recognize the right of any mixed child to self-identify. I respect Obama’s self-identification, just as I recognize Gabrielle Giffords as Jewish, a choice she made after being raised with a bit of “both.” I’m not trying to take away anyone’s first Jewish congressperson from Arizona. Or anyone’s black President. But as intermarriage continues, and as the population of “both” children grows, how we label ourselves, and the labels we give each other, will inevitably continue to change.

Obama, Christian not Muslim: An Interfaith Perspective

 

A growing number of Americans, currently 18%, believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim. I have been mulling over the interfaith perspectives on this disturbing new statistic from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Obama is, in fact, a Christian/Muslim interfaith child, both by birth and through childhood experience. I identify with him because I see all of the positive interfaith traits in him: peace-making, bridge-building, the ability to see all sides of an issue.  But interfaith children have the right to choose their own labels, as I point out in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Obama has chosen Christianity, and went through the appropriate rituals to officially join a Christian denomination. That makes him a Christian, period.

2. Barack Hussein Obama is stuck with a name that sounds Muslim. Interfaith children with Jewish last names who are raised as Christians, or choose Christianity, will empathize with the President in his predicament, as will many other interfaith children who live with the cognitive dissonance of an ethnic last name that differs from their religious label. No matter what our religious beliefs or practices or choices, a segment of society will continue to judge us by our names, our noses, our hair, our skin color, accent or parentage. This is deeply frustrating.

3. Interfaith children (and converts) have to try harder. We have to perform more rituals, loudly proclaim our religious institutional affiliations, show up for formal worship, be holier and more kosher than thou, in order to convince others of our religious authenticity. This is of course unfair, and supremely annoying. Obama, burned by his enthusiasm for the “wrong” church in Chicago, tried to protect himself (and guard his family’s privacy) by not affiliating with a church in Washington. Now this strategy is backfiring.

4. Many folks, nostalgic for the (mythological) monochromatic simplicity of a white Christian America, still cannot accept Obama, despite electing him.  We are tribal, and personal religious evolution or family complexity is too subtle for many folks. Or they may understand Obama’s religion perfectly well, but simply choose to pretend to misunderstand him for political reasons.

5. Confusion is in the eye of the beholder. Often, it is not the interfaith children who are confused. Obama is not confused: he knows that he has chosen Christianity. Society is flummoxed by his complex background, appearance, behavior. The survey “shows a general uncertainty and confusion about the president’s religion,” said Alan Cooperman, associate director of research with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We are binary beings; we have trouble “getting” complexity.

 5. How sad that being Muslim in America is still so frightening. I spent last week, the first week of Ramadan, in a cabin in the mountains in West Virginia, close to the stars and the elegant new moon, imagining my Muslim friends around the world in happy iftar (break-fast) celebrations. I was off-line for that week, and blissfully unaware of the Pew poll at first, not to mention the increasing tension over the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York. Coming back to the media, to politics, to the on-line world, was hard.