"AS A GENERAL RULE, I am more prone to listen to those who are as outraged by the indecency of homelessness as they are by the indecency of music videos."
So saying, Barack Obama suggests we should be on the lookout for consistency in the way that faith and moral values are applied in politics and public life.
The presidential candidate argues this and other themes in his book, "The Audacity of Hope," the title of which is drawn from a 1988 sermon by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago.
Obama became a member of Trinity and was baptized into the Christian faith there as a young adult. In making this choice, he found the roots he had been searching for. If Obama's anthropologist mother gave him wings, at the church he found roots.
"I came to realize that without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to remain apart, free in the way my mother was free, but also alone in the same way she was ultimately alone."
How does Obama's faith shape his view of the world and influence his politics? Some clues emerge in Obama's response to an interviewer's question about the most influential American theologian of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr.
From Niebuhr, Obama said, "I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate these things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."
In deftly summarizing Niebuhr's thought, Illinois's junior senator provides insight into his own. Unlike some religious liberals, Obama understands that there's real evil in the world and that saying "peace" will not bring it about.
But unlike many contemporary religious conservatives, Obama believes that we must be humble and modest in our ambitions as well as in our claims for our own virtue. In contrast to the evangelical fervor of President Bush and his grand idea of bringing freedom and planting democracy, Obama appears to be a man of more modest hopes. Modest hopes, hope tempered by realism, and awareness of our own fallibility are themes Niebuhr brought to American life and theology.
Obama's faith also affects his views toward those with whom he disagrees. "It would be helpful, in debates touching on matters of religion, if we could resist the temptation to impute bad faith to those who disagree with us." The presidential candidate's generous instincts, instincts supported by his actions, are rooted in a faith that is reminiscent of another Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln.
"We must talk and reach for common understandings," Obama said, "precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side."
Such a view inclines Obama to attach positive values to a quality that many religious radicals disdain, compromise. He views compromise not as a negative, as inevitably a retreat from conviction or principle, but as a positive principle in itself and one that is fundamental to the American union.
Obama burst on the national political scene in 2004 when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. "The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states."
With such words, Obama challenged the stereotypes and polarized frameworks that have dominated American life for too long.
For Obama, faith means both answers and questions. "There are some things I am absolutely sure about -- the Golden Rule, the need to battle cruelty in all its forms, the value of love and charity, humility and grace." But faith also means modesty and caution.
"All of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side." Obama's faith appears to be a crucial element in shaping and supporting his effort to move beyond polarization in search of a new center for American life and politics.