It is difficult to tell whether Mr. Obamaâ€™s religious and political beliefs are fused or simply run parallel. The junior senator from Illinois often talks of faith as a moral force essential for solving Americaâ€™s vexing problems. Like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Edwards, his fellow Democratic candidates, he expresses both a political and a religious obligation to help the downtrodden. Like conservative Christians, he speaks of AIDS as a moral crisis. And like his pastor, Mr. Obama opposes the Iraq war.
His embrace of faith was a sharp change for a man whose family offered him something of a crash course in comparative religion but no belief to call his own. â€œHe comes from a very secular, skeptical family,â€ said Jim Wallis, a Christian antipoverty activist and longtime friend of Mr. Obama. â€œHis faith is really a personal and an adult choice. His is a conversion story.â€
The grandparents who helped raise Mr. Obama were nonpracticing Baptists and Methodists. His mother was an anthropologist who collected religious texts the way others picked up tribal masks, teaching her children the inspirational power of the common narratives and heroes.
His motherâ€™s tutelage took place mostly in Indonesia, in the household of Mr. Obamaâ€™s stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, a nominal Muslim who hung prayer beads over his bed but enjoyed bacon, which Islam forbids.â€œMy whole family was Muslim, and most of the people I knew were Muslim,â€ said Maya Soetoro-Ng, Mr. Obamaâ€™s younger half sister. But Mr. Obama attended a Catholic school and then a Muslim public school where the religious education was cursory. When he was 10, he returned to his birthplace of Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attended a preparatory school with a Christian affiliation but little religious instruction.