The Secular Humanist in President Obama’s Life

What would it take for a fatherless black man, who grew up in a progressive, yet somewhat chaotic, lower middle-class family and spent most of his childhood moving from place to place, to become the 44th President of the United States?

Last week on the popular podcast WTF with Marc Maron, President Barack Obama joined the comedian to discuss childhood, race, religion, fatherhood, the world, and everything in between. Maron’s interview turned out to be a candid and intimate look into Obama’s early life. They discussed the struggles of finding identity as a teenager and what it was like for Obama to grow up as a fatherless African-American male in America.

By the age of twenty, Obama realized:

A lot of the ideas that I’d taken on—about being a rebel, or being a tough guy, or being cool—were really not me. They were just things that I was trying on because I was insecure or I was a kid. And that’s an important moment in my life, although also a scary one, because then you start realizing, “Well, I actually have to figure out what I really do believe, and what is important, and who am I really.”

He also acknowledged that he was never raised in a particularly religious household and always saw his mother as a progressive person:

I always call her the last of the great secular humanists. She thought all religions had something to say and she thought all cultures were fascinating and…we’d go to church for Easter sometimes…but she instilled in me these core values, that for a while I thought were corny, and then right around twenty, you start realizing, you know honesty, kindness, hard work, responsibility, looking after other people, they’re actually pretty good values.

Interestingly enough, his father was a self-proclaimed atheist, though his influence was absent from Obama’s life.

So what religion does President Obama ascribe to, really? Despite having formally been baptized into the United Church of Christ in 1988, where he remained a member until 2008, his religious beliefs have been in constant question because he never formally became a member of any church afterwards (though he purportedly now worships with a Southern Baptist pastor at Camp David). “Is he Muslim?” is what you may hear from the more close-minded Americans who suspect his middle name may be an indicator. “Perhaps he is an atheist!” is what some more progressive hopefuls would suggest.

Whatever his personal beliefs, they seem to be a hodgepodge of positive values that were unquestionably passed down from his mother, who he calls “the biggest influence in [his] life.” Is it possible to have a leader, albeit not perfect, but effective nonetheless, who is capable of demonstrating the values of “honesty, kindness, hard work, responsibility, looking after other people” without learning those values in a church? It seems President Obama is a great example of strength, love, and power, and all it took was gratitude, determination, and a dedicated parent. President Obama, you may not call yourself a humanist, but your values would suggest otherwise.