When Stephen Mansfield, a former evangelical pastor whose last bestseller was The Faith of George Bush, decided to research and explore the faith of another political leader—Barack Obama—the last thing he expected was to get attacked by the political and religious right. His book on Obama is not even on the shelves yet, but he’s already been accused of multiple forms of treachery, and the hate mail is flooding in. How did this come about?
Stephen Mansfield is a man of faith. He was a pastor for twenty years and refers to himself as a “Christian writer” and a “patriot.” He has written several books about other men of faith, including, most recently, one about Tom DeLay. In No Retreat, No Surrender, Mansfield was able to conclude that, in spite of legal troubles and an apparently insatiable lust for power, “The Hammer” (as DeLay has been called) is unquestionably a man of faith. But that’s a story for another day.
Now, Stephen Mansfield has taken the road to what his publishers believe will be another smash hit; a book that examines the faith of Senator Barack Obama. The book is published by Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest Christian publisher, and will be released to retail outlets—including Christian stores, Wal-Mart, and secular bookstores—some time around the first week of August.
But here’s where the trouble begins.
In the run-up to its publication, Mansfield did an interview with Ben Smith, a writer for Politico.com (the online wing of the Politico news organization). In the column, titled “Bush Backer Pens pro-Obama Book,” Smith writes that the book’s “tone ranges from gently critical to gushing, and the author defends Obama—and even his controversial former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—from conservative critics, and portrays him as a compelling figure for Christian voters.”
According to Smith, “Mansfield’s book is addressed to Evangelical readers, and it raises some questions about Obama’s own faith, including his willingness to see contradictions in the Bible, his belief that religions other than Protestant Christianity provide other ‘paths’ to a ‘higher power,’ and his doubts about the afterlife.”
Smith also reported that Mansfield said in the interview that he entered Trinity having heard “that Obama’s church was a cult, something un-Christian, that Reverend Wright was a nut,” but emerged with the view that it is “a pretty solid Christian church.”
In the context of the 2008 election, at at time when there is a great fear on the right that Obama might lure some evangelical voters away from the less-than-exhilirating McCain camp, these are apparently fighting words.
In a blog post on June 17 titled “An Internet Mugging,” Mansfield defends himself, insisting that he was not “gushing” over Obama and that he had not “defended Jeremiah Wright”: “I have explained him. I gave an overview of his life, explained black liberation theology (asking experts to check my work) and then I took the reader inside of Trinity Church in Chicago where months before I spent a good deal of time trying to understand. Explaining is not defending except for those who prefer a life of uninformed hate.”
He also disagreed with Smith that he “had written a pro-Obama book that would draw evangelicals away from McCain.” And he pleads with the right-wing Christian readership that has pre-judged his book to remember that “being a Christian and a conservative is not tantamount to having a brain bypass.”
While Mansfield claimed to understand that when you write about politics and religion, one expects to get criticized from one quarter or another. Nevertheless, he wrote on his blog that he was unprepared for the response he’s received from the Politico.com piece.
“Everyone is drawing conclusions from a single article on a single political blog,” Mansfield wrote, “…my secretary has been fielding dozens of emails assuring that I am going to roast for all eternity. I’m deceived, serving Satan, in the employ of Obama, in the employ of McCain, in the employ of Oprah, and I’m apparently not going to be alive on Election Day.”
Mansfield apparently got McClellanized by his fellow Christians: “if I as a public Christian and former pastor can be treated like this by Christians, then I suppose people like Al Franken and Hillary Clinton must get even worse from church folks. So, why would they ever think of embracing the God of people filled with such hate? It is a miracle any of them do.”
Historical or Hysterical Revisionist?
While Mansfield may feel that he was sold short by Politico.com’s Ben Smith, others, who have spent a great deal more time with Mansfield’s work have found it both troubling and in some cases lacking in depth.
Describing a USA Today column by Mansfield titled “The Founders got it right: Religion now rests in a tortured place in society today, thanks largely to unfortunate and misguided rulings of the Supreme Court,” Don Byrd of Talk2Action wrote that Mansfield “called up all of the standard church-state myths and mis-directions: that the Founders intended America to be a Christian nation, that religion is being stripped from the public square, that there is no constitutional wall of separation, that preachers are now forbidden from speaking out on the issues of the day by godless ‘storm troops’ like the ACLU…”
In a piece titled “Stephen Mansfield vs. Mikey Weinstein,” published by The Public Record on June 17, Chris Rodda, a Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an expert on historical revisionism and a frequent contributor to the blog Talk2Action, discusses the rebroadcast of a segment of an HDNet Dan Rather Reports program titled “Christian Soldiers,” (originally aired on October 2, 2007), which features Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of MRFF and Stephen Mansfield.
“When his last book, Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America … and What’s Happened Since, came out last summer,” Rodda wrote, “Mansfield joined the ranks of the Christian nationalist history revisionists, perpetuating, in some cases through near-plagiarism, the lies of pseudo-historian and former Texas Republican Party chairman David Barton, a man who Mansfield described in the book’s acknowledgements as a friend and mentor.”
Rodda also commented on Mansfield’s 2005 book, The Faith of the American Soldier, “a book in which he … defend[s] and prais[es] Gen. William Boykin and his 2003 ‘sermon,’ in which he stated, referring to the capture of Somali warlord Osman Atto, ‘I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.’” According to Rodda, Mansfield said that “Gen. Boykin gave many in the field just the kind of warrior code they needed to fulfill their duties with moral passion.”
In an extensive, and highly-documented, review of Mansfield’s Ten Tortured Words, Rodda, pointed out that the book was shot full of a series of historical errors and noted that “Mansfield makes David Barton, whose masterpiece of historical revisionism, Original Intent, is listed in the bibliography of Ten Tortured Words, almost seem by comparison to be the real historian he claims to be.”
Rodda concludes the three-part review by writing: “… given that Stephen Mansfield’s extensive historical research for Ten Tortured Words seems to have consisted of simply copying from other revisionist history books, and also that he doesn’t appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, I have to wonder if this best-selling author even realizes that he is spreading an inaccurate and deceptive version of American history to a new and wider audience.”
I am not Ben Smith. I am not connected to Politico.com. And I haven’t had the opportunity to read the Mansfield book. I do, however, take Mansfield at his word that he wrote The Faith of Barack Obama because “there are certain lives you have to understand in any age in order to understand the times.” Whether Mansfield was the right person to tell the Obama story remains to be seen. We’ll leave the sorting out of that question in the capable hands of folks like Chris Rodda.
Meanwhile, the buzz created by Politico.com piece and Mansfield’s quick response might have achieved at least one thing; an audience primed and pumped to read the book.