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Obama’s dialogue with Marilynne Robinson is the most revealing interview of his presidency

Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

According to a September 2015 CNN/ORC poll, 29 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. The numbers rise as the respondents move right: Among Republicans, 43 percent believe Obama is lying about his Christian faith and is secretly Muslim, and among Trump supporters, 54 percent are convinced that Obama is Muslim.

It's darkly funny to keep that poll in mind while reading Obama's revealing interview with author Marilynne Robinson. The interview is an unusual document in the annals of the Obama presidency, as it's not an interview of Obama, it's an interview by Obama. He chose the subject, and he asked the questions.

"We had this idea that why don’t I just have a conversation with somebody I really like and see how it turns out," Obama says. And Obama really likes Robinson, the author of the gorgeous book Gilead. "I love your books," he tells her. "Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully they’ll go out and buy your books after this conversation."

Obama's obvious adoration for Robinson's work is an interesting counterpoint to the religious rumors that have clouded Obama's presidency. Robinson is one of America's most celebrated Christian authors. Her novels are meditations on faith. Her masterwork, Gilead, takes place from the point of view of a Christian pastor, and is, in Slate's lovely description, "a spiritual meditation on the mystery of God's grace."

Obama's discussion with Robinson is personal, literary, and political. Their relationship predates the interview; Obama tells the reader that he met Robinson when she received an award at the White House, and "we had dinner, and our conversations continued ever since." The book of hers he seems to know best is the aforementioned Gilead — "one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames," he says, referencing the novel's narrator.

The interview, read closely, feels like it travels worn grooves in a debate Obama and Robinson have been having for some time. Robinson is a pessimist about American politics — she worries that we have begun to see the other side as a "sinister other," and tells Obama "that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy."

Obama — the man who is, for many conservatives, the embodiment of that sinister other, all the way down to the doubts about his birthplace and his faith — plays the comforter in chief. "We’ve talked about this, though," he tells Robinson. "I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get — I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments."

Robinson does most of the talking, and Obama is most interested in drawing out the convergence of her faith and her politics. "I believe that people are images of God," he prompts Robison to say. "There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level."

Obama's response is telling:

How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

I don't think it goes too far into psychoanalysis to suggest that, in this exchange, you can hear Obama struggling to understand how so many Christians have found it so hard to believe that he worships the same God they do, and loves the same country they do. And if that's right, perhaps it helps explain his attachment to Robinson's books. "One of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?" he says.

Correction: Robinson had only published three books, but in fact she's published four novels and some collections of nonfiction. I've got some reading to do...

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