Obama tells church right 'hijacked' faith
By Manya A. Brachear
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 24, 2007
HARTFORD, Conn. -- They came to hear a prophet. Some believe they did. Others heard just another politician.
More than 10,000 members of the United Church of Christ rose to their feet at their convention in a hockey arena here on Saturday to applaud one of their own who happens to be a Democratic presidential candidate -- Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Weaving biblical imagery with political promises, Obama, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side, encouraged those in the audience to follow their consciences and fight for a better America.
"Doing the Lord's work is a thread that's run through our politics since the very beginning," Obama told church members. "And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America -- a principle we all must uphold and that I have embraced as a constitutional lawyer and most importantly as a Christian -- means faith should have no role in public life."
He also accused the Christian right of "hijacking" Jesus to polarize the public.
"Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together. Faith started being used to drive us apart," he said. "Faith got hijacked partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us.
"At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design," he said.
Obama offered a list of alternative "matters of conscience," including raising the minimum wage, adopting universal health care, stopping genocide in Darfur, Sudan, ending the Iraq war and embracing immigration reform.
He said today's challenges are "moral problems, rooted in societal indifference, individual callousness, the imperfections of man, the cruelties of man toward man." Only once did Obama come close to making an overt political appeal, when speaking of health care, an issue the 1.2-million member denomination champions.
"I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health-care bill into law by the end of my first term as president of the United States," he said, drawing a prolonged standing ovation.
Obama was invited to address the church for its golden anniversary celebration before he was a candidate.
The UCC was formed in 1957 by a consolidation of the Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed traditions. Its progenitors ordained the first African-American, the first woman and the first openly gay pastor. It was also the first denomination to approve same-sex marriage.
Some conservative Christian bloggers have questioned Obama's ties to his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who preaches a theology of black empowerment.
While many church members hid "Obama '08" stickers under their lapels, those on the fence about the coming presidential primaries said they looked forward to learning about the candidate in their midst.
Still, others cringed when the crowd clapped or cheered during the speech. Steven Small, a UCC member from West Boylston, Mass., said the meeting was nothing but a "Democratic pep rally."
"I don't think it's an appropriate role for such an inclusive church to showcase a candidate for the left," said Small, a registered Republican. "What does that say to the rest of us who happen to be part of this church?"