Sunday, January 28, 2007

Obama's liberal pastor has a huge following
Manya Brachear, Columbus Dispatch, courtesy of Titus 1:9

[Editor: This is particularly interesting because Rev. Wright is African-American, and his congregation seems to be largely so. The United Church of Christ is not, to my knowledge, a largely Black denomination.]

CHICAGO — When he took over Trinity United Church of Christ in 1972, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. was a maverick pastor with a wardrobe of dashikis and a militant message. Six years later, he planted a "Free South Africa" sign on the lawn of his church and asked other local religious leaders to follow his lead.

None did.

The sign stayed until the end of apartheid, long enough to catch the eye of a young Barack Obama, who visited the church in 1985 as a community activist. Obama, not a churchgoer at the time, found himself returning to the sanctuary of Trinity United. In Wright he found both a spiritual mentor and a role model.

Wright, 65, is a straight-talking pragmatist who arrived in Chicago as an outsider and became an institution. He has built a congregation of 8,500, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey and hip-hop artist Common, by offering an alternative to socially conservative black churches.

Obama also came to the city as a young unknown. Emerging from relative obscurity with his win in the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat, he found a growing audience by preaching the politics of social justice and common ground. He has encouraged Democrats to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of Americans.

Obama says that rather than advising him on strategy, Wright helps keep his priorities straight and his moral compass calibrated.

"What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice," Obama said. "He’s much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I’m not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that’s involved in national politics."

The rebellious son of a Baptist minister, Wright was hired by Trinity United when he could find no Baptist church to take him. The congregation on 95 th Street, then numbering just 87, had recently adopted the motto "Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." They did not mind his fiery red Afro and blackpower agenda.

Wright has continued on an independent path, often questioning the common sense of Scripture, objecting to mandatory prayer in schools and clashing with clergy who preach prosperity theology, a popular notion among black pastors that God will bestow wealth and success on believers.

In the process, he built a spiritual empire. The modest brown brick building that housed the church in the 1970s was converted into a day-care center when Trinity opened its new sanctuary in 1995 at 400 W. 95 th St. Members run more than 80 ministries, including an outreach to gay and lesbian singles, also unusual for a black church.

Wright now wears three-piece suits on occasion, but he still dons a dashiki most times he preaches. Obama has said he is particularly inspired by Wright’s ability to draw followers from all walks of life — celebrities and welfare recipients, Ph.D.s and GEDs.

Wright again bucked convention by announcing plans to retire in May 2008 and tapping the Rev. Otis Moss III as his successor. Many black pastors do not surrender their pulpits even when they become too feeble to serve, said the Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School who met Wright in the 1980s.

Wright’s willingness to "surrender leadership" demonstrates a humility that sets him apart, Hopkins said.

Wright said the decision was not hard. "The church is built around the personality of Jesus, not Jeremiah Wright," he said.

"Many of us who had grown up in very traditional denominations were all transformed by the civil-rights movement and were beginning to question how our faith intersected with our actions," said longtime Trinity member Iva Carruthers, who is helping Wright launch a church grammar school.

Wright sought to build on the black theology of liberation introduced in 1968 by the Rev. James Cone of New York, by emphasizing Africa’s contribution to Christianity rather than that of mainstream white theologians.

"To show there is an independent form of thinking there about religion that stands on its own, that’s really more life-giving than what you get from Europe," Cone said. "Black people who come from that approach have a very healthy understanding of who they are."

The success of Trinity did not come without sacrifice.

"Growing up in the church was kind of bittersweet," said Wright’s daughter Jeri, who developed a church publication into the nationally distributed Trumpet magazine. "That’s when his daily life consisted of his service to God’s people. I’ve always loved going to church and going to worship. At the same time I felt my church took my father from me."

She credits her mother, Janet, for helping her understand.

"It was my mother that taught us to separate the man from the ministry," his daughter said. "No matter what happened in our lives, she never wanted us to have any ill feelings toward the church or toward our father. ‘Yes, he is your father, but when he steps behind that sacred desk he is God’s messenger, and never confuse the two.’ "

It was a harder lesson to live. Janet and Jeremiah Wright eventually divorced, which the pastor describes as his greatest failure. He has since remarried and had another daughter, Jamila, and with his wife, Ramah, he sees a counselor regularly.

Wright has spoken in Columbus several times. In 2004, he was the keynote speaker at the city’s Martin Luther King Day breakfast.

In his 1993 memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama recounts in vivid detail his first meeting with Wright in 1985. The pastor warned the community activist that getting involved with Trinity might turn off other black clergy because of the church’s radical reputation.

When Obama sought his own church community, he felt increasingly at home at Trinity. Before leaving for Harvard Law School in 1988, he responded to one of Wright’s altar calls and declared a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Later he would base his 2004 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention on a Wright sermon called "Audacity to Hope," also the inspiration for Obama’s second memoir, The Audacity of Hope.

Last fall, Obama approached Wright to broach the possibility of running for president. Wright cautioned Obama not to let politics change him, but he also encouraged Obama, win or lose.

Wright said, "Picture some kid who lives in Hyde Park or over in Ida B. Wells Homes or Washington Gardens, who will see Barack and say, ‘My God, I can one day be that.’ The amount of hope that it will give to kids who society has written off just in terms of them changing their concept of what is possible is going to be immeasurable for generations to come."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


January 24, 2007

Obama and the UCC

This is a story I really wanted to avoid but the reality is that questions about Presidential candidate Barack Obama's religious background keep coming up in the media. For the United Church of Christ, it's the elephant in the room.

To it's credit, the UCC isn't grandstanding on Obama's membership with Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago while media outlets absurdly speculate about his attendance at a Muslim school in Indonesia - when he was a little kid.

To me, this is a non-story on a number of levels.

First, Obama doesn't exactly come off as a religious zealot and he certainly does not come off as someone driven by a religious agenda - so why are questions coming up about his faith?

Secondly, he seems like a decent guy... a "nice guy". While he's still a rookie Senator, he has plenty of positions on the record that someone could legitimately challenge or question... so why should his faith mean anything?

Lastly, lets not forget the last time a UCC Presidential candidate's faith was questioned. Howard Dean, another Presidential candidate who was hardly a religious icon, was creamed in the media when he mixed up Old Testament books with the New Testament books. Although the incident demonstrated Dean's lack of knowledge about the Bible, it hardly illuminated anyone to his qualifications as President.

There is another reality here that should concern UCC members. There is an attempt by some in the media to wrongly connect the views of UCC leaders and specific churches to Obama. Yesterday's editorial in Business Investors Daily is probably most inflammatory:

Obama said he was drawn to Christ after college while working with black churches on inner-city projects. Soon he knelt "beneath the cross" at one of them, he said in a recent speech, and "embraced Christ." If he were Muslim, this act alone would be punishable by death.

Trouble is, Obama embraced more than Christ when he answered the altar call 20 years ago at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Southside Chicago. The 8,000-member church describes itself as "unashamedly black" and holds classes in "African-centered Bible study." He also pledged to honor something called the "Black Value System," which is a code of nonbiblical ethics written by blacks for blacks.

This is what should give American voters pause.

According to its Web site, Trinity puts the "black community" first. Black members are encouraged to pursue education and skills exclusively to advance their community, and allocate their money exclusively to support "black institutions" and black leaders.

In short, it preaches from the gospel of blackness and black power. There's little room for white Christians at Obama's church. It disavows the pursuit of "middleclassness" — code for whiteness — arguing that middleclassness is a conspiracy by white leaders to keep talented African-Americans "captives."

The problem is that the editorial doesn't connect the belief system at Trinity UCC to Obama. As a Presidential candidate, Obama certainly exposes himself to questions about his beliefs, but shouldn't he be judged by what he says and how he acts?

We might as well accept it now that we will see more mistakes like this in the media as pundits try to piece together what Obama's belief system. To draw any conclusions about Obama based on his membership at Trinity UCC would be a huge mistake. As much as it disturbs the national offices of the UCC, the membership of the church isn't as monolithically liberal as our leaders portray us to be in the media. From Wikipedia:

In 2001, Hartford Institute for Religion Research did a "Faith Communities Today (FACT)" study that included a survey of United Church of Christ beliefs. Among the results of this were findings that in the UCC, 5.6 percent of the churches responding to the survey described their members as "very liberal or progressive," 22.4 percent as "somewhat liberal or progressive," 23.6 percent as "somewhat conservative" and 3.4 percent as "very conservative." Those results suggested a nearly equal balance between liberal and conservative congregations. The self-described "moderate" group, however, was the largest at 45 percent.

In essence, it would be premature to attach the values of a single church or our national leaders on Obama.