A senator's spiritual journey: UCC's Barrack Obama talks faith, politics

A senator's spiritual journey: UCC's Barrack Obama talks faith, politics

August 31, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

More-moderate religious perspectives "do not have voice" within the media, says U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and it's something he's working to change.

"I think it is unfortunate any time the media does not accurately portray the true beliefs of the American people," Obama, a member of Trinity UCC in Chicago, told United Church News. "There are millions of religious Americans who are offended when their faith is used as a tool to attack and divide, and who see a positive role for the church in solving both social and moral problems.

"To the extent that media programmers do not give voice to these Americans, I am disappointed and hopeful of change."

Interviewed on June 28 on the heels of a major address on the connection between religion and politics at the "Pentecost 2006: Building a Covenant for a New America" gathering in Washington, D.C., Obama cited the welcome he received by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the teachings of the UCC as an important underlying factor in his public service.

"Just as my pastor welcomed me as a young man years ago, UCC churches across the country open their doors to millions of Americans each Sunday, and they accept, love and counsel all who enter," Obama said. "This spirit of inclusiveness has served as a model for me in my time in the Senate, and the love for one's fellow man that the UCC stands for is the foundation of my work."

Reconciling faith and pluralism

Obama used his speech at the Pentecost 2006 event - sponsored by Sojourners / Call to Renewal - to call for continued dialogue and bridge-building between religious conservatives and progressives, reminding his audience that each had work to do to achieve meaningful discourse.

Obama spoke of his own faith story, and likened his path to becoming a member of Trinity UCC to that trod by "millions upon millions of Americans."

"It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values," Obama said. "And that is why, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own . we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse."

"I think it's time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy," said Obama. ". If we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway."

After Obama's speech, the crowd of about 500 gave Obama a standing ovation.

Jim Wallis, Sojourner's editor-in-chief and host of the event, took the stage following Obama's speech. "I hope you realize what you've heard here," Wallis told the audience. "This will be an address that will be quoted for years to come."

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund and a speaker at the conference, described Obama's address as "very, very, very thoughtful."

Respectful, fair-minded dialogue

Obama told United Church News that religious principles can be drawn upon to help shape both national security and social justice concerns.

"I believe that democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal values," Obama said. "Social justice and national security are both universal values, values that may originate for some in their religious beliefs, but are shared by us all."

"I think it is up to individual pastors and faith leaders to help guide religious Americans in prioritizing what is in their own holy books," he added. "But when these priorities come to the Senate floor, I can tell you that the universal values of both security and justice for all motivate my work."

During his speech, Obama said dialogue must continue between all people of faith, but United Church News later asked Obama how one knows when dialogue is no longer fruitful and when we must - as Jesus said - "shake the dust from our feet."

"In the political arena, there is almost always time for dialogue," Obama replied. "Even if you've lost on a given issue, it will likely come up again in the future. So I'm always open to engage with others, even those who disagree with my positions, as long as the dialogue remains fair-minded and respectful."

"When it strays from those principles," he concluded, "there may have to be a little 'dust-shaking.'"  

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