Written by J. Bennett Guess
Obama a member of denominations largest congregation, the 10,000-member Trinity UCC in Chicago since 1988 has spoken often about his profession of faith, his membership in the socially progressive UCC and the need for Democrats to take seriously the concerns of religious Americans.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCCs general minister and president, said the denominations only organizational interest in Obamas candidacy is that his faith and his religious tradition be discussed accurately within the media.
Our churchs rich historical legacy is interwoven with the history of this nation, and the heritage of the United Church of Christ makes it clear that faith is to be expressed actively in public life on behalf of the community and the world, Thomas said. While it is not appropriate for the church to advocate for any one candidate in electoral politics, I am proud that Sen. Obama is an active UCC member and speaks to many of the values that our church holds dear.
Obama wrote about his faith and his UCC membership in the August-September 2006 issue of United Church News, the UCCs national newspaper.
You come to church in the first place precisely because you are of this world, not apart from it, Obama wrote. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away, because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey. It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity UCC on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith.
In November 2004, during his acceptance speech following his election to the Senate, Obama expressed appreciation for the support of Trinity UCCs members. The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Trinity UCC, is one of Obamas close spiritual advisors and is credited with giving inspiration to the title of Obamas bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope. Obama says he first heard Wright use the phrase in one of his stirring sermons.
Trinity UCC has been a true community to me a place in which the mind, heart and soul come together to celebrate God&'s goodness, Obama told United Church News in 2004.
The UCC is a Cleveland, Ohio-based denomination of more than 5,700 congregations, located in all 50 states. Often confused with the much-different Churches of Christ, the United Church of Christ is one of the oldest and youngest church bodies in the United States.
Formed by name in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the UCCs roots in American history are deep. Eleven signers of the Declaration of Independence were from UCC traditions, and a full 10 percent of present-day UCC congregations were formed prior to 1776.
Many UCC churches trace their founding to the early 1600s, when the Pilgrims and Puritans first came to America. These Congregationalists, as they became known, sought religious independence from persecuting political authorities in Europe. They believed firmly in local church autonomy, covenantal church life, personal piety and the priesthood of all believers.
Today, the UCC holds firmly to these early religious tenets. Often recognized for its historical and contemporary social justice commitments, its present-day approach to worship, however,might be considered traditional by most standards.
Interestingly, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, published in 2002, found that UCC members, slightly more than members of other mainline denominations, listed traditional hymns and biblically-sound preaching as being essential to good worship. Surprising to some, the same study also found that slightly more UCC members self-identified as conservative rather than liberal a tidbit that President Calvin Coolidge, a conservative Republican and the nations only Congregationalist president (1923-1929), might have found interesting.
Although each congregations liturgical style is influenced by its heritage and members preferences, as is true in most mainline denominations, the UCC, as one pastor aptly put it, is known for its beautiful, heady and exasperating mix.
Known for arriving early on social justice issues, the churchs history includes being the first to practice democracy in church governance (1630), the first to ordain an African-American pastor (1785), the first to ordain a woman (1853), the first to ordain an openly gay man (1972), and the first to support same-gender marriage equality (2005).
In 1773, Old South UCC in Boston helped inspire the Boston Tea Party and, in 1777, Old Zion Reformed UCC in Allentown, Pa., hid the Liberty Bell from occupying British forces.
Hundreds of schools including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Howard, Fisk, Wellesley, Smith and Oberlin owe their beginnings to the UCC. The UCCs publishing company, The Pilgrim Press, is the oldest publisher of books in North America.
Obama and his family live in Chicagos Hyde Park neighborhood, which is home to Chicago Theological Seminary, one of the UCCs seven seminaries and the citys oldest institution of higher education.
Largely regarded as a northern church, about 80 percent of UCC members are clustered in the Northeast and industrial Midwest. The UCC is the largest Protestant church in New England, the birthplace of Congregationalism, and it has more than 700 churches in Pennsylvania, the heart of the German Reformed tradition. The UCC is also strong in New York, Missouri, Florida, Hawaii and the Pacific West Coast.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with early Presidential contests, the UCC has 188 and 138 congregations respectively.
In recent years, the UCC has posted growth in the South. The denominations second largest church, the 5,500-member Victory UCC near Atlanta, affiliated with the UCC in 2002. The UCCs fourth-largest, the 4,300-member Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, joined in 2006, as did churches in Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Columbia, S.C., among other places.
Last year, the UCC launched its national Nehemiah Project with plans to start or welcome at least 250 new southern churches within five years.
While Obama looks to be the only UCC candidate in the 2008 presidential election, the 2004 campaign included two UCC members, both Democrats. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chair of the Democratic Party, is a member of First Congregational UCC in Burlington, Vt., and then U.S. Senator Bob Graham is a member of Miami Lakes Congregational UCC in Florida.
The current U.S. Congress includes 10 UCC members five Republicans and five Democrats.
Five U.S. Senators are UCC Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Obama.
Five House seats are occupied by UCC members: Thelma Drake (R-Va.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).
Other notable UCC members include New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D); former U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.); actress Lynn Redgrave; current U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall; Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper columnists Connie Schultz (and wife of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio) and Leonard Pitts Jr.; and Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Gilead.
The Rev. Andrew Young former congressman, U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor is an ordained UCC minister, who began his Civil Rights activism working for the UCC.
The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the legendary social activist who became immortalized as the pastor in Gary Trudeaus Doonesbury comic strip, had ministerial standing in the UCC and served as pastor of the UCCs Riverside Church in New York.
The Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, a UCC minister considered to be one of greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century, authored the now-famous Serenity Prayer.