Barack Obama (D-Ill.), pictured with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (r.), is one of six UCC members in the United States Senate. RNS photo.
Religion News Service
CHICAGO - U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's pastor sounds frustrated. Although his sermons are passionate, even fiery at times, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a man with soft gray eyes and skin the color of latte, is normally even tempered.
But when talking about how religious conservatives have pushed issues such as gay rights and stem cell research into the forefront, his voice becomes taut and his rebuke direct.
Those who focus on these issues are building themselves up at the expense of others and, while the Bible has many references to right and wrong, Jesus only spoke against people who judged others, Wright says.
"Are you following Jesus when you are vilifying people?" Wright asks. "The answer to that question is no."
It's no coincidence that Wright's response to these issues is similar to that of Obama, Illinois' newest senator and one of the Democratic Party's leading lights in trying to frame traditional liberal issues as moral and religious imperatives.
Obama met Wright 20 years ago in the process of trying to get Chicago's Trinity UCC involved in some community organizing he was doing. Ever since, Obama has been a devoted member of the church where Wright is the senior minister.
Obama says that Wright is not only his pastor, but he also is his friend and mentor. And Wright is one of the people to whom he turns help him explain how his liberal positions jibe with his faith.
The fact that Obama chose Trinity UCC is no accident. In a sea of conservative black churches, Trinity stands out in that it has welcomed in gay members, done outreach to people living with AIDS and advocated progressive positions on many social issues.
In 1977, the church had a "Free South Africa" banner across its front and, in the 1990s, it responded to Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March by creating a committee to work on local social issues.
Today, Wright is quick to call those who voted for President Bush "stupid" and chastise the public for letting issues like housing for the poor "fall off the radar screen."
Trinity also is unique in that it is seen as a church of the well-to-do black community in Chicago. Besides Obama, Oprah Winfrey has gone there, as have many of the city's television news personalities. But Wright says this image of his church is misleading.
"It comes from people looking at the cars in the parking lot and seeing all these Mercedes and the way people are dressed," he says. "But it doesn't count the people taking the bus and what you wear really doesn't mean anything about your income."
The church recently did a survey and found that about 1,000 of its 8,000 members are in an upper-income bracket. Wright says many others are on welfare or jobless, and that this is evident on the first Sundays of the month when the church offers a meal and monetary assistance to those in need. Trinity gives out roughly $300,000 a year and two years ago, it had to stop giving money to non-members because so many of its members were needy.
The fact that the church and Wright himself bridge both worlds is one of the things that impressed Obama the most.
"He hasn't lost the common touch," Obama says. "He can read Hebrew and Greek, yet he can also stand on the street corner and talk to the guys there."
Obama says one of the things he has learned from Wright is that the Bible is full of references to poor people and how they should be treated. This, Obama says, is one of the points he would like Democrats to point out when Republicans try to take the religious high ground with talk of moral values.
Wright is there to give further guidance. First, he says Democratic leaders need to understand why so many people feel threatened by gay people.
"Is it that people have linked homosexuals with pedophiles?" Wright asks. "Was it that they were molested as a kid? There are all kinds of emotional stuff that come up. We have to stick with it and hear each other."
On a broader level, Wright says the discussion needs to move away from subjects that should be between individuals and God, such as people's sexual orientation.
Instead, Wright would like to see Obama and the Democrats point out the immorality of decisions made by Bush and his neoconservative advisers.
"Where is the morality in millions of people having no insurance, and millions of people being jobless?" Wright asks. "Where is the morality of lying about a link between Sadaam Husein and 9/11 and then leading us into an unjust, immoral war? Where is the morality of saying that you are not building up troops when you are? Clinton lied, but no one died.
"I think we need to bring up the immorality of these issues and harp on them. We need to keep pushing them."
Both Obama and Wright talk a lot about how being religious means not ignoring these issues of morality.
"It is not enough to just preach words, but you have to follow them with deeds," Obama says. "That attitude is critical today." Wright repeatedly brings up religious references when asked why speaking out is important.
"Jesus did not come to make heaven a better place," he says. "In Isaiah it says not to speak in tongues, but to preach to the poor and the oppressed. Why do you pray? If you pray the kingdom's prayer, then you speak out. And if you don't then why do you pray? Forget it. Skip it. Christ's ministry was foremost outside of the church."
The pastor says Obama has a responsibility to push these issues and he believes that he will do just that.
Wright shrugs off two early decisions by Obama that have been criticized by liberals. The first occurred when he didn't stand by the Congressional Black Caucus in challenging the results of the Electoral College, and the other happened when Obama voted for the appointment of Condoleezza Rice as U.S. Secretary of State.
When it comes down to it, Wright says Obama is a black senator who will stand with the black caucus and defend programs that help poor people. When asked if Obama will compromise to stay politically popular, Wright answers definitively.
"He is not interested in staying popular," says Wright. "Barack cannot please everyone, but he is not a person to compromise either. If he makes a decision, he takes time to explain why. ... He will stand on principle and integrity and I still think he wants to make a difference."