'Note the church-state line, but step up to it'
Written by J. Bennett Guess
April - May 2007
May 1, 2007
Presidential campaign is opportunity to learn political vs. electoral distinction
News flash: Barack Obama, presidential candidate, is a member of the UCC.
In case, somehow, you've missed it: Obama's been an active member of Chicago's Trinity UCC, the denomination's largest church, for about 20 years.
Of course that sort of thing wouldn't be news at all, if you were one of some 8.1 million United Methodists — and Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were among your fold. Given that our current President and Vice President are both United Methodists, you'd likely be accustomed to your denomination's high public profile by now.
The fact, too, that John McCain and Chuck Hagel are Episcopalian isn't big news either, since there have been more Episcopalian presidents — eleven — than any other brand of faith. It seems the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians, who come in at a close second at 10, have been running about a dozen candidates for president each election since 1776.
And, since John Kennedy won in 1960, Roman Catholics are now old hat at presidential elections. John Kerry, a Catholic, was the Democratic nominee last time around. This time, they've got a plethora of good candidates in both parties: Rudy Giuliani, Joe Biden, George Pataki, Christopher Dodd — along with others, I'm sure.
Southern Baptists — who once claimed (or didn't claim) Bill Clinton and Al Gore — have Newt Gingrich in 2008, as well as Mike Huckabee, a preacher-turned-governor.
But much like Mitt Romney — who is Mormon and owns it proudly — Obama may be the only first-tier candidate to be UCC and really know what that means.
Yes, to be accurate, there was Howard Dean and Bob Graham back in 2004.
Dean, who was definitely "first-tier" at one point, is UCC — but, unfortunately, he wasn't that adept at talking religion. (Remember Dean's favorite book of the New Testament? "Job," he said. Ouch.)
Graham, on the other hand, is big-time UCC, a charter member of his congregation. His family even set aside the land for his church to be built in Miami Lakes, Fla. However, from a political standpoint, his run for president never got much traction.
So, perhaps it's due to the new-found spotlight wrought by the UCC's Stillspeaking Intitiative, but some folk around the UCC are buzzing about Obama. They appreciate the attention the church is getting, even if they don't necessarily support him as their candidate.
In a conversation with Obama himself, he was quick to tell us: "I won't run from my membership in the UCC. I plan to embrace it." Or, as one of his staffers put it, Obama intends to begin and end his presidential campaign, no matter the outcome, as a committed member of the UCC. That said, it's important for all of us to pause and review what constitutes proper and improper activity for churches.
First, it's perfectly okay to be excited that a high-profile person shares our faith tradition. It's validating to know that Obama is one of 10 members of Congress — five Democrats, five Republicans — who are UCC. It's also reassuring to think about actress Lynn Redgrave, rapper Common or author Marilynn Robinson, among others, getting up on Sunday morning and worshiping at a UCC church, just like we do.
But, second, it's important to remember that, just as UCC people have a million different perspectives on faith, we're even more diverse when it comes to electoral politics.
We're Republicans, Democrats, Greens and Independents. We're liberals, conservatives and moderates. Yet, despite the spectrum, we're never shy about engaging the important issues of the day, and that's okay. Our commitment to justice may be the UCC's single most-defining characteristic.
Still, it's necessary to understand the difference between political and electoral activity. Know the church-state line, but step up to it. Be God's prophetic and pastoral voices. Raise the issues. Hold those forums. Just don't endorse particular candidates, raise money for their campaigns or parties, or offer special favors not extended to others.
Christ's victory in the world — lasting and transforming change, both personally and communally — is always greater than any single candidate, party or election. To lose perspective of God's long-term reign of peace with justice by focusing communally on a single candidate, instead, is not only illegal, it's short sighted.
As individuals, the electoral process belongs to each of us. But, corporately, as Christians, we're beckoned to love the world as Christ's body, sometimes through issue-focused engagement. Note the line: it's a fine-but-important distinction.