'Without a vessel for my beliefs, I'd always remain apart, alone'
Written by Barack Obama
August - September 2006
September 1, 2006

Editor's note: This is the second installment in United Church News' continuing series on the silencing of historic mainline churches and newfound attempts to intensify the public conversation about more-moderate religious issues and concerns.

For some time now, there has been talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country falls sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, between red and blue states, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.

This gap has long been exploited by conservative leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who tell evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage.

It's a gap that has also been kept open by some liberals, who may try to avoid the conversation about their religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that constitutional principles tie our hands. Some may even dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.

And yet, despite all this division, we are united by the fact that Americans are a deeply religious people. Ninety percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion and 38 percent call themselves committed Christians.

This is why, if political leaders truly hope to communicate their hopes and values to Americans in a way that's relevant to their own, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

I've fallen into this trap myself. During my 2004 Senate race, my opponent said, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama."

I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response: that we live in a pluralistic society, and I can't impose my own religious views on another. I said that I was running to be the U.S. Senator of Illinois, and not the minister of Illinois.

But my opponent's accusations nagged at me, and I knew that my answer didn't address the role my faith has in guiding my values.

I, like other progressives, should have realized that when we ignore what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, when we shy away from religious venues because we think we'll be unwelcome - others will fi ll the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

'Drawn to be in church'

I was not raised in a particularly religious household. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.

It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well - that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level, I would always remain apart - and alone. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change. Because of its past, the Black church understands in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship - the grounding of faith in struggle - that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize: Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts.

You come to church - in the first place - precisely because you are of this world, not apart from it. 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. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

That's a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans - evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. 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.

'Motivated by faith'

It's wrong to ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality.

If progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates with all Americans. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of America's renewal.

Still, leaders of the Religious Right will need to acknowledge a few truths about religion as well.

For one, the separation of church and state in America has not only preserved our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. After all, during our founding, it was not the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith.

This separation is critical to our form of government, because in the end, democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

This may be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, but in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics involves the compromise, the art of the possible. But religion does not allow for compromise. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policy making on them would be dangerous.

In the months and years to come, I am hopeful that we can bridge these gaps and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I believe that Americans want this. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool to attack and divide.

Americans are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions on certain issues, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms - those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is an active member of Trinity UCC in Chicago. A longer version of Obama's sentiments served as the basis for his Pentecost 2006 address in Washington, D.C.

Covenant for a new America

Believing poverty is a concern that Christians on the Left and Right can agree upon, this bipartisan contract was launched during Sojourners/Call to Renewal's Pentecost 2006 gathering, June 26-28, in Washington, D.C. Learn more online at .

In a time when political and social issues threaten to divide the church, religious leaders from across the theological and political spectrum are building new common ground around a fundamental commitment to the most vulnerable who were such a special concern of Jesus. Our vision is:

Work must work and provide for family economic success and security. Those who work responsibly should have a living family income in which a combination of a family's earnings - and supports for transportation, health care, nutrition, child care, education, housing and other basic needs - provide a decent standard of living. Those unable to work should be supported with dignity.

Children should not be poor. We also need specific and concrete commitments to brighter futures for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. We will never end the cycle of poverty if we continue to allow lack of opportunity to be the formative aspect of a child's life. Our nation should develop and commit to a plan that reduces child poverty by half over 10 years.

Extreme global poverty must end. The U.S. should support effective aid, good governance, just trade policies and debt cancellation in order to lift billions of people out of extreme poverty. U.S. international development assistance should be increased by an additional one percent of the federal budget to honor our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, designed to cut global poverty in half by the year 2015.

We commit to recognize the valid concerns of both sides in the political debate, and then move to higher ground by working together to make overcoming poverty a moral priority. We embrace this covenant - in the spirit of shared responsibility.

 

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org