Filling in that Obama faith timeline

ObamaPulpitRelax. I have little or no interest in the shoddy stories about Barack Obama and his alleged years studying in a madrassa in Pakistan.

No, I am interested in the faith of the adult Obama. Which led me, the other day, to a Chicago Tribune story by reporter Manya A . Brachear about the career of Obama’s pastor and spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

I have to admit that I was terribly disappointed in this vague and, at times, confused story. Let me show you two examples of what left me a bit miffed. The key is that Wright is a rebel, a maverick, a prophet who breaks the rules. Thus, we read:

The rebellious son of a Baptist minister, Wright was hired by Trinity United when he could find no Baptist church to take him. The congregation on 95th Street, then numbering just 87, had recently adopted the motto “Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.” They did not mind his fiery red Afro and blackpower agenda.

Wright has continued on an independent path, often questioning the common sense of Scripture, objecting to mandatory prayer in schools and clashing with clergy who preach prosperity theology, a popular notion among black pastors that God will bestow wealth and success on believers.

There is some useful information in here, but also some crucial fog. I am well aware that there were, in that era, already issues of culture and style between clashing generations of African American clergy. I also know that the “prosperty Gospel” is a hot button, but one does not have to be a left-wing rebel to oppose that. The key, however, is the undefined phrase “often questioning the common sense of Scripture.” What in the world does that mean? We do not know and the Tribune does little to inform us. Does Wright deny basic doctrines of Christianity?

The very next paragraph is supposed to tell us:

In the process, he built a spiritual empire. The modest brown brick building that housed the church in the 1970s was converted into a day-care center when Trinity opened its new sanctuary in 1995 at 400 W. 95th St. Members run more than 80 ministries, including an outreach to gay and lesbian singles, also unusual for a black church.

Nope. That doesn’t help much. There are all kinds of churches that offer all kinds of ministries to gays and lesbians. Some clash with ancient, traditional understandings of sex and marriage and many do not.

In this case, the church’s own website does not do much to help. I mean, click here and look it over.

The story also tells us that Wright was heavily influenced by the black theology of the Rev. James H. Cone, an author I studied in graduate school (primarily his writings on violence and nonviolence). However, saying that someone was influenced by black theologians instead of white, European, “mainstream” theologians does little to tell us about what they believe on doctrinal issues. I mean, Wright could have been reading orthodox or neoorthodox black theologians instead of liberal white theologians. Again, we just don’t know — based on this story.

So, finally, we reach the link between Wright and Obama.

In his 1993 memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama recounts in vivid detail his first meeting with Wright in 1985. The pastor warned the community activist that getting involved with Trinity might turn off other black clergy because of the church’s radical reputation.

When Obama sought his own church community, he felt increasingly at home at Trinity. Before leaving for Harvard Law School in 1988, he responded to one of Wright’s altar calls and declared a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Once again, the phrase “radical reputation” is hollow. It tells us nothing. If Wright is so controversial and so radical, wouldn’t it have been good to have actually cited a concrete reference to one of his radical beliefs? Hey, the newspaper could have even quoted a critic or two. I mean, where is the doctrinal beef? This man could be a political progressive without offending the wider world of orthodoxy in the African American church. The same goes, by the way, for voices in African theology.

Meanwhile, there is that reference to Obama responding to an altar call and making a public declaration of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” It’s hard to get much more traditional than that evangelical language.

Finally, if anyone wants to know more about Obama’s faith, the new free daily called the Washington Examiner is running a series by Bill Sammon on “The 5 Most Important Things You Need to Know About Barack Obama.” Part one is about religion and it contains a wide range of interesting quotes about Obama’s faith — drawn from his own memoirs. It’s an interesting timeline. Check it out. Here’s the opening statement, which is hot but factual:

WASHINGTON — Although Sen. Barack Obama is a Christian, his childhood and family connections to Islam are beginning to complicate his presidential ambitions.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bob Smietana


    The full Tribune story is available,1,294740,print.story">online. The one line ” often questioning the common sense of Scripture” could of been clarified, but overall, Manya did a good job of introducing us to Obama’s mentor–a socially progressive megachurch pastor. It reveals that Obama appears to be grounded in Christian faith, and has a pastor that will kick him in the shins if he starts to believe the “OBAMA FOR PRESIDENT.” It’s actually pretty rare these days to hear about the specifics of a politicians faith–where they go to church, who their pastor is, what their conversion story is. Thanks to Manya and the Tribune, and their competitor, Cathleen Falsani of the Sun Times, who has written about Obama’s conversion experience, we know that about Obama.

  • Gary Aknos


    Obama and the UCC

    This is a story I really wanted to avoid but the reality is that questions about Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s religious background keep coming up in the media. For the United Church of Christ, it’s the elephant in the room.

    To it’s credit, the UCC isn’t grandstanding on Obama’s membership with Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago while media outlets absurdly speculate about his attendance at a Muslim school in Indonesia – when he was a little kid.

    To me, this is a non-story on a number of levels.

    First, Obama doesn’t exactly come off as a religious zealot and he certainly does not come off as someone driven by a religious agenda – so why are questions coming up about his faith?

    Secondly, he seems like a decent guy… a “nice guy”. While he’s still a rookie Senator, he has plenty of positions on the record that someone could legitimately challenge or question… so why should his faith mean anything?

    Lastly, lets not forget the last time a UCC Presidential candidate’s faith was questioned. Howard Dean, another Presidential candidate who was hardly a religious icon, was creamed in the media when he mixed up Old Testament books with the New Testament books. Although the incident demonstrated Dean’s lack of knowledge about the Bible, it hardly illuminated anyone to his qualifications as President.

    There is another reality here that should concern UCC members. There is an attempt by some in the media to wrongly connect the views of UCC leaders and specific churches to Obama. Yesterday’s editorial in Business Investors Daily is probably most inflammatory:

    Obama said he was drawn to Christ after college while working with black churches on inner-city projects. Soon he knelt “beneath the cross” at one of them, he said in a recent speech, and “embraced Christ.” If he were Muslim, this act alone would be punishable by death.

    Trouble is, Obama embraced more than Christ when he answered the altar call 20 years ago at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Southside Chicago. The 8,000-member church describes itself as “unashamedly black” and holds classes in “African-centered Bible study.” He also pledged to honor something called the “Black Value System,” which is a code of nonbiblical ethics written by blacks for blacks.

    This is what should give American voters pause.

    According to its Web site, Trinity puts the “black community” first. Black members are encouraged to pursue education and skills exclusively to advance their community, and allocate their money exclusively to support “black institutions” and black leaders.

    In short, it preaches from the gospel of blackness and black power. There’s little room for white Christians at Obama’s church. It disavows the pursuit of “middleclassness” — code for whiteness — arguing that middleclassness is a conspiracy by white leaders to keep talented African-Americans “captives.”

    The problem is that the editorial doesn’t connect the belief system at Trinity UCC to Obama. As a Presidential candidate, Obama certainly exposes himself to questions about his beliefs, but shouldn’t he be judged by what he says and how he acts?

    We might as well accept it now that we will see more mistakes like this in the media as pundits try to piece together what Obama’s belief system. To draw any conclusions about Obama based on his membership at Trinity UCC would be a huge mistake. As much as it disturbs the national offices of the UCC, the membership of the church isn’t as monolithically liberal as our leaders portray us to be in the media. From Wikipedia:

    In 2001, Hartford Institute for Religion Research did a “Faith Communities Today (FACT)” study that included a survey of United Church of Christ beliefs. Among the results of this were findings that in the UCC, 5.6 percent of the churches responding to the survey described their members as “very liberal or progressive,” 22.4 percent as “somewhat liberal or progressive,” 23.6 percent as “somewhat conservative” and 3.4 percent as “very conservative.” Those results suggested a nearly equal balance between liberal and conservative congregations. The self-described “moderate” group, however, was the largest at 45 percent.

    In essence, it would be premature to attach the values of a single church or our national leaders on Obama.

  • Pastor Jeff

    Obviously the reporter had some information or insight which led to the choice of “radical” and “indpendent” — but she doesn’t share it with the reader. Radical from what perspective? Independent of what?

    Perusing through through the church website gives the impression that this is a congregation which does not fit easily into existing categories — which is precisely why we need clarification from this reporter. This was a fascinating and frustrating article which raised more questions than it answered.

  • Jerry

    I basically agree with the prior two posts. Since Obama is unknown to many and his service in the Senate short, his background is what we need to understand to understand what would influence him as president. The most important point to me is the following:

    shouldn’t he be judged by what he says and how he acts?

    He has the potential to help us reconcile the black and white parts of the nation because he is part black and part white and has struggled with reconciling the two parts of himself. Whether he’s up to that task is something that we’ll find out. He’ll have to withstand hits from those who are terrified he might win or are terrified of his differences from the typical white Christian cultural background

  • Jinzang

    Maybe Senator Obama is a member of his church because he likes the style and character of its pastor. In that case, asking about the doctrinal position of the church would be barking up the wrong tree. I get the impression that most Christians outside of theology schools are not too concerned with the fine points of doctrine, they just want a church where they feel comfortable.

  • Stephen

    Bottom line, he will have to come clean about his beliefs, just as Romney will have to speak openly and honestly about his faith.

    Some may think it doesn’t matter what religion a person practices, but it does, and it SHOULD.

    Secularist politicians may use religion as a prop, but for those Left and Right who believe in something, it’s important for them to make it clear that religion still does mean something, and important for the media to ask.

    BTW, simply because someone is half black and half white doesn’t endow them with magical powers to “heal” any rifts of any kind, as Jerry suggests above. The canonization of this completely unknown politician is astounding, and a bit freightening.

    Let’s hear the guy speak, hear him talk about his faith, and see the guy’s (slender) voting record first, THEN judge his fitness for the job.

  • evagrius

    Interesting that everyone’s so interested in his religious credentials.

    I never saw any such interest in Bush’s religious credentials. No in-depth interview with him of his beliefs, no examination of his history.

    Oh, yes, a few details and the famous line of Jesus being his favorite philosopher but nothing really detailed.

    Fascinating, just fascinating.

  • Scott

    Perhaps it is because of Bush’s actions since he has been President that people are so keen to know about the current favorites’ religious views.

  • Stephen

    Scott is correct on this, I must admit, but then again, Bush was VERY open about his religious views, and was ridiculed for them by the secularists.

  • Grant Gallicho


    Are you friendly with Bill Sammon?

  • tmatt


    No, I have never met him. Why?

    I simply thought the collection of quotes from the Obama memoirs was a good resource for those seeking the info.

  • Jeremy Pierce

    The existence of the Same Gender Loving page on the church’s website is a little suspicious. It suggests that they know what they’re doing if they’re trying to cover their tracks. Taking the page down entirely would leave it up in Google’s cache. Leaving it up but blank allows the Google cache to reset to what the site now shows. Maybe they never had any content there, but if they did then leaving it up assured that no one could access whatever they had.

  • Kim Pearson

    Anyone who wants to know about the beliefs of TUCC can watch its services online — viewing information is on the website. In addition, its senior pastor, Dr. Wright, has published several books, and he speaks out openly issues of the day. Wright is critical of Pres. Bush’s foreign and domestic policies, and is progressive on issues such as the ordination of women and the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church. He believes that the latter two positions are consistent with an informed understanding of Scripture. I’m not sure what is so mysterious there. As for Wright’s adherence to black theology, his writing and sermons suggest that he favors a positive understanding of African identity and an acknowledgement of the African presence in the Bible as a corrective to the racist theology and iconography that permeated Western Christianity for centuries. I have never seen or read anything from Wright or TUCC that denigrated people of other races.