Obama’s ‘awesome’ testimony

barack obama 01We have, I realize, already had a post by young master Daniel Pulliam about the coverage of Sen. Barack Obama’s recent speech to the national convention of his own mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ. Well here comes another one, because I think the emerging religious left (Religious Left?) is a major news story that deserves more coverage.

The key issue with the Obama speech was whether the Associated Press did readers a service by focusing on the political angle, his latest round of criticism of the Religious Right, while ignoring the personal, spiritual side of the address — his own journey into Christian faith.

Readers were divided, with some believing that the faith element was old news.

… Obama has told his conversion story many times, including in his bestselling autobiography and again at Sojourners‘ “Pentecost” conference last year. It ain’t news no more …
jim, June 26, 2007, at 9:51 am

Like Pulliam, I think the faith angle was the stronger, fresher story. To answer Jim’s comment, the candidate’s supporters (Sojourners, et al.) may know about his faith, along with those who have actually read his books. The faith element has also been written about quite a bit here inside the Beltway.

But, friends, it is also very, very old news that Obama thinks the Religious Right has given Christianity a bad name. Meanwhile, the actual number of speeches in which he has gone out of his way to express his own faith experience in language that echoes the language of evangelical Christianity is rather small. That’s why, in my opinion, this speech was so important. This pulpit-friendly orator is going to help shape debates inside many evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox congregations about faith and politics in the post-George W. Bush era.

So I thought I would post, this week, my “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard — since it focuses on the spiritual elements of the Obama address, while offering a brief glimpse of the religious and doctrinal conflicts that conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews are going to continue to have with his liberal political and, perhaps, theological beliefs.

Let me also note that reporters faced a common, but still interesting, challenge in covering this speech. Obama made some small, but important, changes as he delivered the speech. Thus, some news stories feature quotes from the written text when, in reality, he said something different to the UCC crowd.

Here is a small and, perhaps, symbolic example. It’s the sort of small edit that people will sit around and debate, if they know it exists. In the section of the speech about his conversion, Obama wrote:

… kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

When delivering the speech, Obama changed “truth” to “truths” — which does match the plural noun “works” at the end of the line. Still, I think this plural “truths” reference might show up, sooner or later, in a Dr. James Dobson newsletter or some similar Christian niche-media location. The left tends to avoid references to “truth” — singular.

I suggest that anyone really interested in this speech watch the video archived at the UCC site (this requires, to my elitist shock, Windows Media Player). Meanwhile, here is the top of my Scripps Howard column:

Play the right guitar chords and worshippers in megachurch America will automatically start singing these words: “Our God is an awesome God, He reigns from heaven above. With wisdom power and love, our God is an awesome God.”

So Barack Obama caused raised eyebrows when he turned to that page in the evangelical songbook during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

“We worship an awesome God in the Blue States,” he said, in the speech that made him a rising star. “We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. … We are one people.”

Obama has mixed gospel images and liberal politics ever since and his ability to reach pews without frightening the skeptical elites is crucial to his White House hopes.

Thus, all kinds of people paid close attention last week when he spoke to the 50th anniversary convention of the United Church of Christ, a small flock that has proudly set the pace for liberal Christianity. At the heart of his speech was his own spiritual rebirth two decades ago, when he responded to an altar call by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

“He introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ,” said Obama. “I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came 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 and in my own life.

“It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle … and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, like folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. … But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truths and carrying out His works.”

And here’s the rest of the column.

Photo: Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

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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.

  • jeanie

    He’s very honest, kind of sweet and politically naive right now I think. But, after he gets some political experience under his belt, if he still seems as genuine as he sounds right now, he’ll get my vote.

  • Jerry

    I think the attention given to Obama underscores the re-emergence of the religious left. I grew up with a robust religious left which included Joan Baez singing the “Lords’s Prayer” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Peter, Paul and Mary singing songs like “For the Love of it all” which includes such lyrics as:

    And the seasons were many.
    Creation was new.
    And there on a tree (deceptively free)
    A forbidden fruit
    Upon leaving the garden, after the fall,
    One thing was clear; we chose not to hear
    The love of it all

  • Gary Aknos

    Never mind the obvious conflict between church/state, 40 Obama supporters manning 8 tables to recruit supporters at the event and the very obvious campaign references in the speech. The media has been white-washing Obama all along, why would anything change when the conflict is this obvious. If Mitt Romney gave a comparable speech in front of Mormons, all hell would break loose.

  • Hans

    Gary raises an excellent point. And I think the reason Obama and the UCC are able to get away with this is probably because (due to Tmatt’s noted lack of religious left coverage) people don’t view the religious left as really, actually, truly religious.

    I often find myself being one of those people who have a very hard time finding sincerity in much of the religious left. I may be entirely biased here. But I really can’t help it–when Hillary Clinton quotes Bible passages, it reminds me of a one year old talking on a play phone. They understand how the action is supposed to look, but there’s no actual content behind it.

  • http://www.lutheranzephyr.com Chris Duckworth

    Is there really an emerging Religious Left? What made/makes the Religious Right so relevant is its political influence – its ability to elect politicians and raise money – not merely the existence of religious conservatives.

    So, just because there is an increasingly vocal liberal religious voice, does this translate into any significant religious liberal political presence?

    Or, a related question: Is Barak Obama popular because he can talk faith, or is he popular because he is young, dynamic, intelligent and good looking?

    I’m not convinced there is a Religious Left of any significant political force. Perhaps left-wing people of faith are speaking up with a louder voice and are selling more books, but I’m not sure that translates in any significant way to the ballot box . . . Perhaps 2008 will be the test for the so-called Religious Left.

  • Jerry

    Hans, I think you and I cancel each other out, or perhaps more charitably, form a symmetrical thesis/antithesis, because I could have said:

    I often find myself being one of those people who have a very hard time finding sincerity in much of the religious right.

    I could have pointed to hypocrites on the right that have trouble distinguishing between gnats and camels.

    Taking a longer view, the left was basically in charge from FDR until Reagan, Eisenhower and Nixon notwithstanding. From Reagan until now, the right has ridden tall in the saddle for most of that time. History tells me that the pendulum swings back and forth, and, from what I can see, it’s swinging left right now.

    I suspect the left will have or already has as many self-serving hypocrites as the right. And I suspect that as many on the left will start out well motivated but be seduced by power and corrupted by adulation as we’ve seen on the right.

  • jeanie

    I thought the Episcopal church was the religious left!!!

  • Tony

    I think the Episcopal church is the irreligious left..

  • Scott Allen

    Since the purpose of this Blog is not rating Obama, nor the religious left vs. right, let’s focus again on the press coverage.

    I read today that an Iowa town banned all politicans from making any speeches during a John Wayne fest. One nonetheless paid approx. $100 to enter, and was allowed to speak for a few minutes — as long as he constrained his remarks to John Wayne. Did he explicitly link his remarks to his campaign? I don’t know, I wasn’t there.
    But in the case of Obama at the UCC convention, the media has given the UCC a “free ride” on using tax free money for a religious convention to support a candidate. I don’t blame Obama, he’s using every opportunity he can. But the conversion of the ever-vigilant Barry Lynn and others in approving of this taxpayer subsidized speech is truly remarkable.

    As Dpulliam pointed out in a previous post, most of the coverage was on the political content, so no one can dispute that it existed. The real question should be about the UCC’s tax exemption. One possible solution — they can claim they’re not really a religion. Which returns us to the Hans vs. Jerry “sincerity question” outlined in commentts 4 and 6. I believe the media gives speeches like Obama’s a “free ride” because they agree with Hans.

  • http://icarusredeemed.blogspot.com Celal

    I suppose in the context of “kneeling beneath [a] cross” one would have wanted to hear some reference to words of repentance.

    Does it therefore make it a truly Christian testimony ? I don’t know .

    There is a Turkish saying which goes something like “he who burns his mouth with milk eats yoghurt by blowing on it”. So, I am sceptical.

    It could just be a political testimony of convenience. The man, after all, is a politician.