Obama seeking right church on left?

Now that the White House has settled the puppy issue, folks inside the DC Beltway have returned to whispering about the even more symbolic issue — the First Family’s church home. This means it’s time for a trip into tmatt’s folder of GetReligion guilt.

You see, a team of Washington Post reporters offered a news feature on that topic a week ago and some of the details in it were so specific that — honest — I thought a decision might be right around the corner. But another week has passed, so let me note the sections of this piece that rang the bell for me.

The headline focused on the highly personal element of all this for African-American church leaders around here: “Quiet Prayer in D.C. Churches for Obama’s Decision — Questions of Race, Faith Fold Into One: Will He Choose Us?” But, the story also notes another theme that has, until now, played only a minor role in mainstream reports on this topic.

What might that be? It can be stated as a question that has been asked before here at GetReligion: What if Barack and Michelle Obama have some strong theological beliefs and they actually want to join a church that shares their approach to doctrine and faith?

I know that this cuts against the views of some on the right that the president is faking his faith. I have always argued that this is not the case and that he is what he has said he is — a sincere, liberal, mainline Protestant whose approach to faith is built on a modernist, non-literal approach to scripture.

But this creates an awkward situation here in Washington, where the most powerful, high-profile African-American churches may or may not be able to affirm that Obama approach to faith, morality and doctrine. Clearly, they want to embrace the president and his family, but, well, certain subjects could cause trouble.

So here is the dominant image that reporters are using and the questions they are asking:

Will the Obamas affiliate themselves with a black church, which could signal that they are still comfortable making their spiritual home one that is predominantly African American? Or will they choose a mostly white or racially integrated church, sending the message that they are interested in shifting the paradigm of religion and race?

That’s the normal template. But later in the story we read that, in addition to Nineteenth Street Baptist Church and other obvious choices, the Obamas are considering some interesting options. For example:

Other churches are familiar to the White House because prominent staff members have long ties in the city. Melody C. Barnes, White House domestic policy director, is an active member of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, a church that is theologically liberal and not opposed to same-sex marriage, an issue that has been a political hot button for the president.

Obama came to Christian faith in the context of a liberal African-American church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, then led by, of course, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The UCC is his natural home. Then again, the idea of seeking a liberal African-American congregation — on basic biblical issues — adds an interesting element of risk and difficulty to the equation.

peoplescongregationalRead between the lines of this statement by the Rev. Keith Byrd of Zion Baptist Church, which opens with a reference to Wright and Trinity:

The family’s ultimate decision not to join another predominantly black church might be because they are worried about that kind of conflict, said Byrd of Zion Baptist. “There is a tradition in black churches of speaking truth to power,” he said. The pastor Obama chooses “has to be clean as a whistle and have past viewpoints consistent with the president’s.”

The worshipers at Nineteenth Street Baptist are undeterred. Theirs is a congregation with a traditional worship service, a gospel choir that favors hymns and a relatively liberal church structure that ordains women as ministers and deacons. It also has a ministry that serves the homeless and one that has done educational outreach on HIV and AIDS prevention in the black community.

So the pastor and Obama will need to see eye to eye, as much as possible. And it’s positive that Nineteenth Street Baptist is active in HIV and AIDS ministry. But that isn’t the issue, is it? Many traditional Christian churches are active in these kinds of ministries, including early, trailblazing work in AIDS hospice work by Catholics, traditional Anglicans and others.

It’s a complex and interesting issue, with the Post getting closer to seeing some of the key pieces on the game board. Good job.

If you want to see this decision through a wider lens, you may want to read or watch (above) Obama’s famous, scripture-drenched campaign sermon delivered from the Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the sermon that won over gay activist Andrew Sullivan, since Obama — in effect — is telling an African-American congregation that it needs to change it’s doctrine and get on God’s side on the gay-rights issue. Here’s the famous quote:

For most of this country’s history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays — on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.

Second image: Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ.

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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.

  • Jerry

    This is an interesting story about an interesting topic.

  • dalea

    Left out is Obama’s background with his grandparents, the people he lived with for many years. The Durhams were Unitarian Universalists. Presumably he attended services with them. So, in choosing Trinity UCC, Obama actually selected a more conservative denomination than the one he grew up in.


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