Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama told a religious gathering over the weekend the Christian Right has “hijacked” faith to drive Americans apart and called for a renewed “politics of conscience” that bears moral witness to issues including poverty, healthcare and the war in Iraq.
Speaking Saturday at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ in an address streamed on the denomination’s Web site, Obama, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 22 years, told a story about working as community organizer in the mid-1980s with a group of Chicago churches.
While being familiar with the Bible and sharing many of the values of the ministers, Obama said, he was skeptical of the institutional church. He wasn’t a member of any congregation, and a minister advised, “If you’re organizing churches, it might be helpful if you went to church some time.”
Obama thought that made sense, and as a result heard Trinity Pastor Jeremiah Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope,” the title Obama gave to a 2006 book describing his views on faith, values and the political process.
“During the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ,” Obama said. “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.”
Over time, Obama said, he was able “to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith,” a decision he described as “a choice, not an epiphany.” After that, he said, “I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.”
Obama described his faith journey as “part of a larger journey” from Congregationalists organizing the Boston Tea Party–America’s first act of civil disobedience–to religious people fighting for prison reform, public education, women’s rights and abolition, to Christian voices like Martin Luther King in the struggle for civil rights.
“Doing the Lord’s work is a thread that’s run through our politics since the very beginning,” Obama said. “And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life.”
But Obama said somewhere along the way, “faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked.”
Obama blamed “so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us.”
“At every opportunity, they’ve told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design,” he said.
“There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich,” he quipped. “I don’t know what Bible they’re reading … but it doesn’t jibe with any version that I’ve read.”
Obama said it isn’t enough for Christians to believe “I am my brother’s keeper,” but they must also do their part in making it a reality. “My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work,” he said.
Obama said those values shouldn’t be expressed only through houses of worship, but through government as well.
“Whether it’s poverty or racism, the uninsured or the unemployed, war or peace, the challenges we face today are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan,” he said. “They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness–in the imperfections of man–the cruelty of man toward man.”
Obama said the nation’s “conscience cannot rest” while 37 million Americans live in poverty, 45 million lack insurance and others go bankrupt trying to pay for it, and while there is genocide in Darfur and detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
“But we also know our conscience cannot rest so long as the war goes on in Iraq,” he said. “It’s a war I’m proud I opposed from the start–a war that should never have been authorized and never been waged.”
Obama said President Bush has already vetoed a plan to start removing troops from Iraq sooner instead of later, but the president “doesn’t have the last word.”
“We’re going to keep at it, until we bring this war to an end,” he said. “Because the Iraq war is not just a security problem, it’s a moral problem.”
Obama said he is encouraged by voices that convince him “God is still speaking to us.”
“I’m hearing from evangelicals who may not agree with progressives on every issue but agree that poverty has no place in a world of plenty; that hate has no place in the hearts of believers; and that we all have to be good stewards of God’s creations,” he said. “From Willow Creek to the ’emerging church,’ from the Southern Baptist Convention to the National Association of Evangelicals, folks are realizing that the four walls of the church are too small for a big God.”
Obama said he is also hearing “from progressives who understand that if we want to communicate our hopes and values to Americans, we can’t abandon the field of religious discourse.”
“That’s why organizations are rising up across the country to reclaim the language of faith to bring about change,” he said. “God is still speaking.”
Obama challenged listeners to “rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics–a politics of conscience.”
“Let’s come together–Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike,” he said. “We’re not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable.
“We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we’re in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand.
“And if we can do that–if we can embrace a common destiny–then I believe we’ll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we’ll not just be caring for our own souls, we’ll be doing God’s work here on Earth.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.