Obama spotlights United Church of Christ
Denomination seeks to share its mission, message of inclusion with public only aware of pastor controversy
AKRON, Ohio – The Cleveland-based United Church of Christ has found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight because one of its 1.2 million members, Sen. Barack Obama, is running for president.
At issue are video clips of fiery rhetoric from Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that have been airing for the past month.
Those clips are getting more attention today, following Wright’s PBS interview with fellow UCC member Bill Moyers, and again after Wright spoke before reporters and supporters at the National Press Club.
For the 5,700-church denomination, the challenge is protecting its identity as a home to modern and inclusive theology, a historically white denomination with some pastors who favor black liberation theology.
“In some respects, the denomination has the same struggle that Obama has,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron and an expert on religion in politics. “Obama’s appeal is that he is a new figure with new ideas, but the downside is that people don’t know a lot about him and some of what they are learning seems strange and unappealing.
“The UCC also offers a religious perspective that is new to most Americans, but some of what people learn about the UCC seems strange and unappealing.”
Rather than allow media coverage to define the denomination, the UCC is stepping up its advertising.
“We’re being defined as a denomination in very narrow and distorted ways, but we’re looking at this as a time to give accurate information about who we are,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, the denomination’s director of communications. “ ... We see this as a time when we seize the moment or accept the mischaracterization.”
Last month, the denomination placed a full-page ad in the New York Times insisting the UCC does not require uniformity of belief from its congregations. In less than a week, an online campaign netted more than the $120,000 it cost. Another ad appeared in USA Today.
“We are a church of open ideas, extravagant welcome and evangelical courage,” the Times ad read. “Our passion for democracy extends to both government and church, where decision-making rests within each congregation. We support liberty in our pulpits, just as we affirm the individual conscience of our 1.2-million members to agree, disagree and wrestle with life’s biggest questions in a spirit of love.”
The promotion also included some of the history of the denomination, which was formed in 1957 when the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the German Evangelical and Reformed Church united.
The denomination’s history includes 600 congregations that were founded before 1776; 11 signers of the Declaration of Independence; abolitionists who aided the Amistad slave ship captives; and the founding of hundreds of schools for freed slaves in the South after the Civil War.
The UCC also has a legacy of racial and social justice advocacy. It was the first mainline church to ordain an African-American (1785), a woman (1853) and an openly gay pastor (1972). Its position as one of the most liberal of the mainline Protestant churches has made it a target of distrust by theological conservatives.
The denomination is the largest Protestant church in New England, which is the birthplace of Congregationalism. It has 700 churches in Pennsylvania, the heart of the German Reformed tradition. The UCC launched its first national television ad campaign – “God is Still Speaking” – in December 2004.
Since then, it has had four national ad drives and it continues to support regional radio and TV ads. The denomination also awards matching grants to churches to help them with media campaigns.
Wright is the retired pastor of the church where Obama is a member, Trinity UCC in Chicago, the denomination’s largest church with more than 8,000 members.
His fiery words – including his revision of the classic Irving Berlin lyric: “Not ‘God Bless America!’ ‘God damn America!’ “ for killing innocent people is steeped in black liberation theology.
The religious philosophy, rooted in the black power movement, often involves preaching that sounds angry but does not advocate violence.
Instead, it is channeled into constructive action aimed at eradicating racism. Because the philosophy is widely unknown to white Americans, the effort to put Wright’s comments into context is complicated, according to Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University.
In a speech last month, Obama presented himself as a unifying figure in the clash between the posture of black liberation theology and the mainstream American understanding of Christianity. In the speech, Obama described the history of injustice that stirred Wright, denounced his pastor’s statements and acknowledged the resentment of whites.
Words in context
Glaude said to put Wright’s comments into context, you must understand black theology and American religious history. He said that the African-American church has always had a unique relationship to social and racial justice and that it has always been central to the social and political life of black communities.
“The African-American church emerged out of rejection by the white church. Slaves that converted to Christianity understood that the gospel did not sanction the superiority of white people or slavery,” Glaude said. “African-Americans who embraced Jesus Christ as their savior had to reconcile those who understood Christ’s message in terms of their privilege as white brothers and sisters. They wanted to figure out why they had to be separated during worship and when they were buried.”
Glaude describes Wright’s words and tone as prophetic speech that is a common rhetorical style that African-American Christians have used since the early 19th century.
“It’s kind of a prophetic stance where they want to call America on the carpet for, in some ways, not living up to its ideals,” Glaude said. “It’s righteous indignation, not hatred. I don’t know that it was so much what Rev. Wright said but how he said it.”
The Wright controversy – for Glaude, Obama and the UCC – is an indication of a racial divide.
In an effort to bridge that gap, the UCC invited the nation to join the denomination in a “sacred” conversation on race on May 18. The denomination prepared resource materials for its pastors, who were asked to preach about race that day.