Trinity United Church of Christ: Obama's Home Church

John ArmstrongRace and Racism

Much debate surrounds the "faith" of presidential candidate Barrack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois. The media is continually trying to understand the profession of faith that this liberal senator made some years ago at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Christian conservatives are skeptical about Obama’s "faith." Most liberals are clueless, since they are very uncomfortable with serious Christian profession and practice by any public figure. Senator Obama does not fit with the comfortable stereotypes of our time thus few know how to evaluate him or the church he is a member of in Chicago.

I have never met Obama or his pastor, the well-known Dr. Jeremiah Wright. I do know a few people, both in politics and theology, that I trust who know both Obama and Wright. I have also carefully read both of Obama’s books. Long before Obama became our senator I watched and followed Jeremiah Wright for some time. Here is my own impression, if it is worth much to readers.

First, Barrack Obama was clearly an unbeliever in his early life. He had no religious training and no spiritual interest, at least of the Christian type. At a definite point in his life this all clearly changed. Conservatives have every reason to oppose Obama’s political views. But his personal faith should not become an issue that impacts his campaign any more than Hillary Clinton’s Methodism should be an issue to her campaign.

President George W. Bush appears to have a deep and personal faith but this, in itself, does not make him either a great or a terrible president. The Christian Right would often have us believe otherwise but this is not rocket science folks. I am sometimes led to believe that President Bush’s faith might even impact some decisions adversely. At other times I am glad to know that we have a man of prayer and personal faith leading us. In the end, this is not why I support or oppose a candidate or a leader’s decisions and policies. This confusion of "personal faith" (which I wrote about yesterday) with political realities and expressed positions is, generally speaking, a huge mistake. We are not selecting pastors to lead the nation, but people who can best lead us in our government. 

Second, Barrack Obama strikes me as a man of true faith, at least from all that I have read and heard from people who know him. He sees his various positions on issues as an extension of that personal faith. I disagree with some of his interpretations regarding ethical issues and sincerely believe he could be better informed by biblical and historically Christian thought. But he is a man who openly professes faith in Christ, takes the church and the sacraments seriously, and practices his faith in a credible way. He is also a committed American and the reports from some in the Right about Muslim influences hindering his effectiveness as a leader are simply slanderous. Is he wrong in some of his views and how he relates them to his faith? I am quite convinced that he is wrong in several important cases. Again, and this is important to note: This is not, however, how we should evaluate him or his Republican counterparts. I will vote for a non-Christian in a heartbeat if I think she/he is the best person to lead this country. I will also make this decision with prayer and careful thought but "voting for the person who wins at proving to the Christian Right that she/he is one of us" is a non-issue so far as I am concerned. This, again, is a part of the problem with James Dobson’s recent comments about Fred Thompson.

Third, Jeremiah Wright is a deeply impressive minister of the Christian faith. Trinity United Church of Christ does not fit into the stereotypical categories of "conservative" or "liberal." It was at Trinity Church, of course, where Obama was converted to faith and entered the Christian church publicly as an adult. And this much is very sure—Obama did not convert for any political gain since he was not in the public eye when he made his decision to profess personal faith. There is, in other words, no evidence that he is "using" his faith as a political wedge. (This, in itself, is very refreshing frankly.)

The subject of Trinity Church, and the Obama buzz, prompted Martin Marty to write a "Sightings" column this week (April 2) about Dr. Jeremiah Wright and his congregation. Martin Marty and I know one another and we have had serious conversations on several occasions. We do not always agree on issues, especially political and social issues, but his evaluations are generally fair and even-handed, even if they reflect his more liberal views. He is a scholar first, not a partisan for Obama. Marty has visited Trinity and wrote his column yesterday in order to make "comment" on what he knows. He definitely got my attention.

Trinity is the largest congregation in the UCC denomination. It’s rubric is: "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian." Marty writes: "Trinity’s rubric shapes a kind of ellipse around these two ‘centers,’ neither of which makes sense without the other. This you would never know from the slanders of its enemies or the incomprehension and naivete of some reporters who lack background in the civil rights and African-American movements of several decades ago—a background out of which Trinity’s stirrings first rose and on which it transformatively trades."

Trinity is "Africentric" and operates ecumenically within the heritage of the idea that "black is beautiful." Despite what people say this 8,000 member church brings together the disadvantaged and the middle class, along with a handful of real movers and shakers in the city of Chicago. If you live in the Chicago region you can watch Trinity’s services and Jeremiah Wright on television. You will quickly discover that this church is not cultic or sectarian in any meaningful sense. Wright, in point of fact, preaches the biblical text quite powerfully. Marty suggests that at times he sounds "almost literalist about biblical texts when he preaches" the Bible. I would agree. The congregation is given large-print texts from Scripture so they can follow his sermons. He regularly preaches the good news of Christ. Marty adds, "He can be abrasive." Why? Because he resists the "shame" that he finds in the black community rooted in the legacies of segregation and racism. Marty adds, "Trinity reorients."

Oppose Obama if you will, but do it for the right reasons. And do not believe the lies that you hear about the man or his pastor. Seeking to undo his profession of faith and his personal integrity is raw politics. It is beneath the spirit of biblical Christianity, the kind of Christianity that treats personal profession and the story of adult conversion seriously. I pray for Barrack Obama. He actually offers a refreshing perspective for new discussion in this country. His record is slim and his views should be openly critiqued. I do not agree with his political positions on many social and economic issues, as I previously noted, but I refuse to attack him personally or his personal profession of faith. This approach is not only counter-productive, it clearly doesn’t have the spirit of Christ about it. Maybe we can begin to resist this kind of rhetoric that flows from the Christian Right by actually having an honest debate about the types of political issues that are important to this nation and not about the personal faith of the candidates. One can at least hope for such a change, even if some in the Christian Right continue to promote the the destructive politics of personal slander.