Progressive Revival

My good friend Amy Sullivan is a very hard act to follow in any writing assignment, and she covered this topic very well for Time last week.  But in an attempt to help provide a little perspective for our good friends on the other side of the Pond, here are my thoughts on the difficulties Obama will face as he and his family try to decide where to worship.

Amid all the speculation aboutdecisions president-elect Obama will have to make when he takes office, the questionof where will he and his family go to church has been getting a lot ofattention recently.

To some, this question may notrise to the level of, say, how Obama plans to tackle the banking crisis. Afterall, neither Ronald Reagan nor George W Bush even went to church whilepresident. The Clintons chose a local Methodistchurch with a strong youth programme for Chelsea,and the first President Bush went to an Episcopalian church. Jimmy Carteractually taught Sunday school while president at a Baptist church in Virginia.

Yet there are several reasonsthat Obama choice of church will be more scrutinised than that of any otherAmerican president. In a country where nearly half the voters attend churchweekly and another third attend at least once a month, Obama’s ability to talkabout his faith helped lead the Democrats out of the political wilderness ofbeing viewed by many voters as hostile to religion.

Furthermore, race and faith in America havealways been intertwined, and the black church has historically served as thepolitical and social epicentre of the African-American community. And so in thesame way that Americans wondered what kind of influence the Pope would havewhen Kennedy became America’s first Catholic president, they now wait to seewhat role the local church will play in the life of America’s first blackpresident.

Finally, Obama’s last churchchoice nearly derailed his presidential aspirations when YouTube clips begancirculating of Obama’s pastor, JeremiahWright, preaching anti-American and racially-charged sermons.

Combine all of these factors, andObama’s allies will be looking for him to make an inspired choice that helpsreshape America‘sfaith and racial dialogue … and his enemies will be looking for a choice theycan use to undermine his presidency. So putting aside the potential effect ofhis church choice on his immortal soul, the political stakes will clearly behigh.

For example, many people assumeObama will worship at an African American church as he did in Chicago. But Obama has often quoted MartinLuther King’s critique that America‘smost segregated hour is 11am on Sunday. If the first black president chooses toworship in a predominantly black church, does that call into question whetherhe really thinks this is a problem or perhaps imply that it’s a problem onlywhite people are responsible for fixing? Conversely, if Obama chooses apredominantly white church, many black people in this country will feelabandoned.

The same sort of dilemma appliesto his choice of denomination. Most past presidents have come into office witha clear denominational affiliation, which helped narrow their options. ButObama was a member of Trinity United Church ofChrist (UCC) in Chicago,an anomaly in the UCC for being a predominantly African-American church in amostly white denomination. The UCC is also one of the most liberaldenominations in America,and joining another UCC church would inevitably raise the issue of JeremiahWright again. But it is also the denomination he has belonged to for his entireadult life, and people would read all kinds of things into his decision toleave it.

Another question is whether hewill choose a church with a social justice and prophetic tradition that reflectshis theology but risks another Jeremiah Wright moment. Or should he chose amore “relational” church focused on community and Christian growththat would provide a nurturing environment for his daughters but might beviewed by supporters as the easy way out?

It’s hard enough to find a newchurch without being president. So what is a president, a father, a husband,and an inspiration to an entire race and new generation of American voters todo? Despite (or perhaps because of) all the political implications of thisdecision, there will not be a “smart” political choice. All will be fraughtwith peril. But Obama proved throughout the campaign that often the bestpolitical choice is just to do what feels right and then honestly communicatewhy he did so to the American people.

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