Barack Obama and I share the same church.
And since our joint church is celebrating its 50th birthday in Hartford, Connecticut from June 22nd-26th, he's coming to party. While I will be unable to attend the party, I am still looking forward to seeing whether Obama will dare to have the courage of Daniel in the lion's den and, as liberals love to say, "speak truth to power." Something tells me I shouldn't hold my breath.
We are in different physical churches, of course. The Illinois Senator and Democratic presidential candidate belongs to Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, while I sit in the pews of the Chapel Hill United Church of Christ in Pennsylvania. But it is indeed the same denomination that will be having its General Synod in Connecticut over the upcoming several days, and Obama is the featured speaker, bracketed by appearances from PBS's favorite liberal Bill Moyers and activist Marian Wright Edelman.
For those not familiar with the UCC, it is not only the modern day version of several of America's oldest Protestant denominations (fifty years ago the UCC came into being as the result of a union between Congregationalists and the Evangelical and Reform churches) at the national level it is also -- well -- politically liberal. Very liberal. Actually, hard core left-wing would be a fair description.
Doubtless you are wondering what in the world a Reaganite conservative is doing in this kind of a church. Once upon a time I wondered that myself. Accident of birth in the general vicinity of the Pilgrims and Puritans (the founders of the Congregational Church in America) was the start. Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, to Congregationalist (and politically conservative) parents, before the UCC existed, I didn't have much of a say about being baptized into the family church named, as ours was, after Jonathan Edwards, the Northampton Congregationalist minister who began the Great Awakening.
Like a lot of Americans, as I entered adulthood I began drifting away not from our church but church, spending my Sunday mornings when living in Washington worshipping at the glowing altar of Meet the Press. While I couldn't know it at the time, my participation as a young White House aide in President Reagan's fight to nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court inadvertently began my journey back to church. A letter from the national staff of the UCC floated into my parents' Pennsylvania home depicting Judge Bork as a racist bigot. It was shockingly false, abrasive and ugly, the first kind of message you would expect from third-rate political operatives, the last type of missive that you would expect from a church -- any church. Copy in hand, I quickly dashed off a hot objection to the then-UCC president (not on White House stationery) demanding equal time and expressing astonishment that church funds from members who were Reagan and Bork supporters were used in such a cavalier and decidedly political fashion to oppose both a president and a Supreme Court nominee these members very much supported. Equal time was, of course, not granted. But there was a lunch with a very nice guy from the UCC Washington office, an apology and a new policy put forth that the UCC would withdraw from the business of endorsing Supreme Court nominees because they were people -- not issues. On the issues, it was made plain, the church would continue to speak out. Or, in other words, keep doing politics. Liberal politics.
And so they have.
FAST FORWARD TO THE PRESENT DAY, where, life's path having returned me home to both Pennsylvania and weekly attendance at my local church, I now find I am, irony of ironies, the president of my local UCC church council. The saving grace of the UCC church, sometimes an understandably hard one for outsiders to discern, is that one of its central beliefs is the supremacy of the local church. This is another way of saying that while all sorts of statements and issues are trumpeted by the national church, local churches, unlike, say, those in the Catholic Church, are at the top of the pyramid, not the bottom. My local church is not in the politics business. With both liberals and conservatives sliding into the pews every Sunday we stick, for the most part, to the concerns of our community. Is Mrs. Jones in the hospital? Is the UCC Home (a project for senior citizens) in good financial shape? Do we have the funds to send young Joe or Sally Smith to church youth camp? Are we reaching out to those troubled by alcohol or depression? Yes, thanks to the national church's insistence on injecting the highly political issue of same-sex marriage into the mix in a top-down fashion, we have spent a considerable amount of time having a vigorous yet constructive conversation on the subject, leaving it basically where we found the issue -- unresolved. But if you are coming to listen to fiery diatribes spewing hatred against George Bush, well, bless you, but you're not going to find them delivered here. Our church is focused on what unites us as children of God, not what divides us in the secular realm of American politics.
Yet the problem I encountered with the national leadership of the UCC all those years ago in the Reagan White House -- a zealous insistence on presenting the UCC to the national media as a liberal church and using its members money for liberal political causes -- does in fact not only persist, it has worsened. As a direct result of the liberal politics running the hierarchy, the church has lost over one million members in the last four decades. Entire churches have left the national denomination lock, stock, dollars and bible (228 as of May 2007, according to the website of Faithful and Welcoming Churches, a conservative dissenter to UCC policies). Those members remaining have drastically cut back their contributions to the Office of Church World Missionaries (OCWM), the UCC's highly politicized nerve-center for all things political.
Which brings us back to the presence of Senator Obama as the keynote speaker at this weekend's big UCC birthday bash.
The hard, plain fact is that at the national level of my church, intolerance of political diversity is the coin of the realm. Pushing a PR campaign that proclaims it is a "welcoming" denomination, the blunt fact is that if you are a conservative in the UCC at the national level you are anything but welcomed. In the words of one liberal pro-UCC website, www.talk2action.org, they simply will not permit "discussion, dialogue or debate" about issues they consider "settled matters." As with many hard-core left-wing institutions (think, say, Harvard and its tussle with ex-president Larry Summers or, increasingly, Vladimir Putin's Russia and his treatment of dissenters) there is the not inconsiderable whiff of a totalitarian mindset. Either you're with the liberal national UCC leadership - or you're against them. Discussion over.
Fortunately for conservatives within the UCC, as with the conservative movement generally, technology has come to the rescue of this standoff. The once complete domination by liberals is at long last crumbling in quite visible fashion. After all, if the Soviet Union could come to an end, why not liberal control of the UCC? The UCC's liberal assumptions are now openly questioned at popular websites run by dissenters such as UCC Truths. Importantly, in addition to its own original content, in the spirit of diversity that is distinctly not welcomed by the national church, the site lists links both to the official UCC sites as well as to the sites of the blossoming roster of visible UCC dissenters such as the Biblical Witness Fellowship. This last group's flashing message "Renewing the United Church of Christ" is driving the national church leadership just this side of crazy.
YET ALL OF THIS WILL, one suspects, be completely ignored by Senator Obama when he takes to the podium in Hartford this weekend. In a warm-up for this speech, Obama recently addressed the Iowa UCC Conference. Aside from an unsettling salute to the sin of Envy with a reference to "tax cuts for the rich," he said this: "Somehow, somewhere along the way faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked." This is, of course, a dead-on description of the way liberals run the United Church of Christ. Degrading and transforming Christ's message, hijacking it into a divisive call to a decidedly un-Christ-like vision of very earthly American left-wing politics, UCC President John Thomas even referred to the growing ranks of dissenting conservatives in the church as "serpents in our midst."
But Obama wasn't talking about Thomas. That would, of course, require talking truth to the power of his own denomination, a denomination where he, like all the rest of us in the UCC, has the power to promote change. No, Obama's words were directed instead at the easy target -- someone else's denomination -- in this case "the Christian Right." It was stay-the-course liberalism at its worst. He was received, according to one newspaper account, with "thunderous applause."
Here's a snippet of Obama's standard campaign message, taken directly from his Monday, June 18th speech to another group of Iowans at the Ottumwa High School. Speaking to what the local newspaper portrayed as an overflowing crowd, it quotes Obama as saying: "[T]hey're coming out because people in America right now are hungry for change. They want to turn the page on the kind of politics we've had the past six years. They want a new kind of politics and a new kind of governance."
The question for Obama the UCC member is whether he has the courage to stand up in Hartford in front of a sea of liberals and apply his Ottumwa standards to the national UCC church? Or will he look out at his fellow congregants from around America and do just what he did in front of the Iowa UCC Conference -- pander?
As a UCC member himself Obama surely knows there are UCC'ers aplenty who "are hungry for change" in the way the UCC has been run for decades. They want to "turn the page on the kind of politics" UCC members have had to endure not for six years but almost fifty. The old politics of the UCC has lost members, entire churches, and millions of dollars in contributions that could easily have been targeted to help seriously suffering human beings but were used instead to fund church bureaucrats lusting for the earthly pleasure of wielding political power. The dissenters do indeed "want a new kind of politics and a new kind of governance" in the United Church of Christ.
WHAT KIND OF CHANGE would that mean? For starters it could consider a revolutionary and refreshingly new approach to the church's presence in politics -- by simply removing the UCC from the political sphere altogether. The OCWM 2007 budget request for the highly political "Justice and Witness" ministry is for $1,462,646. Think of the good that money could do in Obama's Chicago or my Pennsylvania in providing direct assistance to poor children, seniors, low-income pregnant mothers, people struggling with broken marriages, alcoholism or drug addiction and much more. Yet instead the money will be spent propping up fat-cat Washington-style lobbyists and other church political bureaucracies to lobby people like -- well, Senator Obama.
Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars filing FCC petitions against media mogul Rupert Murdoch, or PR campaigns trying to get President Thomas on Meet the Press, or giving the church an increasingly disturbing reputation for anti-Semitism (it was just rebuked -- not for the first time -- by eight major American Jewish organizations for its statements on Israel ) or trying to "effect the '08 presidential elections" -- what about the radical idea of simply returning to the humble ways of Christ himself and ministering directly to suffering and needy human beings?
For Senator Obama to say anything approaching this to the liberal hierarchy of the United Church of Christ would instantly give him credibility as a politician of creativity and courage, unafraid to "speak truth to power" about the revolution stirring in the midst of his own church, to seriously walk the talk of his campaign rhetoric. But will he have that courage? Will my fellow UCC member actually stand up in a Hartford convention arena filled with a dwindling band of elitist mainline Protestant liberals and have the nerve to apply what he's saying in his presidential campaign to his own church?
Will he, to quote Jonathan Edwards, be a vessel for "a very considerable work of God"?
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