Sunday, August 12, 2007

Barack Obama, UCC Synod

Does the Right Wing own religion? Barack Obama comes to Hartford to address the United Church of Christ Synod. While the emphasis was on faith, politics crept around the edges.
Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate, June 28, 2007

Within hours of his keynote speech at the United Church of Christ Synod, presidential hopeful Barack Obama was a top story on the Drudge Report.

According to the headline on the right-leaning newsfeed website, the junior Senator from Illinois claimed during his speech in Hartford that the Christian right had "hijacked" faith.

The headline was prominently displayed on the site through late Sunday, underneath a headline about Republican former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney complaining about attacks on his religion; the stories seemed meant to be read against each other — in other words, making Obama out as the aggressor.

Seeing the Obama story on the Drudge Report surprised me. I attended Obama's speech along with a reported 8,000 UCC members and, according to the church, 166 registered journalists, in Hartford on June 23, and the hijacking comment didn't register with me at all. I was surprised when I checked my notes from the event that I had even written the comment down. It seemed like a boilerplate stump speech comment, an example of one of Obama's great political skills — the ability to comfortably mix Christian language with political ideas. It fit into the day's agenda of liberal Christian ideals.

Looking over the transcript of the speech, it was at least partially clear why I ignored the comment that would later be drudged up. First, it was a few words in the middle of a paragraph, couched within a statement about the need for unity and the ability religion has to unite.
"Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and faith started being used to drive us apart," Obama said

Obama mentioned the Christian right, but it wasn't the shot across the bow Drudge implied it was.

"Part of [the reason faith has become divisive is] because of the so-called leaders of the Christian right," Obama said.

The church members I spoke to after the speech didn't seem struck by the hijacking comment, either. A couple people said, that comment was very much in keeping with the rest of the Synod.
"With the UCC, for the most part, we agree with that, so it didn't hit us as anything out of the ordinary," UCC member Nicolle Dahlen said.

The 45-minute speech, which was met with several standing ovations by the crowd, set Obama's personal journey of faith against what he saw as a "hunger" in America for "a sense of purpose" among many Americans to "relieve a chronic loneliness."

Obama recounted how he was raised without religion, and became a churchgoer late in life, partially out of expediency. As a community organizer in Chicago, he dealt with several churches. Obama said that at that time, a pastor told him that if he was organizing churches, it might be helpful if he "went to church once in a while."

The catalyst for Obama's involvement with the church was his work with community action. Touching on speeches by Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Obama talked about the relationship between social progress and faith. The Christian right, Obama said, has worked to erode that relationship, exploiting peoples' faith to fight Democratic political initiatives.

"I think he was talking about how the radical Christian right has used faith to divide. How can we say that everyone does not have a spirituality around them? Religion doesn't belong to just a few people," said Nancy Rucker, a UCC member from Storrs.

To me, the most striking thing about Obama's speech was how eerily relaxed he seemed giving it. He was speaking in front of thousands of people, and seemed about as anxious as someone talking to a beloved house pet. Even when he made a mistake — like when he said he earned $13,000 a month (instead of a year) as an organizer in Chicago before quickly correcting himself to say $13,000 a year — it didn't look like his heart rate was raised by even a beat.

The content itself was fairly unremarkable, not because it was bad, but because it wasn't anything Obama hadn't said before. Much of it was taken almost verbatim from Obama's autobiographical book The Audacity of Hope.

It wasn't supposed to be a political speech, as several UCC officials made pains to say. Several church members emphasized to me that the UCC had asked Obama to be the keynote speaker before he announced he was running for president.

A speaker announced early in the day that Obama campaign buttons and T-shirts were not allowed within the Civic Center.

However, signs of political maneuvering were evident. Campaign staff manned Obama tables placed outside the building, across the road from buildings tagged with Dodd's '08 political graffiti.

Two politically minded entrepreneurs from Brooklyn were hawking American Apparel style T-shirts with hipster silk screen renderings of Obama's image outside the civic center entrance.
Sarah Gager and her boyfriend Andy had traveled up from New York with bags of silk screened T-shirts.

Gager laughed when I asked when the Dodd version of the shirt would be ready.

It's probably the fallout from getting up at seven on a Saturday, but I was initially irritated to high hell by the Synod. Watching two singers stand against a backdrop reading "Let It Shine" sing "Solar Power, inexpensive energy" to the tune of the hymn "Angels We Have Heard on High" (you'd know it if you heard it — it's the one that goes "Glor-or-ee-or-ee-or-ee-a), I thought the group combined all the annoying aspects of earnest liberals with all of the annoying aspects of Christianity. I warmed to the idea, though, when the entire crowd, numbering in the tens of thousands, sang along.

Partially it was the effect of being surrounded by thousands of voices in relative unison, but mostly it was the realization that with the critical mass of these numbers, something constructive might come out of these kinds of ideals.

Shortly after the holy solar power sing-a-long, Bill Moyers, the former host of PBS's news magazine show NOW and the current host of Bill Moyers Journal, was introduced as the first keynote speaker. Raised a Baptist, Moyers has attended services at a UCC Church for over 40 years.
But even if he wasn't involved with the church, he would fit the UCC's vibe perfectly, mixing a liberal slant on current events with literate references and a deep religiosity. He talked about the biblical figure Saul and Emily Dickinson in the same sentence, and deftly connected
spirituality with social action. Speaking of the conflict he saw between power and justice, Moyers said that "nothing seems to embarrass the political class in America." Not the disparity of wealth in America, not the Iraq war, not the response to national crises.

"It's justice that measures the worth of a state, not empire," Moyers said to a standing ovation shortly after a Tupperware container full of chocolate chip cookies passed through my aisle.

This paper's own columnist, Alan Bisbort, was quoted in the material handed out to the Synod-goers. In his last column, he suggested the UCC adopt "Christian but not insane" as their motto, and that quote was excerpted in the "General Synod Digest." If nothing else, this shows the church's ability to tolerate even the craziest op-ed columnist in the country (Just kidding — nobody beats the Biz!).

But in all seriousness, the church's embrace of the quote speaks volumes about its views and its character. Embedded within the statement is the supposition that Christianity has become, at least in some quarters, insane. Including the quote was a sign that the UCC is separated from the Christian right.

"That liberal Christian voice is one that isn't heard that much. What's mostly heard is a rather strident right leaning voice in America," said Philip Price, a UCC member from Atlanta, Georgia. "So it was exciting to hear so many folks affirming their faith, not with a leftist view-point, necessarily, but with a compassionate viewpoint."

At times the Synod seemed more like a political convention than a religious one. There were conferences on topics such as immigration, gay rights, and morally responsible business.

The UCC members I spoke with uniformly embraced the church's liberal stances. However, those views rankle at least one member. Jeffrey Lord, a former Reagan White House political director, wrote in the latest issue of conservative magazine The American Spectator that he and other right-leaning members of the church had objections with the church's liberal bent, writing he decried UCC officials' "zealous insistence on presenting the UCC to the national media as a liberal church" and using its member's money for "liberal political causes."

Lord claims the liberal bent has had an adverse effect on the church's membership, writing that: "as a direct result of the liberal politics running the hierarchy, the church has lost over one million members in the last four decades."

One church member suggested that the right wing hold over American Christianity is a question of perception and marketing.

"I can't blame them if they're more media savvy. I can't blame them if they're better at getting in front of the cameras," said Atlanta's Philip Price. "I think the progressive voice has not been as astute or smart at getting the message of what we believe out there in the same way."
The people I met were almost all self-described liberals. One young church member said that issues aren't always addressed.

"The church is pretty liberal and supportive. But there are some people who try to stay away from it and pretend it's not an issue," said Nicolle Dahlen, a 20-year-old church member from Rochester, Minnesota. Dahlen had spent most of the Synod working an LGBT booth. "In the last three days we sold $3,000 worth of buttons and T-shirts and stuff. The turnout's always really awesome at Synod, but because this year is our 50th anniversary, there was about 8000 people here," Dahlene said. "Which was pretty intense."

At the encouragement of the event's speakers, many of the 8,000 attending the Synod spilled out of the Civic Center and onto the surrounding streets. On Saturday, the streets and restaurants of downtown Hartford were packed with church members. My heart swelled with civic pride at the prospect of someone telling their friends back home in Sioux City, Iowa about the great chicken curry quesadilla they had at The Russell.

Jordan Polon of the Greater Hartford Welcome Center said she was overwhelmed by the number of people asking for her assistance. She didn't mind the crush, though.

"These are the nicest people I've ever met," Polon said.