Obama's 'awesome' testimony

barack obama 01We have, I realize, already had a post by young master Daniel Pulliam about the coverage of Sen. Barack Obama's recent speech to the national convention of his own mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ. Well here comes another one, because I think the emerging religious left (Religious Left?) is a major news story that deserves more coverage. The key issue with the Obama speech was whether the Associated Press did readers a service by focusing on the political angle, his latest round of criticism of the Religious Right, while ignoring the personal, spiritual side of the address -- his own journey into Christian faith.

Readers were divided, with some believing that the faith element was old news.

... Obama has told his conversion story many times, including in his bestselling autobiography and again at Sojourners' "Pentecost" conference last year. It ain't news no more ... -- jim, June 26, 2007, at 9:51 am

Like Pulliam, I think the faith angle was the stronger, fresher story. To answer Jim's comment, the candidate's supporters (Sojourners, et al.) may know about his faith, along with those who have actually read his books. The faith element has also been written about quite a bit here inside the Beltway.

But, friends, it is also very, very old news that Obama thinks the Religious Right has given Christianity a bad name. Meanwhile, the actual number of speeches in which he has gone out of his way to express his own faith experience in language that echoes the language of evangelical Christianity is rather small. That's why, in my opinion, this speech was so important. This pulpit-friendly orator is going to help shape debates inside many evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox congregations about faith and politics in the post-George W. Bush era.

So I thought I would post, this week, my "On Religion" column for Scripps Howard -- since it focuses on the spiritual elements of the Obama address, while offering a brief glimpse of the religious and doctrinal conflicts that conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews are going to continue to have with his liberal political and, perhaps, theological beliefs.

Let me also note that reporters faced a common, but still interesting, challenge in covering this speech. Obama made some small, but important, changes as he delivered the speech. Thus, some news stories feature quotes from the written text when, in reality, he said something different to the UCC crowd.

Here is a small and, perhaps, symbolic example. It's the sort of small edit that people will sit around and debate, if they know it exists. In the section of the speech about his conversion, Obama wrote:

... kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

When delivering the speech, Obama changed "truth" to "truths" -- which does match the plural noun "works" at the end of the line. Still, I think this plural "truths" reference might show up, sooner or later, in a Dr. James Dobson newsletter or some similar Christian niche-media location. The left tends to avoid references to "truth" -- singular.

I suggest that anyone really interested in this speech watch the video archived at the UCC site (this requires, to my elitist shock, Windows Media Player). Meanwhile, here is the top of my Scripps Howard column:

Play the right guitar chords and worshippers in megachurch America will automatically start singing these words: "Our God is an awesome God, He reigns from heaven above. With wisdom power and love, our God is an awesome God."

So Barack Obama caused raised eyebrows when he turned to that page in the evangelical songbook during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

"We worship an awesome God in the Blue States," he said, in the speech that made him a rising star. "We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. ... We are one people."

Obama has mixed gospel images and liberal politics ever since and his ability to reach pews without frightening the skeptical elites is crucial to his White House hopes.

Thus, all kinds of people paid close attention last week when he spoke to the 50th anniversary convention of the United Church of Christ, a small flock that has proudly set the pace for liberal Christianity. At the heart of his speech was his own spiritual rebirth two decades ago, when he responded to an altar call by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

"He introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ," said Obama. "I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

"It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle ... and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, like folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. ... But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truths and carrying out His works."

And here's the rest of the column.

Photo: Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

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