Thursday, May 31, 2007
Obama's Faith: A Civil and Social Gospel
-- Robert M. Franklin
[Robert M. Franklin is Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at Emory University, Atlanta, and the author of Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities (Fortress Press, 2007).]
One by one Senator Barack Obama is passing the necessary tests for national leadership. Probing questions have been raised about his experience, race, early education, parents, voting record, statesmanship, and more. He has answered those questions with poise and respect. But when attention turns to Senator Obama's faith, I get worried.
As Martin Marty noted in a recent column ("Keeping the Faith at Trinity United Church of Christ," April 2, 2007), some media hounds have focused on Obama's home church of choice. Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's south side is one of the nation's most progressive African American mega-churches. Led for thirty-five years by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., the church fuses into its core Christian identity a set of cultural strains that are vibrant in contemporary Black life, including liberation theology, Afrocentrism, and progressive politics.
In 2006, at a speech to Jim Wallis's Sojourners conference, Obama elaborated on his understanding of how faith should appear in the public square. It was a rational, balanced, thoughtful articulation of a socially responsible Christian faith, something rarely heard or said by politicians in our political culture. His words were especially assuring to people who feel that President Bush has abused religious language and personal faith to justify a horrific war and tax cuts for America's wealthiest citizens.
Obama's inner life appears to be driven by a civil and social gospel that America desperately needs at this hour. And that inner life has been nurtured by a congregation that loves God and celebrates the beauty and power of the Black experience in America. Why is this a cause for alarm? At a time when there is so much of what Martin Marty calls "wishy-washy, waning religion," it is exciting to see a congregation committed to improving the lives of people who have been the victims of bad public policy and public neglect.
The fact that churches like Trinity remain in the city and serve people on the margins of society suggests that they may be closer to the mission of Jesus than some of our finest cathedrals and suburban sanctuaries. And while I imagine that Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood would love to have the Senator and his family as members, the working poor and those who have yet to enjoy the American dream need him more.