By Robert Marus
Published June 3, 2008
WASHINGTON (ABP) -- Religious and political leaders are expressing both concern and criticism in the wake of Barack Obama’s recent break with the church that brought him to faith 20 years ago -- but has brought him headaches on the campaign trail more recently.
The Illinois senator and likely Democratic presidential nominee acknowledged May 31 that he had mailed a resignation letter to officials at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He and his wife, Michelle, were married there and have been active members of the congregation for two decades.
But continued controversy over the church -- re-ignited by a guest preacher’s May 25 sermon in which he mocked rival Hillary Clinton and seemed to imply that she was a racist -- forced Obama’s hand.
“It's clear that now that I'm a candidate for president, every time something is said in the church by anyone associated with Trinity, including guest pastors, the remarks will be imputed to me even if they totally conflict with my long-held views, statements and principles,” he said, in a statement announcing the resignation. “This was a pretty personal decision and I was not trying to make political theater out of it.”
Obama’s resignation came after months of controversies focusing on the church -- and primarily on its former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama has acknowledged Wright as a spiritual mentor, and even named his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, after one of Wright’s sermon titles.
But Obama was forced to distance himself from Wright in March, after several snippets from Wright’s sermons showed up on YouTube and were replayed repeatedly by cable-news programs. The sound bites contained rhetoric that some have interpreted as anti-American and anti-white, such as the declaration that God condemns America for its treatment of blacks as well as its foreign-policy mistakes. But many have defended Wright, saying that the comments were better understood in the context of the entire sermons in which they appeared and in the broader context of the African-American tradition of prophetic preaching that challenges the powers that be.
Then Obama was forced to denounce the minister more formally after an April 29 National Press Club appearance by Wright that was equal parts erudite speech, bitter tirade and theatrical performance.
The controversy over Obama’s ties to Trinity subsided until the Memorial Day weekend sermon by Michael Pfleger, the white pastor of a predominantly African-American Catholic church located near Trinity. In it, he mocked Clinton and claimed she was surprised by Obama’s success because of her white sense of entitlement.
Obama denounced the sermon and noted that Pfleger had resigned from a campaign advisory council months before. Pfleger also apologized for his homily. But it, like the Wright sermons before it, kindled a media firestorm nonetheless.
Explaining his decision to reporters during a campaign appearance in South Dakota May 31, Obama said that he and his wife had been talking about leaving the church since Wright’s National Press Club performance. He said they discussed it with Otis Moss III, Trinity’s new pastor, and decided that the separation was in the best interests of both his campaign and the church.
“We prayed on it and, you know, my interest has never been to try to politicize this or put the church in a position where is subject to the same rigors and demands of a presidential campaign,” he said. “My suspicion at that time … was that it was going to be very difficult to continue our membership there so long as I was running for president.”
Obama continued: “The recent episode with Father Pfleger I think just reinforced that view that we don't want to have to answer for everything that’s stated in a church. On the other hand, we also don't want a church subjected to the scrutiny that a presidential campaign legitimately undergoes. I mean, that’s … I don't want Rev. Moss to have to look over his shoulder and see that his sermon vets or if it’s potentially problematic for my campaign or will attract the fury of a cable program. And so, I have no idea how it will impact my presidential campaign. But I know it's the right thing to do for the church and for our family.”
But some political rivals suggested the decision to leave Trinity was clearly politically motivated.
“Early in the campaign, the Obama for President website was filled with glowing reports about the positive and close relationship that Sen. Obama enjoyed with his home church and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Once it became clear that Rev. Wright and the church were becoming a liability for Senator Obama, he resigned the church out of political expediency,” said Patrick Mahoney, of the Christian Defense Coalition, in a statement.
But several news reports indicated that Trinity members interviewed on their way to and from worship services June 1 were saddened, but not angered by their most famous member’s departure.
The church issued a statement wishing the Obamas -- and their two young daughters, who were baptized at Trinity -- well.
“Though we are saddened by the news, we understand that this is a personal decision. We will continue to lift them in prayer, and wish them the best as former members of our Trinity community,” the statement said. “As in the prayer of the Ephesians, the entire Trinity family asks that the nation entrust Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha to God's care and guidance, so that Christ may continue to dwell in their lives, in their hearts, and in their work. We ask now for God's peace to be with them.”
Obama, at the South Dakota news conference, rejected the suggestion that he had chosen Trinity out of political expediency and was now leaving it for the same reasons.
“There are a lot of big churches on the South Side of Chicago,” he said. “There are a whole bunch of churches that were better connected politically, so I reject that notion, which I think is a very cynical one, that I would join a church simply to maneuver politically.
He also said that, if political expediency were his motivation, he would have denounced Wright and left the church more than a year ago, when he made the formal announcement of his presidential bid. Then, a smaller controversy arose over Wright’s past statements and actions, and Obama disinvited Wright from giving the invocation at the announcement event.
Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister who is president of the Interfaith Alliance, said all parties were to blame in the episode, which he views as a cautionary tale against politicizing churches or sanctifying politicians.
“No candidate for the presidency should ever have to resign from or join a particular house of worship in order to be a viable candidate for that high office,” Gaddy, who is also preaching pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La., said in a statement released after Obama’s announcement.. “To make such a decision for political reasons dishonors religion and disrespects the Constitution. This is a sad day in American politics and even sadder in American religion.
“Sen. Obama is at the center of the storm, but all who wed religion to partisan politics share responsibility for this tragic development.”