Friday, September 10, 2010

Mainstream Christianity in the White House (by Suzie)

An AOL reporter wrote last week that Obama has been a Christian “all of his adult life.” His press secretary called him a “mainstream Christian.” A guest minister at my Unitarian Universalist church criticized those who insist Obama is Muslim, saying Obama has “Christian roots.”

No, to the first statement. To the second: I have no doubt that he’s Christian, but I wonder what it means to be a mainstream Christian these days. The third statement ignores that he also has roots in UUism, Islam, atheism, agnosticism and humanism. It’s a shame that people feel the need to gloss over his background to counter the lies spread about him. This reductionism hurts those of us who want a more tolerant nation, in which people don’t have to insist they are mainstream Christians to avoid attacks.

Some dangerous demagogues like Glenn Beck will say anything they can to build their own following at the expense of others. Beck has called Obama a Muslim and then switched last week to say:
Obama is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim. … It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.
But Beck doesn’t understand what liberation theology means, nor that its tenets are interwoven into many mainstream churches, as the Rev. James Martin explains. (Dar Williams’ “I Had No Right,” above, addresses social justice, not liberation theology directly, but I think it’s appropriate for this post. Another tangent: In 1992, I visited Nicaraguan villages that had embraced liberation theology, but I was disappointed by the failure to integrate a gender analysis – the same critique I had of the social justice practiced by two Obama mentors, the Revs. James Wright and Michael Pfleger.)

Beck, a Mormon, has been courting evangelical Christians, but it’s not an easy alliance. Felicia Sonmez of the Washington Post says:
While Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, key tenets of the Latter-day Saints church are disputed by mainstream Christian denominations – a disparity that critics say adds to the irony of Beck questioning another person's Christian faith.
In an interesting analysis, Sam Tanenhaus of the NYT talks about how early Obama supporters such as Andrew Sullivan thought Obama’s spiritual journey could heal ideological warfare. How could they not foresee the polarization to come?

Obama’s faith interests me because I’m a UU, and I wonder if he keeps quiet about his UU background for political reasons. The Rev. James Ford, a UU minister, has said:
I suspect first for a politician, and second for one who had been working out his own faith journey which eventually took him to the African American church, that UU connection was probably something he'd just as soon ignore. And he certainly has...
Conservatives have attacked this background because many UUs are liberal, if not radical. Obama welcomed the votes of progressives, but has distanced himself from them. Conservative Christians have noted with horror that UUs can identify as Pagans or atheists or with any number of different beliefs. Even when Unitarians and Universalists were all Christians, they did not hold mainstream beliefs.

Obama has Christian roots in the sense that his Kansan grandparents did. They settled in the Seattle area during his mother’s high-school years, and they attended a Unitarian church. In Hawaii, Obama attended a UU church for several years as a child. (See my post 3/20/09.) I’m guessing his grandfather brought him. In “Dreams of My Father,” Obama says that his grandfather was interested in UU churches because they draw “on the scriptures of all the world’s great religions.” He said his grandmother dissuaded her husband from UUism, and in the next sentence, Obama mentions his grandfather’s “outlandish views.” I don’t know if he means to include UUism in that or not. But he doesn’t mention it again in his book, nor in “The Audacity of Hope.”

If his grandmother disliked the UU church, I wonder why her memorial service was held there.

In his first book, he calls his mother "a lonely witness for secular humanism." In the second, he says she taught him about world religions with a “suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well.” Teaching about the world’s religions is so typical of UUs that it’s hard to imagine her attendance at a UU church made no mark on her at all.

In 2004, when Cathleen Falsani worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, she interviewed Obama about his religious beliefs. He told her that his mother was Christian.
My mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody, was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve. We'd go to church for Easter. She wasn't a church lady.
In a transcript, he says he thinks his grandparents had joined a Universalist church by the time he was born. (It was a Unitarian church that fell under the aegis of UUism.) In keeping with Universalist beliefs, he says he doesn’t believe people will go to hell just because they “haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”

Obama started attending Trinity United Church of Christ while working with black clergy in Chicago. He was advised that he would do better if he attended a church, and Trinity had advantages, as the Chicago Tribune has noted. He says he grew to appreciate the role of the black church in the lives of African Americans, and that led him to a personal relationship with Jesus. He answered an altar call in 1987 or '88. He joined Trinity after law school.

Recently, there were a few questions about famous quotations on a new rug in the Oval Office, including the Rev. Martin Luther King’s "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." King said he was inspired by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who wrote in 1853: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one ... And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Press Secretary Robert Gibbs assured everyone that "what King said and what Parker said are not the same thing." The quote from Lincoln on the rug is: "Government of the people, by the people and for the people." Earlier, Parker had written about "a democracy -- that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people."

Media Matters calls the discussion of the rug ridiculous. But it's not so trivial to those of us who feel like we've been swept under it.
Edited to capitalize "Pagan."