At Obama’s Church, Pride and Nervousness

For many members of the United Church of Christ, the presidential candidacy of fellow UCC member Barack Obama has brought about a great sense of pride and satisfaction. But in recent weeks, other emotions have been added to the mix—discomfort, frustration, disgust and disappointment.

The UCC is a Protestant church that was founded 50 years ago and is generally left-leaning and progressive. It was the first mainline denomination to ordain blacks, women and homosexuals. However, despite having almost 6,000 congregations, the UCC is barely known, at least in a non-Obama context, by the general public.

Several UCC pastors I talked to said that Obama’s candidacy has brought much-needed name recognition to the UCC, as well as giving the church a platform to inform others about their beliefs. But because so much of the press coverage has focused on the controversial sound bites from Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the first impression many people are getting of the UCC is a negative one.

“I think there’s been frustration, disgust and disappointment,” said Ken Samuels, a UCC pastor in Stone Mountain, Ga. “The broad diversity of the UCC has not been broadcast and the inclusivity of Rev. Jeremiah Wright has not been broadcast.”

Obama condemned Wright’s remarks—one of the most controversial of which was, “Not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people”—while defending his relationship with Wright, whom he calls a mentor. But some UCC members feel that the public-relations damage has been done.

“For many members, there is discomfort in the way that Jeremiah Wright has lent himself to being presented,” said Bill Nye, a retired UCC pastor in Brooklyn. “He has expressed things in ways that were not diplomatic, even though it may have been appropriate.”

UCC leaders have tried to show publicly how the church differs from the “evangelical right” by launching a national campaign in 2003 to promote the notion that they are an all-inclusive, all-accepting denomination. (Other than Obama’s presidential bid, the church was last in the national news three years ago, when its general synod passed a resolution supporting gay marriage, leading some 200 local churches to leave the organization.)

“Even though we are one of the oldest and most influential churches in the history of the country, we suffer from a lack of good identity,” Nye said.

Despite the recent controversy surrounding Wright’s comments, though, church leaders say their organization has benefited from the heightened profile. Church leaders say they are noticing an increase in the number of people inquiring about the UCC, and that there is anecdotal evidence that more people are talking about the UCC at the workplace.

“We’ve attracted a number of younger people,” said Donna Schaper, senior minister at Judson Memorial Church, a 200-member UCC church in Greenwich Village. “I don’t know if it’s a correlation, but a great majority of those people are Obama people. Since the beginning of this year, when Obama’s campaign really took off, about 25 people have come.”

At least one pastor thinks that even the negative attention has carried benefits. When the I.R.S. announced a plan to probe the church’s tax-exempt status earlier this month after Obama spoke at its general synod meeting, the first thoughts of Patrick Duggan, a UCC pastor in Long Island, were that it was a “great thing.”

“We see it as a potentially positive thing that it’s in the media,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for people to ask us who we are.”

“We’re a very democratic institution where there’s room for a lot of pluralism and there’s a lot of engagement around this subject,” Schaper said.

“The fact that God so loved the world in its myriad diversity, and loves us all equally despite our differences, is a basic UCC tenet,” said Samuels. “It is inspiring that the view is now poised to ascend to the presidency of the United States and we know it is deeply imbedded in Senator Obama’s religious faith.”

At Obama’s Church, Pride and Nervousness