National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton:Will Obama & UCC Make Up?

NEWARK, Delaware – The Rev. Dr. John Thomas, the general minister and president of the 1.2 million-member United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination, told 250 delegates to the annual meeting of the UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference at a forum on the University of Delaware campus here Saturday that Sen. Barack Obama recently commented to him, “I’m sorry I’ve been such a problem for you.”

Obama was referring to need to disassociate from remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright from earlier sermons posted on the Internet, and comments many allege were taken out of context at Wright’s National Press Club speech in April. His comment also referred to his subsequent resignation from the Trinity Church of Chicago, following remarks by a guest preacher there that were seen as unduly derisive of Hillary Clinton. Obama had been a member of the Trinity Church, a popular mega-church in the UCC denomination, for over 20 years.

Thomas said the occasion for his recent encounter with Obama, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was a meeting of 45 church leaders that Obama convened earlier this month, aimed at both listening and reaching out to them.

“The vast majority of those present represented evangelical churches,” Thomas said. “Certainly none of them, like us, support same-sex marriage.”

He said that while Obama’s relationship with the UCC has become at least temporarily estranged, Obama did represent his own values to the religious leaders at the meeting that closely corresponded with those of his UCC roots.

Otherwise, Thomas said he personally sensed the UCC as “marginal” among the denominations represented, because of its “legacy of risk-taking that is built into its DNA from the days of its support for anti-slavery Abolitionism and before.”

In the discussion that ensued at the forum, moderated by Central Atlantic Conference Minister the Rev. John Deckenback, one participant responded that rather than sensing the UCC as “marginal,” it is more constructive to view it as “cutting edge,” or the “way of the future.”

The UCC distinguished itself as the first mainstream Protestant denomination to formally embrace same-sex marriage at its biennial Synod in 2005. Among other things, it was the first to ordain and openly-gay clergyman in 1972, and brought Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union into association with the religious community.

In the last century, it transformed its Abolitionist anti-slavery efforts prior to the Civil War into the establishment of colleges and universities for freed slaves afterward, including the founding of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“Ours is the denomination rooted in care for the oppressed and vulnerable, and the welcome of the stranger. These are the measures of whether we’re being true to ourselves,” Thomas said Saturday.

Barbara Brown Zikmund, a church historian participating in Saturday’s forum, noted that “many in other denominations look to us to be the cutting edge risk-takers, because they’re not positioned to do the kinds of bold things we can, and they’d like to.”

Thomas said the UCC is set up as a denomination to run a wide range from more conventional values and behavior to “doing odd things, profound sometimes, and other times, just odd.”

The UCC does not require a uniformity of belief, and many in the denomination have learned “not to run away when they’re not all of one mind,” Zikmund said. “We can live with dissidence when we have it.”

Thomas said a unifying feature of the denomination is the “shared language” in its Statement of Faith, originally crafted when the UCC was created by a merger of the Congregationalist church and the Evangelical and Reformed church 50 years ago.

While belief in the assertions in the statement are not required for membership in the UCC, he said, it does represent a basis for “commonality” among UCC members who may otherwise clash on specific issues.

Buoyed by this embrace of diversity, UCC leaders are hopeful that Obama and the UCC will reconcile, and that he will find a new church home within the denomination.