Barack Obama’s decision to call it quits at Trinity UCC in Chicago is one that will certainly relieve his campaign handlers. The spectacles of Jeremiah Wright and Michael Pfleger having their rants rebroadcast in an endless loop is certainly one that Obama and the campaign will find easier to deal with now that he has cut formal ties with his church.
There is one major lesson in this episode–one that certainly hasn’t played out to the fullest extent–that needs to be kept in mind.
As of now, just about any church agenda in the U.S. has political overtones, implications and the ability to create enemies. In the past, most of our politicians have come from Main Line churches (the Southern Baptists and Mormons being the most visible exceptions, and they could be characterised as regional strongholds) with a leavening of Freemasons amongst that group. Most of these had a "middle of the road" message and service style, and that to some extent was to minimise any controversy in the image the members conveyed to society.
Until the 1960’s the biggest trout in the milk was Roman Catholicism. Being Catholic was further complicated by the fact that you couldn’t be a Mason and a Roman Catholic, a major handicap from a political standpoint in itself. It could cut both ways. It’s true that Al Smith lost in 1928 because the Southern states couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a Roman Catholic. Jack Kennedy had to deal with this in the 1960 campaign. On the other hand, James G. Blaine lost to Grover Cleveland in part because one Protestant pastor characterised the Democrat party as the party of "rum, Romanism and rebellion."
Since the 1960’s, the polarisation that has rent American society in general has certainly affected churches. The mild middle of Main Line Protestantism has largely evaporated as the denominations that made it up have watched their memberships decline. That event was in no small measure because they opted to jettison whatever faith they had and exchange it for a radical social message, and Obama’s debacle is the logical conclusion to that. On the other side the activities of the "religious right" are well known, and McCain is experiencing some of the effects of that.
That leaves one question: if most Christian churches find themselves identified with one side of the political spectrum or another, how long will it be before the government, at last unified under one side or the other, decides to delegitimise one type of church or another? Are we looking at the long-term creation of a two-tiered system of churches, one that can operate freely and the other under disabilities because its idea is out of favour? And what will that say for our much-vaunted religious freedom in this country?
And finally, where will Barack Obama go to church now? That’s not a stupid question. So many have balled and squalled about him being a Muslim. Will he be tempted to go that route, in secret if not openly, after this fiasco? Pastors know all too well that people, faced with situations at churches, do strange things. It’s time to pray, irrespective of the outcome of the election, because his eternity is very important too. After all, Jesus Christ came to die on the cross for Barack Obama as much as you and me.