By David Briggs
Religion News Service
Saturday, March 15, 2008
CLEVELAND -- For the United Church of Christ, a graying, Cleveland-based denomination that has lost more than 40 percent of its members since the 1960s, Sen. Barack Obama is a godsend.
Church leaders expect more people to come knocking on UCC doors as their most widely known member raises awareness of the denomination through his Democratic presidential campaign.
Some church officials consider him a walking billboard for a denominational advertising campaign welcoming believers of all races, ages and sexual orientations.
Unlike John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960 or even Mitt Romney's GOP bid this year, where fears of anti-Catholicism or anti-Mormonism were palpable, the UCC is happy with the attention.
Even the news last month that the IRS is investigating a 2007 talk on faith and politics by Obama to the church's General Synod was taken in stride. Church officials see it as a free-speech issue, protecting the right of politicians to relate their faith to their public responsibilities.
"Obama's campaign has given us in the United Church of Christ a wonderful opportunity to tell our story," said the Rev. John Thomas, church president, in an e-mail exchange from Geneva, Switzerland, where he was on church business.
The church can use the good fortune.
Like many other mainline Protestant denominations, the UCC has seen its membership fall from 2 million in 1965 to 1.2 million at the end of 2006.
Since 2004, the denomination has aggressively advertised on radio and television. The campaign, called "God Is Still Speaking," portrays the church as open to everyone, including racial minorities and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
The attention Obama brings to the UCC is almost all positive, experts on religion and politics say, because they share similar political views and Obama's message of inclusion fits with the denomination's advertising campaign. Religious conservatives who would be turned off by liberal politics probably would not be interested in the denomination, observers say.
"This is free publicity, for the most part," Furman University political scientist James Guth said.
UCC leaders agree.
"While it is exciting for many of us to have a member of our church running for president, what excites many of us the most is seeing a candidate who is promoting progressive values based on his Christian faith," Thomas wrote in his e-mail. "Obama reminds us that Christianity is not owned by those on the far right politically, but can provide a spiritual foundation and moral vision for those across the political spectrum."
The hope is that the interest eventually will fill more seats on Sundays.
The Rev. David Schoen, evangelism director for the denomination, said he has heard reports that some people are coming to UCC churches because of Obama's connection.
Obama is "re-engaging young people in looking at the church again, [or] maybe for the first time," he said.
So far, few church leaders seem fazed by criticism directed at remarks by the minister of Obama's home church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
Among other things, a video shows the Rev. Jeremiah Wright suggesting that the Sept. 11 attacks were brought on by U.S. policies.
In a statement released yesterday afternoon, Obama said, "I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy."
And Thomas praised Trinity as "a great gift to our wider church family and to its own community in Chicago."
He added, "We will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends."
David Briggs writes for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.