Obama & the First Amendment

Barack Obama’s decision to resign from the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago had two sides. First, he was undoubtedly tired of being held responsible for every outrageous, or semi-outrageous, or provocative, or semi-provocative remark made from the pulpit there. Second, the good people at Trinity were undoubtedly tired of the harsh lens of national media attention on every remark made from their pulpit. The relationship between the ecclesiastical and the political is always a two-edged sword. Let’s be clear. Questions about whatever intellectual, familial, social, and spiritual influences have nurtured Sen. Obama are entirely legitimate. The American people are weighing whether or not to endow him with a great deal of power and they have a right to ask whatever questions they want, including questions about his religion. They have a right to expect their candidates to wrestle with the political consequences of their faith because the voters wrestle with the consequences of faith in their lives all the time. Obama should be applauded for never hiding behind the "wall of separation" argument that was invoked by John Kennedy. Unlike John Kerry, Obama has not tried to avoid all discussion of religion and of his religious beliefs. In fact, because of the controversies stemming from pulpit excesses at Trinity, Obama has had to provide more extensive answers to religious questions than any Democratic candidate in memory. As a constitutional lawyer, he surely knows that the separation of church and state that is enshrined in the First Amendment does not mandate a separation of religion from society. The First Amendment certainly wished to avoid ecclesiastical interference in the machinery of civil government. Englishmen, and their American progeny, saw religious and civil liberties as united and, in the 18th century, they saw Catholicism as the greatest threat to both. But, the framers of the Constitution also worried about government interference in religion. Baptists in Virginia, who had known the petty oppressions of the Church of England in colonial times, pushed hard for the First Amendment precisely because they wished to be freed from the obligation to support a church they did not attend with their tax dollars. Most commentary has focused on the political reasons for Obama’s resignation from his church, but I am guessing that the religious reasons were just as important, that the Obamas and their friends wanted to see the congregation spared more scrutiny. Certainly, the current pastor must have breathed a sigh of relief and I am betting most of the parishioners did too. The current 24/7 endless news cycle was bound to make Trinity Church a larger part of the national dialogue than its membership would like. And, I am also sure that all the other pastors in Chicago (and some in Washington) who value a quiet life will be praying that Sen. Obama not choose them. It is right that we Americans get nervous and testy about the relationship of religion and society, of church and state, of belief and policy. There is never an easy fit between the two and religion serves its own salvific destiny as well as the good of society when it critiques the culture and calls us plodding humans to a higher place. And, voters have been well reminded that they can ask whatever questions they wish of a man that might soon have enormous power over their daily lives. Michael Sean Winters
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10 years 2 months ago
I agree completely with you assessment about the first amendment and about the religious reasoning behind Obama's actions. As I Catholic, I understand rather well the consequences of the separation between church and state. I understand its pro's and con's. But I also understand that as Catholics, our first obligation is to the teaching of the Church and not to the founding documents of our country. Surely our Constitution can not be endowed with such authority that it stands above authentic Catholic criticism; it is not, after all, a part of the Deposit of Faith.


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