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New York Times - Faith Has Role in Politics, Obama Tells Church

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New York Times - Faith Has Role in Politics, Obama Tells Church

By Laurie Goodstein

Addressing the 50th anniversary convention of his own denomination, the United Church of Christ, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said Saturday that the religious right had "hijacked" faith and divided the country by exploiting issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer.

But Mr. Obama said that religion has a rightful role to play in American politics, and he praised people of faith who he said are now using their influence to try to unite Americans against problems like poverty, AIDS, the health care crisis and the violence in Darfur.

"My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work," he said, speaking before more than 9,000 people at the Hartford Civic Center in front of a red and black backdrop with the church's marketing slogan: "God is still speaking."

The United Church of Christ prides itself on its inclusiveness of racial minorities, gay men and lesbians and people with disabilities, and its focus on social injustice. In 1972, it became the first mainline Protestant denomination to ordain an openly gay minister, and two years ago it passed a resolution in support of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Church leaders said that the speaking invitation to Mr. Obama was not an endorsement, and they asked audience members not to bring any Obama campaign buttons or signs into the convention center during his speech.

The church's president, the Rev. John Thomas, told the crowd that the invitation had been made more than a year ago, well before the senator declared his candidacy for president. Mr. Thomas said they wanted someone prominent who could talk about how to apply faith to politics.

"It is also a recognition that he is one of ours," Mr. Thomas said.

Mr. Obama told the audience he had been a spiritual skeptic raised in no particular tradition. In his 20s, as a community organizer working with churches in Chicago, ministers there told him, "If you're organizing churches it might be helpful if you went to church sometimes."

He joined Trinity United Church of Christ, moved by sermons by its senior pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who runs a megachurch - with 8,500 members - in a denomination where many churches are country steeples-on-the-green with memberships of 100 or less.

To conservatives looking to criticize Mr. Obama, Mr. Wright has proved a convenient target, with his Afrocentric worship style, trips to Cuba and Libya and pointed criticism of American foreign policy. The day before Mr. Obama announced his candidacy, he withdrew his invitation to Mr. Wright to speak at the event.

However, Mr. Obama's speech here was preceded by a videotaped introduction from Mr. Wright. The church president, Mr. Thomas, said Mr. Wright could not attend because he had a commitment to officiate at a wedding.

Mr. Obama used his 45-minute speech to recall the church's and many others' proud history of involvement in the American Revolution and the abolition and civil rights movements.

"But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together," Mr. Obama said. "Faith started being used to drive us apart. Faith got hijacked."

He attributed this partly to "the so-called leaders of the Christian right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us." Yet he said that in traveling around the country he had sensed an "awakening" of an interfaith movement of "progressives."

He received one of several standing ovations when he pledged that by the end of a term as president, "I will sign a universal health care bill into law." And he received sustained applause when he called for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

He said he would push for another effort next week to pass an immigration bill. He said that illegal immigrants must have a chance to "earn their citizenship."

Mr. Obama was preaching to a supportive but not totally uncritical choir. Nancy Wagner, of Spring Grove, Pa., said she liked his agenda but was left with "a little doubt" about his sincerity, "simply because I don't trust politicians."

But Penny Selbee, a retired public health nurse, said: "I thought it was inspiring. How do you even choose what was the best part?"


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