The recent resignation of Sen. Barack Obama (D.-ILL.) (and all of his family) from Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ is the latest scene of a tragicomic play that is as much religious as it is political.
Tragic because it is the very real parting of lifelong friends and families, as well as the severing of what seemed to be quite deep friendships between remarkable men; Sen. Obama and Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, longtime pastor at Trinity.
Comic because of how the illusory act of politics compels people to play roles to appeal to broad segments of the populace for votes, or just to assuage their fears.
The heat and light of politics does not reflect well on the inner sanctums of the Black Church, which, since its inception during the hellish depths of American slavery, had to speak in voices of pain, bitterness, truth and hope, in order to have any relevance to a people drowning in a sea of hopelessness.
The Rev. Dr. Wright spoke to this central truth when he observed at the National Press Club recently that enchained Africans in the holds of the slave ship didn't pray to the same god as those of the crew on the top decks, manning the masts. Nor, obviously, did they pray for the same thing - for one prayed for peace and a good breeze; and the other prayed for the storms and a chance to break their bonds, to make a break for freedom.
I've been struck by the role of religion in this presidential campaign, especially in light of Article VI of the Constitution, which states, quite explicitly, that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification, to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
But, if American history teaches us anything, it is that the Constitutions can be conveniently ignored, by millions.
One's church is as much a social decision as it is a religious one, but politics is the art of ego, illusion and imagery.
To gain a political office, is it necessary to reject one's church?
One of America's greatest leaders, Frederick Douglass, once wrote that one of the worst slave masters he ever experienced was the most religious: Thomas Auld of Bayside, Talbot County, Maryland. Writing of his conversion, Douglass noted: "If it made any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sanction him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty." [Douglass, F., Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Mineola, NY:Dover, 1995), p. 32]
Douglass said Auld prayed night and day, but he "starved" his slaves, while he "stuffed" his church friends.
Religion is a poor barometer by which to judge a politician. For, to a politician victory is his god, and a church merely a means to that end.
--(c) '08 maj