Clift: The Politics of Obama's Church Choice

There shouldn't be any suspense, really, about whether Barack Obama will use his full name when he takes the oath of office. Still, there was such sensitivity during the campaign about his middle name that reporters were apt to wonder how he would handle this delicate moment. Not delicate at all, he has said. He would do what is customary, which means that Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath to Barack Hussein Obama. Three names evocative of lands and cultures distant from Washington will send a powerful signal to the world that this is the dawning of a New America.

Perhaps historians will find some irony in the fact that the only president to forswear his full name in the historic ceremony was one with a quintessentially American name, Jimmy Carter, who took the oath as Jimmy and not James Earl Carter. The informality reinforced the down-to-earth appeal of Carter's candidacy. Obama's decision can be seen as a repudiation of critics who seemed to delight in invoking Obama's middle name. Playing up Obama's Christianity and downplaying anything suggestive of his father's Muslim roots was the campaign's MO, and the media went along with it, equating his enemies' use of the word "Hussein" with smear politics.

Once Obama was elected, celebrating his multicultural ethnicity and using it to America's advantage on the world stage was a no-brainer. After all, that was the point of the election and the change that he promised. But there's another decision closer to home and fraught with tension: which church will he and his family attend in Washington? At a recent conference hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a Washington Post reporter said the newspaper had called 16 churches to see if they'd heard anything about the first family's intended place of worship. The white churches responded, eager to share their lobbying efforts to win the Obamas as parishioners. The black churches didn't respond; they didn't want to play, said the reporter. "They don't trust us," she said, explaining that after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright experience, black church leaders think the media are waiting to descend on them looking for inflammatory sound bites, sifting through tapes and examining church bulletins for anything that might offend white America.

Black religious leaders did not stand up for Wright even as they understood and sympathized with the prophetic theology he was steeped in. He had jeopardized Obama's candidacy and so he disappeared, but the internal fight, much of it generational, continues. Wright has since eased himself back into Trinity Church in Chicago, alongside his successor, Otis Moss III, a voice of the future. The rise of Obama highlighted a cadre of black professionals who, like Obama, were not shaped by the civil-rights battles of the '60s, or steeped in family memories of slavery and Jim Crow. "We look different; we sound different," says Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton who spoke at the Pew conference. "Historically locked out of black politics because we didn't march, we now have Ph.D.s and J.D.s," he said, describing this group, of which he is one, as "post-soul babies." Along with Obama, they are finding their political voices, and the traditional brokers like the Reverend Wright and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are vulnerable, caught in the generational divide that is confounding the black community.

Obama campaigned as the candidate who could bring the various strains of American life together, ideologically and spiritually. His choice of conservative Christian evangelist Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the Inauguration is an attempt to build on the inroads he made during the campaign with evangelicals. According to data presented at the Pew conference, Obama won 24 percent of their votes, compared with Kerry's 21 percent. That may not sound like much, but elections are won or lost on the margins, and younger evangelicals in particular are more progressive on issues like gay marriage and the environment than their elders. Warren has said extremely ignorant and offensive things about gay people, and the gay community is understandably upset that Obama has given him this prestigious forum. At the same time, Warren has moved his followers away from a singular focus on social issues to embrace other areas of concern: climate change, global poverty, AIDS and genocide in Darfur. His book "The Purpose-Driven Life" has sold 30 million copies.

Symbols are important, and the church Obama chooses, if he singles out any one church, will shed light on how far America has come in transcending its racial past. Asked by the Washington Post reporter which house of worship he thought Obama should attend, Glaude noted (as many others have) that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. He said Obama should go "wherever is best for his babies, his children." If that's the measure, who can complain?

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