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c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) For a man trying to downplay messianic expectations, a speech on race, politics and religion aimed at “a more perfect union” might seem ambitious, yet this was the organizing theme of Barack Obama’s speech this week.

After revelations of controversial statements uttered by Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, including many that described the U.S. as fundamentally racist, Obama had no choice but to clarify his relationship with Wright.

Though urged to cut all ties with Wright, he refused to do so, choosing to condemn specific comments rather than disown the man who introduced him to the Christian faith.

A newspaper reporter interviewed me and thought this was an outrageous and untenable stance. Yet I found Obama’s position both understandable and admirable, in part because I had a similar experience when my own views had evolved beyond those of my very conservative religious tradition. A Harvard scholar advised me to “never cut myself off from the people who brought me to faith in Christ.” Obama followed the same path.

That approach revealed Obama’s belief that unity will occur only when we learn to listen to and understand people who think very differently from us _ even people with whom we have grave disagreements.

Obama listed some unresolved national issues rooted in race _ segregated schools, legalized discrimination, the lack of economic opportunity _ and set those up as the context for Wright’s anger and frustration. He then quoted William Faulkner, a white Southern literary hero, who once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

Obama declared that religion is both part of the solution and part of the problem when it comes to race. He pointed out that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life, and labeled slavery “this nation’s original sin.” He stated that all religions equally demand “that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

Obama then moved religion to the side and put politics at center stage.

After he started the speech with an aim toward a “more perfect union,” he ended by saying that our hope for this perfection lies in the documents signed by the Founding Fathers just steps away in Philadelphia.

And this is where some religious people may part ways with Obama.

After years of wrestling with the role of government in societal renewal, Leo Tolstoy concluded that “there is only one way for us to improve society and that is for all of us to improve ourselves.”

Conservatives and most evangelicals believe that societal renewal and spiritual renewal are inseparable, and that political life flows out of spiritual life _ not the other way around. Though they believe in separation of church and state, they have concluded that a healthy religious life is foundational to a healthy political life.

Obama could have used this speech to articulate a role for healthy religion, but instead he used it to separate himself from his spiritual mentor and to reassert himself as our nation’s hope.

Aware of the messianic visions of some of his supporters, Obama said he’s “never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy _ particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”

Still, he went to great lengths to show how his background uniquely prepares him for bridging the racial divide _ “son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.”

You could almost hear the Beatles in the background: “Come together right now over me.”

Obama said the nation faced a choice to “accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. … Or we can say, `Not this time.”’

And so the man who wanted to avoid the questions of race has made them central. The man who wanted to diminish messianic hopes made himself the obvious choice for savior. And the man who once said his hope is rooted in religious faith seemed to distance himself from that faith while elevating politics as our source of unity and hope.

(Dick Staub is the author of “The Culturally Savvy Christian” and the host of The Kindlings Muse (http://www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at http://www.dickstaub.com)

KRE/PH END STAUB725 words

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