Yesterday morning I read that the IRS is investigating the UCC because of a speech given by presidential candidate Barack Obama at general synod. It appears that the distinction between church and state may have been breached because Obama, who has always identified as UCC, accepted an invitation to give a speech to his own denomination during their general synod. According to what I have managed to read so far, the crowd at the synod, which most definitely included a wide spectrum of political opinions, was informed and warned before Obama took the stage that the speech was not in any way campaign-related, but rather was intended (ironically, in retrospect) to address the question of “how personal faith can be lived out in the public square, how personal faith and piety is reflected in the life of public service.” Personally, I think that is a great idea and probably was a wonderful speech. Obama is known, at least in the circles in which I move, for his ability and desire to live out his faith through his work, and it strikes me as fitting that the UCC would call upon one of their own, an inspiring young representative of our often-times uninspiring government, to infuse the denomination and especially the youth and young adults of their denomination with a bit of hope for the future.
So then, I can’t help but wonder, what does it mean when a candidate who happens to be a person of faith is disallowed from speaking publicly within his or her denomination?
Considering the close relationship that President Bush likes to appear to keep with Christianity in general and the religious rhetoric that he has consistently injected into not only his presidency but into the campaign that got him there, it strikes me as odd that Barack is the one who is getting in trouble. It seems like just yesterday that discussions of Obama and faith centered on the question of his relationship to Islam rather than Christianity.
But really the point here is the sad fact that the UCC, a wonderfully hopeful and vibrant community of Christians, may be forced to pay the price for supporting one of their own. If the IRS determines that the UCC is at fault, then they may lose their tax-exempt status, and anyone who knows anything about the church knows that the UCC cannot afford that kind of blow.
At this point, it is unclear how this is going to end up. As for me, I can only continue to pray that the UCC and those who are affiliated with them, as well as other denominations and their memberships who will no doubt be affected by this decision, can continue to feel safe and encouraged to live out their faith publicly and to talk about it with others. I pray that those who devote their lives to public service might feel encouraged to speak about their work with others, whether in a church or a meeting house or a general synod. And I will continue to pray that separation of church and state will be used as it was intended rather than as a means of silencing people of faith.