March 20, 2008
The Perils of Publicity
— Daniel Sack
They say in this age of celebrity that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Thanks to the current presidential campaign, two American religious groups will find out if that's true.
The now-suspended campaign of Mitt Romney thrust his religious tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, into an unexpected spotlight. The Mormon church is one of America's fastest-growing but least-known religious communities. Many Americans had heard rumors about the church—about polygamy, special garments, and baptizing the dead—and assumed that it was a secretive cult. Romney's campaign, however, led them to take another look. The candidate himself talked little about his church, but other Mormons used the opportunity to shed light on their tradition, depicting the church as normal, with unique beliefs but not cult-like. They most likely did not convince the most dedicated anti-Mormons, but did introduce their church to a genuinely curious country.
The United Church of Christ now finds itself in an unaccustomed and more complex situation. The snowballing campaign of Barack Obama, member of a UCC congregation in Chicago, has thrust the denomination into the rumor-driven blogosphere and gotten it into legal hot water.
With its roots in Boston Puritanism and early German immigrant communities, the UCC is well-rooted in the American Protestant mainline. It was the established church in much of colonial New England; soon dwarfed by faster-growing denominations, it retained the aura of establishment, often the most socially prominent church in many communities. Its membership included lawyers, judges, governors, and two presidents. As such its every gesture was reported in the press.
Like all of the mainline denominations, however, the United Church of Christ has seen its stature decline in recent decades. Its membership has dropped and its social prominence has faded as other churches have taken the spotlight. Despite its long heritage and rich diversity, the UCC has seemed less newsworthy in comparison to televangelists and megachurches.
Again, like all of the mainline denominations, the UCC has worked hard in recent years to reclaim its place on the stage. At its biennial General Synods the denomination passes statements on ethical and social issues, including everything from marriage to the Middle East. Those resolutions generally get press coverage, however, only when they lead to conflict within the church. In recent years the UCC has been more active in shaping its own message, with an advertising campaign showing it as a welcoming alternative to exclusive denominations. One new initiative reaches out to scientists. Several years ago, after Spongebob Squarepants was attacked by some evangelical groups for supposedly promoting homosexuality, the denomination's president was pictured greeting the animated porifera. The UCC markets itself as "people of God's extravagant welcome."
Its suddenly most prominent member represents that image. Ever since his appearance on the national stage in 2004, the UCC has proudly claimed Obama. He belongs to Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the denomination's largest congregation; Trinity's recently-retired pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has long been Obama's mentor. The new senator was a keynote speaker at the denomination's fiftieth anniversary celebrations last summer. While Obama is not a cradle UCC member—he joined Trinity in his mid-twenties—he exemplifies the UCC's self-image: young, intelligent, progressive, and multi-cultural.
As with the Mormons, however, having a member run for president creates both opportunities and challenges. Reporters investigating Obama's membership at Trinity have discovered the congregation's strong Afrocentric identity ("Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian"), leading some in the blogosphere to tag the church as racist and extremist. Others have focused on short excerpts from Wright's sermons which appear anti-American. Some have connected Wright and Farrakhan to UCC resolutions about the Middle East conflict, calling the entire denomination anti-semitic.
Recently the United Church of Christ has learned that it is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is concerned that the denomination may have engaged in electioneering by inviting Obama to address last summer's General Synod, thus endangering its tax-exempt status. The UCC insists that it was exercising its rights to free speech, adding that Obama was not yet a declared candidate when they invited him.
The IRS investigation is just beginning, and there will be a lot more written about the Obama-Wright-Farakhan connection. For the moment, however, one conclusion stands out: In our intensely mediated world, publicity is hard to control. Religious organizations may welcome the attention generated by prominent members, but in a day of twenty-four news cycles and anonymous blogging, that attention creates as many challenges as opportunities.
Daniel Sack is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and administrator of the Border Crossing Project at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.
Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Please send all inquiries, comments, and submissions to Kristen Tobey, managing editor of Sightings, at email@example.com. Subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription at the Sightings subscription page.