Play the right guitar chords and worshipers in megachurch America will automatically start singing these words: "Our God is an awesome God. He reigns from heaven above. With wisdom, power and love, our God is an awesome God."
So Barack Obama caused raised eyebrows when he turned to that page in the evangelical songbook during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
"We worship an awesome God in the Blue States," he said in the speech that made him a rising star. "We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. ... We are one people."
Obama has mixed gospel images and liberal politics ever since, and his ability to reach pews without frightening the skeptical elites is crucial to his White House hopes.
Thus, all kinds of people paid close attention last week when he spoke to the 50th anniversary convention of the United Church of Christ, a small flock that has proudly set the pace for liberal Christianity. At the heart of his speech was his own spiritual rebirth two decades ago, when he responded to an altar call by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
"He introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ," Obama said. "I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
"It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle ... and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, like folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. ... But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truths and carrying out His works."
Over at the Christian Broadcasting Network, commentator David Brody offered a candid evaluation of the speech, "That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience."
While conservatives will certainly criticize that Obama and his church have taken on sexy moral issues — the UCC ordained its first gay pastor in 1972 and backs same-sex marriages — they also need to praise his candor.
"Besides Obama, how many times have you seen a presidential candidate get up in front of a large crowd and talk in depth about his salvation? I'll give you the answer: Zero," said Brody, on his CBN weblog. "For Obama to stand up and talk about how Jesus changed his life, my friends, that takes guts. ... Shouldn't we like it when someone talks about Christ being the missing ingredient in his life?"
It is also crucial for Obama to define his faith in his own terms. After all, his father, stepfather, brother and grandfather were Muslims and his name, "Barack," means "blessed" in Arabic. Meanwhile, his mother was a disillusioned Methodist who was deeply spiritual but most of all a skeptic about organized religion. As a child, Obama attended a Catholic school and then a Muslim school. Later, he was drawn to the writings of Malcolm X.
Eventually, he told the UCC convention, he knew that he had to make a decision about his own faith. Obama is convinced that he isn't alone in feeling a hunger that's deeper than a desire for political change.
"It seems to me that each day, thousands of Americans are going about their lives — they're dropping the kids off at school, driving to work, shopping at the mall, they're trying to stay on their diets, they're trying to kick a cigarette habit — and they're coming to the realization that something is missing," said Obama, drawing laughter from the crowd because of his own struggles with smoking.
"They're deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. ... And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them — that they are not just destined to travel down that long road toward nothingness."