United Church of Christ

Serious words at funny Al Smith dinner

Political insiders know that the Alfred E. Smith Dinner strives to honor decades of civic and religious traditions. In election years, it's a tradition that the presidential candidates appear -- wearing formal, white-tie attire -- and satirize their own public images, while also aiming a few gentle shots at their opponent and the ranks of elite journalists in attendance.

Thus, Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney, with a nod to his Mormon fuddy-duddy reputation, reminded the audience of wine-sipping socialites that, "Usually when I get invited to gatherings like this, it's just to be the designated driver."

Noting that this campaign has not, journalistically speaking, unfolded on a level playing field, he added: "I've already seen early reports from tonight's dinner, headline -- 'Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People.' "

In response, the president poked fun at his own complex and, for some, controversial religious and family background by noting that, like Romney, he has a rather unusual name. "Actually, Mitt is his middle name. I wish I could use my middle name," said Barack Hussein Obama.

But, yes, there is the issue of the Romney family's wealth. "Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown," quipped Obama. "I understand Governor Romney went shopping FOR some stores in Midtown."

It is a tradition, of course, that the jokes grab the headlines after this unique, YouTube-friendly scene at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.

But it is also a tradition that this dinner has, throughout its 67-year history, been a crucial fundraiser for charities linked to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, netting about $5 million this year. Thus, the Catholic shepherd of New York City speaks last and, literally, offers his benediction on this salute to lighthearted, generous public discourse in the tense battlefield that is national politics.

The stakes were especially high this year since Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced withering criticism from Catholic conservatives for extending the traditional invitation to the president -- because Obama has repeatedly clashed with the church over issues related to abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

The cardinal joined in the humorous repartee -- at one point noting that he couldn't read the greeting sent by Pope Benedict XVI because it was written in Latin -- but turned serious in his final prayer. He reminded the audience that the dinner honored Smith as the first Catholic selected as the presidential nominee of a major party, but also as the "happy warrior" who tirelessly fought to help the poor, the powerless and other forgotten Americans.

"Here we are, in an atmosphere of civility and humor … loving a country which considers religious liberty our first and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just limited to an hour of Sabbath worship, but affects everything we do and dream," said Dolan, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The purpose of the event, he added, was to "reverently" recall a "man of deep Catholic faith and ringing patriotism, who had a tear in his Irish eyes for what we would call, the 'uns' -- the un-employed, the un-insured, the un-wanted, the un-wed mother and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb, the un-documented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the un-fed, the under-educated.

"Government, Al Smith believed, should be on the side of these 'uns,' but a government partnering with family, church, parish, neighborhood, organizations and community, never intruding or opposing, since, when all is said and done, it's in God we trust, not, ultimately, in government or politics."

While Dolan is known for his boisterous wit, this final litany was clearly the big idea he wanted to communicate to both candidates and to all who were present, said Father James Martin, author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life."

"It was very moving, and very Catholic, because he refused to narrow the Gospel down to one or two issues," said Martin, who attended the dinner. "He reminded everyone of the sacred dignity of all human life, not just in the womb, but also not just in the slums. …

"There are Catholics these days, on the left and on the right, who don't want to be reminded of both sides of that equation. What the cardinal did was honor our Catholic tradition -- all of it."

Obama and Allah, past and present

In the spring of 2007, candidate Barack Hussein Obama met with a New York Times columnist and discussed his days as a "little Jakarta street kid" who once got in trouble for making faces during Koran classes. Obama proceeded to recite the opening lines of the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic, with what Nicholas D. Kristof called a "first-rate accent." Obama described this chant as "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset."

This text, in one English translation, proclaims: "Allah is Supreme! Allah is Supreme! ... I testify that there is no god but Allah! ... I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." These lines are known as the Shahada -- from the Arabic verb, "to testify" -- and reciting them, in public, with the intent of becoming a Muslim, is a crucial act in entering and then practicing the faith.

This is the kind of biographical detail that keeps complicating matters for journalists who try to make sense of the poll from the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicating that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, as opposed to 11 percent in March 2009.

Only 34 percent of those polled said Obama is a Christian and a stunning 43 percent did not know his current religion. Among his strongest supporters, 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats said he is a Christian.

These numbers are strange in light of Obama's public testimonies about his conversion to Christianity, after years of spiritual struggle.

In his memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama confessed that as a young social activist he realized, "Rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away -- because you were human. ... I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. ... Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

This was an open confession of faith, even if many conservative Christians choose to reject the liberal beliefs he has articulated through the years. During the campaign, the Rev. Franklin Graham asked Obama if Jesus was the only way to heaven. "Jesus is the only way for me," he responded.

Meanwhile, the Obama team has had difficulty communicating a clear message about his faith history. Campaign aides, at first, said he had never been a Muslim, but later stressed that he had never been "a practicing Muslim."

Obama's family history is hard to describe. His father was a Muslim from Kenya who became an atheist. His stepfather was a Muslim who, in Obama's words, was raised in an era in which Indonesia offered a tolerant approach to Islam that blended with "remnants of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient animist traditions." His mother was raised as a Christian, but adopted her own mix of secularism and spirituality.

While in Indonesia, Obama attended what he has called a "Muslim" public school and also a Catholic school. At both schools, according to educators interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, his faith was listed as "Muslim." School friends recalled that they often went to the mosque together.

Nevertheless, there is no single, definitive Islamic approach to questions about the role of birth and upbringing in establishing a person's religious identity.

Franklin Graham was only partially right when he told CNN: "The president's problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father. ... His father gave him an Islamic name." Graham added that Obama has "renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't."

This view of Islamic tradition is much too simplistic, said Stephen Prothero of Boston University, author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World." There is more to this debate about faith and identity than DNA, he stressed.

"As a matter of jurisprudence, however, there is a presumption that a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim," said Prothero, in an email exchange. "This needs to be followed up with ACTION, however. ...

"Like Christianity, Islam is a matter of choice, not inheritance."

Obama's awesome testimony

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."