Obama, Clinton Found Faith in Land of Lincoln Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton aren't Illinois natives, but the Democratic presidential contenders each found their connection to faith in the state.
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Obama, Clinton Found Faith in Land of Lincoln

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Obama, Clinton Found Faith in Land of Lincoln

Obama, Clinton Found Faith in Land of Lincoln

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The Democratic presidential race is down to two senators with roots in the state of Illinois. Although Barack Obama wasn't born in the state, it was in the land of Lincoln that he and Hillary Clinton found their connection to faith.

In this part of our program we'll explore faith and the Illinois roots of these two candidates. We begin at the Trinity United Church of Christ.

Unidentified Man: If you are in the overflow and are visiting, or you are here in the sanctuary…

HANSEN: This mega church sits on the South Side of Chicago on 95th Street. Its motto: We are a congregation which is unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian. Its 8,000 worshippers are mostly African-American and come from all classes - judges, police officers, celebrities, the middle class and the working poor.

For parishioners at home, the church has a popular live Web cast of a service that exudes passion with a massive choir that sways, jams and rocks.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I love the Lord.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I love the Lord.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I love the Lord.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I love the Lord.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I love the Lord.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS LACEWELL (African America Studies, Princeton University): The choir is the size of many people's churches.

HANSEN: Melissa Harris Lacewell knows this church well.

Prof. LACEWELL: It's a very beautiful experience to see men and women standing next to each other, light brown and dark brown together - some people with their hair braided, some people with their hair natural, some people with their hair coiffed.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I love the Lord.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I love the Lord. He (unintelligible).

HANSEN: Harris Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. But Lacewell lived for years in Chicago and has worshipped at Trinity with Barack Obama and his family. What attracts people to the church, Lacewell says, is a message that combines traditional gospel teachings with an emphasis on black pride and service to the community.

Prof. LACEWELL: And I suspect, although I cannot know for sure, that it is exactly that message that was the attractive thing that finally led Barack Obama to actually join a church.

HANSEN: Obama was raised in a secular home and was largely agnostic before moving to Chicago in the mid-80s. As a community organizer on the South Side, he often worked with local ministers, included Trinity United's senior pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Obama, then in his 20s, began to attend services and eventually joined the church. He talked about the importance of his religion at a Democratic candidate forum broadcast by CNN last summer.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): When there's a child somewhere who is impoverished in a crumbling school without prospects and hope for the future, then that impoverishes me. So the starting point is that I've got a stake in other people, and faith informs that. My moral commitments to that vision, what Dr. King called a beloved community, grows out of my faith.

HANSEN: Professor Dwight Hopkins knows Barack Obama well. He is a member of Trinity and a professor of theology at the University of Chicago's divinity school.

Professor DWIGHT HOPKINS (Theology, University of Chicago): He has always represented a new way of doing politics that's consisted of trying to reach the broadest amount of people from different backgrounds politically, ideologically and otherwise. And he also sort of combines this Ivy League training with grassroots organizational experience. And he also sort of represents a new way of faith and spirituality where he doesn't necessarily wear it on his shirt sleeve, that is, his faith.

But he can dance with the best of them at Trinity. I'm surprised that no TV cameras have come there to catch him dancing at church.

HANSEN: Well, give us just - kind of in a nutshell, how would you describe the kind of theology that's espoused at the church?

Prof. HOPKINS: I would call it a form of black liberation theology, which says that the African-American community has to take responsibility for what's happening in their own community in order to engage in a larger conversation with the nation, if not the world. And one does that by looking for how to apply justice issues of the Bible to everyday living in the United States.

HANSEN: The motto unashamedly black, unapologetically Christian.

Prof. HOPKINS: Yes, yes.

HANSEN: But there's been a campaign on the Internet that's attacking Barack Obama for his association with the church. Critics say that this church is divisive. How do you respond to that?

Prof. HOPKINS: I think there is a difference between being against other American citizens of other walks of life, racially and ethnically on the one hand, and then on the other lifting up the particular culture and heritage of a people, a segment of the United States citizenry. And I think Trinity does the latter. The church is focused on Christianity, so it's a very Jesus, Bible-centered church.

The black part is to say that this gospel of Jesus Christ, as I said at the church, is situated in a community that's 95 percent African-American. And so how does this gospel of good news speak to these people who are sorely in need of good news?

Because not only is the community in the context depressed, but a lot of the people in the area, the actual human beings, are depressed emotionally and psychologically.

Unidentified Woman #2: Jesus said to Phillip, where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?

HANSEN: Obama also found inspiration in the church's message of hope and has made it a central theme in his presidential campaign. The title of his best-seller is, in fact, borrowed from a phrase the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. used in one of his sermons: "The Audacity of Hope." Obama writes, that was the best of the American spirit, I thought, having the audacity to believe despite all evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict.

Unidentified Woman #2: Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those…

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Let us drink wine together on our knees.

HANSEN: Have you ever been to the Trinity Church of Christ?

Pastor JOHN ALAN BORYK (Pastor, First United Methodist Church): Yes, I have.

HANSEN: That's Senator Obama's church.

Pastor BORYK: Yes, it is.

HANSEN: That's John Alan Boryk. He's the current pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Park Ridge. Senator Hillary Clinton attended that church in her youth.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) When I fall…

HANSEN: We're listening to recordings of a typical Saturday morning service at the church. It's located in the predominantly white suburb of Park Ridge, about 25 minutes from downtown Chicago.

Is there something in the water in Illinois, you think, that produces presidential candidates?

Pastor BORYK: I hope so, because we need good people. We need people of faith who will be our leaders. And I believe that's true for both of these candidates.

Dr. MYRA GOODEN (Communications, Ryder University): The First United Methodist Church of Park Ridge, Illinois, was very much a part of Hillary's adolescence and her transition into young adulthood.

HANSEN: Dr. Myra Gooden is a professor of communications at Ryder University in New Jersey. She's written extensively about America's first ladies.

Dr. GOODEN: She attended Sunday school there. She went to participate in service projects. She helped with the altar society, getting her church ready for Sunday services. But probably the important milestone for the future senator was the arrival at United Methodist of Don Jones.

HANSEN: Don Jones was the youth pastor when Hillary Clinton attended the church. He remembers her as an inquisitive teenager.

Mr. DON JONES (Former Youth Pastor, United Methodist): Hillary always attended the service and usually sat alone and would come up to me after the service and make comments. She was not required to do that. She was clearly exercising her own autonomy.

HANSEN: Don Jones is 76 now. In the 1960s, he was idealistic and politically progressive for his time. Jones was determined to expose the young church members, who were largely white and privileged, to the broader world. He talked about the Bible, but he also talked about the poetry of E.E. Cummings, the paintings of Picasso, and the music of Bob Dylan.

Jones encouraged the teenagers to practice their faith outside the confines of the church, a lesson he says Hillary Clinton embraced at a young age when she set up a babysitting brigade for migrant farm workers.

How, indeed, has her faith informed her activism?

Pastor BORYK: It's absolutely integral. She is one of the most committed Christians I know. There is a continuing thread through her life about caring for the poor, for the disadvantaged, and her attempt to play a role in achieving social justice.

HANSEN: Clinton has written and spoken many times about a cherished moment she shared with her pastor, Don Jones. In 1963, he brought her to downtown Chicago to hear the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. speak. King was a guiding source of inspiration for both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The words that Hillary Clinton heard that day in 1963 were from Dr. King's speech, entitled "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution."

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Late Civil Rights Leader): One day, we will have to stand before the God of history, and we will talk in terms of things we've done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. We built gigantic buildings to kiss the sky. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power. And it seems that I can hear the God of history saying, that was not enough. But I was hungry, and you fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and you provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If you do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me. That's a question facing America today.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: To hear more on the Illinois roots of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, go to npr.org.

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