15 June 2008

On Leaving One's Church in Protest - some context

As many of you might have heard or read, a couple of weeks back, presidential candidate Barack Obama resigned his membership in Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Some have criticized the candidate's move as either too long overdue or too politically expedient to be sincere. I think that this type of move is ripe for misunderstanding by Mormons (who I acknowledge are not likely to vote for Obama in the first place, but this won't be my first time tilting at windmills), so I will try to add some context. These observations come from lots of places, most notably my own upbringing as a Protestant, in an area where most of the churches and churchgoing folks were Protestant (few Catholics and Mormons, zero Jews or Muslims, etc.), and in a family that has experienced more than one church-swap.

From time to time in the Bloggernacle or in personal encounters with others, one is likely to encounter someone who has left the Church for "political" or religious reasons. I am not talking about those who claim to have “discovered” that the Book of Mormon isn’t authentic or who believe that Joseph Smith was a total fraud, and therefore leave the Church. Rather, I am talking about those who learn about the injustices of the priesthood ban, or will take exception to the treatment of some group within the Church (gays, women, singles, etc.), and subsequently decide to leave the Church in protest. In the minds of many, the kind of person who leaves their church over some controversy or misunderstanding is one of "those people"-- apostates, infidels, etc.

First, the context. Mormons consider their Church to be TOTAL- The Only True And Living (no I did not make that up). Few Protestant Christians that I know would claim the same for their own congregations or denominations. Most Protestants identify primarily as Christians and only later, if at all, as members of a particular denomination. They recognize members of other Protestant denominations as fellow Christians and as members of some common thing they call "the Church," the boundaries of which are never quite explained or brought up in polite conversation. For most, this obviously excludes Mormons and for some, Catholics as well. But overall, it casts a pretty wide net. Choosing a denomination or a church within a denomination (which can often vary as much as churches in different denominations) is a matter of personal preferences for style of music and preaching, personnel, and the demographics of the congregation. For this reason, changing congregations or denominations, which frequently requires little more effort than sending a letter to the congregation's secretary, is completely acceptable to your average Protestant. The difference between most of these denominations (particularly in the South, which has its own religious culture completely apart from any denomination) is like the difference between vanilla, French vanilla, and maybe some chocolate/vanilla swirl- after all, it's still vanilla.

Mormons frequently sneer when it is suggested that a Protestant would change churches or denominations simply because "they (don't) like the preacher there." After all, isn't that what Barack Obama did? Nevertheless, people within my own family, good Christians all, have changed churches for reasons far more mundane than this. In my own childhood, my parents left the first church I ever attended (a Southern Baptist congregation) to take our family to the local Methodist church, simply because they had a better youth program (ward-shopping anyone?). My grandparents recently left their Baptist church because of serious problems with their preacher (too dictatorial). My uncle and aunt also left their congregation over some undisclosed conflict with something going on at the church (which certainly did not rise to the level of anything doctrinal). In all of the moves I have seen, the split is reasonably amicable- people will still call you, talk to you when you run into one another at the grocery store, have dinner with you, etc. In other words, it's NOT a big deal!

I hope that this will explain Senator Obama's move, at least a little bit. For most of my Mormon audience, I imagine that abandoning one's church, especially one to which one claims to have such a strong emotional bond and history, seems to be a drastic and shocking move. However, for the average American Protestant, switching congregations is completely ordinary, and something that he/she may do several times during their life.

Next, a defense of the sanctity of conscience...


  1. I suspect the vast majority of Mormons understand quite well the different between a Protestant leaving a given congregation or even an entire denomination (e.g., Howard Dean and the bike path) and a Mormon leaving (or ceasing activity in) the LDS Church, be it for 'protest' or disbelief.

    I think the perception problem with Obama's departure from Trinity Unity Church of Christ -- after 20 years -- is that it smacks of political opportunism. I don't think that either Obama or the TUCofC has made a convincing argument that the clips of Wright and Pfleeger represent a recent and hitherto unknown political and/or doctrinal shift in what's preached over the pulpit there -- quite the contrary.

    It is interesting to speculate -- as I did briefly -- how the media and both ends of the political spectrum would react were Mitt Romney to abruptly leave the LDS Church, citing "disappointment" with LDS doctrine or leadership. In fact, while Romney was still an active GOP candidate, there were political commentators asking why he had not left or denounced the LDS Church while the priesthood ban for blacks was still in effect 30+ years ago.

    I had high hopes for Obama when he entered the race, and I thought he might have a chance of carrying Utah, particularly while it still looked as though Huckabee could end up on the GOP ticket (see this whole series of posts, particularly this one). But between Wright's well-publicized comments and the perception -- right or wrong -- that Obama's departure from TUCofC was a political act, I see very little hope of that.

    Unless, of course, by some bizarre set of events, Huckabee does end up on the GOP ticket. ..bruce..

  2. I thought the content of this post was quite helpful given that the majority of people who read this blog are probably Mormons.

    I do take issue with part of bwebster's comment however. To me, the fact that Obama left his church does not smack of political opportunism as bwester suggests. To the contrary, he was unwilling to leave initially. To me, it seems more that he was pushed out by Rev. Wright taking advantage of the media focus to push his own national agenda at the peril of Obama's.

    It was clear that Obama left Trinity Unity with reservations. To me that speaks well of his commitment to his congregation and his long time friendship with a man he thought he knew.

  3. Bruce,

    You said:
    I suspect the vast majority of Mormons understand quite well the different between a Protestant leaving a given congregation or even an entire denomination (e.g., Howard Dean and the bike path) and a Mormon leaving (or ceasing activity in) the LDS Church, be it for 'protest' or disbelief.

    I think we will have to respectfully agree to disagree on that one. In my own experience, most members of the Church are distinguished by their lack of understanding or sophistication when it comes to other religions.

    Your paragraph on Romney supports the idea that to the majority of Americans (most likely Protestants) leaving your church does not seem like such a big deal. Just like Mormons overestimate how important such an action might be, Protestants are likely to underestimate the significance of such a move among people (like ourselves) with strong denominational identities and affiliations.

    Brigham, I agree. The Rev. Wright thing had crested and subsided on its first go around and Obama said nothing about leaving Trinity. Political opportunism would have mandated dropping one's church at the first whisper of controversy. Contemporary American politicians are infamous for the hasty apology and public show of contrition shortly following any perceived misstatement or awkward association. The fact that Obama waited until the Wright controversy had reared its head a second time, this time more publicly and remorselessly, seems to me to be some evidence of a little more backbone and conviction on Obama's part.

  4. FWIW, I considered leaving the church over the Riley Nelson fiasco a month ago. I decided it wouldn't come to much, so I decided to stay. But I know lots of people on my mission (bible belt) that either went inactive or asked for their names to be removed for other silly reasons, and went on to join other protestant churches. They came from that protestant background, and it drove them nuts when the home teachers kept dropping by every month trying to get them to come back.

  5. Thanks for this post. It's something that every Mormon should read in order to better understand the cultural differences between Christians.

    Some may look at Obama's departure as simply a convenient political move, and most Mormons will be quick to judge him, perhaps even using someone like Romney as the poster boy for religious integrity, since he didn't go as far as to denounce past prophets for their teachings about race. So while Mormons may look at the two and decide that Romney has more integrity in that regard, I think that most non-Mormons would likely see Obama as the winner here because he had the guts to "throw his pastor under the bus" (whether he really did or not can be argued) for preaching things that Obama finds objectionable (I agree that the timing could have perhaps been better). On the other hand, I don't recall Romney ever saying that he disagreed with the priesthood ban or racist teachings, only that he was overjoyed when the ban was lifted. Many would see that as avoiding the issue or "wimping out."

    Ironically, I admire both Obama and Romney for the way that they handled their religious controversies. Honestly, I'm not sure what I would have done in either of their positions. I admire Obama's willingness to denounce Wright's racist rantings, in a way wishing that Romney would have done the same regarding Brigham Young. And yet I admire Romney's loyalty and restraint from going that far.

  6. Faithful D,

    I think you make a good point here, which shows how far apart the two sides actually are on this issue. Re: Obama, many of the pundits and commentators questioned the timing or the sincerity of his withdrawal, but none that I heard ever mentioned that it was per se wrong to leave one's church.

    For Romney on the other hand, leaving the Church would be unthinkable. Even more to the point, personally repudiating the policies of a prophet dead now these long 100+ years was not an option. I also agree with the "wimp out" conclusion. I think it was a missed opportunity to change some popular (mis-?)conceptions about Mormons in that they are fanatically and irrationally devoted to following their leaders, no matter the consequences.

  7. I did a posting a while back on Glenn Beck's analysis of the Rev. Wright scandal, which I thought contained some very interesting parallels to Romney that I'm surprised he failed to see. Coming from a Mormon, I thought that his criticism of Obama's relationship to Wright sounded a little hypocritical.

    Interesting to hear some fellow Mormons' take on the issue. Comments welcome. http://thefaithfuldissident.blogspot.com/2008/05/wright-and-wrong.html?showComment=1212612900000

  8. Faithful D,

    I think volumes could be written on Glenn Beck's hypocrisy and things he has failed to see.

  9. what i found interesting during the first time the wright controversy reared its head was the hoopla made by clinton and others because obama had not simply just changed churches. if you read obama's first book, you can quickly see that wright was not simply just another pastor for obama, neither was tucofc just another church for him. both of them played critical roles in his conversion to christianity. for many (as it ought to be) a church isn't simply a club or organization you join for some reward of eternal life, and a pastor isn't just some boring interchangeable lecturer you occasionally sit through on sundays. rather, for many a church and its leaders are a part of a community/family you join up with because as a whole they uplift you, the other, and the rest of the world as a whole. though some may have terrible weaknesses, it is the unity and spirit of that community, the body of christ, that people are a part of. you don't just leave them and shop for another just as you do not leave your family and shop for a fitting replacement.

    when the wright controversy began, i was hoping that obama would have stood up for wright even more and did a better job at defending him. i personally found wright's controversial speeches quite inline with christian message. however, i realize at the same time that doing so would have required an educated and intellectual electorate and as much of our nation's electorate is far from educated or intellectual, doing so would have ruined who chances. for pragmatic and utilitarian reasons, he may have made the best choice.

    unfortunately the rift and controversy grew stronger and obama and wright had to part ways, as well as obama and his church. however, if you think about it, with the time and travel needed to campaign and with his moving to washington in january, obama would have been an absent member for the next 6 months anyways and would have needed to find a new church in january as well. so dropping out of the church was going to happen sooner or later already.

  10. Narrator,

    I think your statement about what a church or pastor ought to mean to an individual is an ideal; however, I am not sure that many people experience such strong links. It does seem clear that in Obama's case, there was an important historical and emotional relationship between him, Rev. Wright, and Trinity UCoC. I think that if you asked Obama, he would probably say that it was these emotional experiences of coming to know Christ, etc. that meant more to him that the kind of preaching that Rev. Wright is known for.

    That being said, I agree that the hoopla surrounding Rev. Wright's sermons was much ado about nothing. Obama repudiated it because he had to, pure and simple. Detail, nuance, and diversity continue to elude the American electorate...