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Of pastors and congregations

The media and opponents of Sen. Barack Obama continue to hang the Rev. Jeremiah Wright around his neck (with Wright’s help). I would like to offer a perspective that has been neglected.

Much ink and CO2 has been expended questioning Obama’s extended association with the intemperate Wright as a member of his congregation. The neglected word here is “congregation.”

People leave and join congregations continually, for all kinds of reasons. It has been the Protestant way for a long time, and it is increasingly becoming common in Catholicism as well. But membership in a parish or congregation is more than adherence to or liking of — or agreement with — the pastor.

Viewing membership in a congregation in an individualistic way reduces religion to just another consumer activity, like buying a car. Congregations that are based on cults of personality do not survive the passing of the key figure.

Assemblies of the baptized

In Christianity, congregations are first and foremost assemblies of the baptized. Baptism enrolls the person in the life of a faith community.

Before some readers dismiss this as gauzy sentimentality, let me point out that this central point has allowed Christian congregations to survive some really bad pastoring for 2000-plus years.

In Obama’s case, I admire his willingness to stay associated with a congregation whose pastor said extreme things. It shows character and perhaps even an understanding of his own baptism that the chattering classes — including Christian tsk-tskers like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — have failed to appreciate.

Cutting and running from an objectionable pastor at the drop of a hat is the practice of consumer culture. Parish membership is about supporting the total ministry of the congregation, which in the case of Obama’s parish, Trinity United Church of Christ, is creative, comprehensive, relevant and bespeaks the reign of God in both intent and outcomes.

An echo of the marriage vows
Does this mean one should never leave a congregation in protest? Well, never say never, but it should be more the exception than the rule. Parish membership echoes the marriage vows that enjoin us to stay together in good times and bad, for rich or for poor, in health and sickness.

So I say: “Enough about the Rev. Wright already!” He was not the whole show at Trinity. He has had his time to explain himself.

Obama should be spared having to respond to questions about his membership at Trinity UCC, which clearly transcends his association with Wright.

Ted Snyder is a freelance writer in St. Paul.

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