Christine Stuart photo
When he mentioned universal healthcare and called for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama received a standing ovation from thousands gathered at the United Church of Christ conference in Hartford, however, when the topic turned to immigration reform his reception from the crowd was luke warm.

“And there’s another issue we must confront as well. Today there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in America…it doesn’t mater where that person came from or what documents they have. We believe that everyone, everywhere should be loved, and given a chance to work, and raise a family,” Obama told the close to 10,000 UCC members Saturday.

While there were pockets of applause for Obama’s remarks on immigration the support for his comments was underwhelming. But it was difficult to understand the reason for the lack of reaction. Was it the mention of border security?

“Our conscience cannot rest until we not only secure our borders, but give the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country a chance to earn their citizenship by paying a fine and waiting in line behind all those who came here legally,” Obama said.

The UCC will be addressing immigration reform as its continues its business over the next few days.

UCC President John Thomas said Friday that the delegates will also be looking to pass a resolution to reaffirm the church’s historic faith stances and unify the church again through its biblical, theological foundations.

Obama, a member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, reached back to the wisdom imparted by the Bible to explain the title of his speech
The Politics of Conscience.”

He said in Deuteronomy Moses talks to Joshua and tells him about the challenges his followers will face when they reach the promised land without him. At the time the challenges, “seem momentous—and they are,” Obama said. But, he said, Moses tells Joshua that “What I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven. Nor is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near. It is on your lips and in your heart.” 

Obama, who has described himself as Joshua in the past, described the audience Saturday as members of “another Joshua generation.”

“Because we all have the capacity to do justice and show mercy; to treat others with dignity and respect; and to rise above what divides us and come together to meet those challenges we can’t meet alone,” Obama said. 

He said he hears from evangelical Christians “who may not agree with progressives on every issue,” but agree poverty and hate have no place in the world. So whether its to the Christian right or the Christian left, “God is still speaking,” he said.

But “somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart,” he said. “Faith got hijacked.”

In part Obama blamed the “so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us.” He said there was even a time when the “Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don’t know what Bible they’re reading, but it doesn’t jibe with my version.”

“My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work,” Obama said.

Obama spoke towards the beginning of his 45-minute speech mostly about how he found his way to the church in his early 20s while working as a community organizer.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Obama was working with churches as a community organizer in 1985 when the pastors asked if he was a member of a church. “If you’re organizing churches,” they said, “it might be helpful if you went to church once in awhile.” So one Sunday he went to Trinity United Church of Christ and heard Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. deliver a sermon titled, “The Audacity of Hope.”

The title of the sermon would later become the title of Obama’s book and the intersection of faith and public life would continue.