Barack Obama photo

Question and Answer Session Follwing the Decision to Resign from Trinity United Church of Christ

June 01, 2008

Q: On the church decision do you feel this will put the issue behind you politically or do you feel it will persist and having done this now, do you wish you had done it several months ago?

OBAMA: Well, you know, after the National Press Club episode, as I said, I had a long conversation with Michelle and also had a long conversation with Reverend Moss. We prayed on it and you know, my interest has never been to try to politicize this or put the church in a position where is subject to the same rigors and demands of a presidential campaign. My suspicion at that time, and Michelle, I think, shared this concern, was that it was going to be very difficult to continue our membership there so long as I was running for president. The recent episode with Father Pfleger I think just reinforced that view that we don't want to have to answer for everything that's stated in a church. On the other hand, we also don't want a church subjected to the scrutiny that a presidential campaign legitimately undergoes. I mean, that's ... I don't want Reverend Moss to have to look over his shoulder and see that his sermon vets or if it's potentially problematic for my campaign or will attract the fury of a cable program. And so, I have no idea how it will impact my presidential campaign. But I know it's the right thing to do for the church and for our family.

Q: How will that not be different when you join another church?

OBAMA: Well, it raises an interesting question. And you know, I haven't answered this -- I haven't figured out exactly how this is managed. Obviously I think in whatever church you join there's going to be things the pastor says or a guest pastor says that you don't agree with. Not all of them may be as offensive as some of the statements that my former pastor made which I thoroughly rejected, but you know, it's not infrequent for example if you go into a church and a comment is made that suggests for example an aversion to gays and lesbians. That is something that I do not believe in and if I heard that from the pulpit, I would strongly object to it. That is an extreme example but there might be other examples of somebody who has a view on foreign policy or a view on domestic policy with which I disagree with. My hope would be I am going to be able to create some separation between the experience I have as a church member and what is being preached from the pulpit. But I recognize that when you are a presidential candidate you are in a different circumstance. It is something I think that Michelle and I are going to have to sort through.

Q: Do you think it will be possible for you to join a black church, or a historically black church, or do you think as matter of, do you think that political correctness is going to be an issue in this election and that will be a factor in the racial mix of the church that you join?

OBAMA: It's an interesting question. I do think that -- I said this earlier, that there is a different religious tradition or a worshipping style in some of the historically African American churches and other churches. But I am confident that we are going to be able to find a church we feel comfortable with and that will reflect our concerns and values. But I do think there is a cultural and a stylistic gap that has come into play in this issue.

Q: Senator Obama, there has been a lot of speculation when you joined the church 20 years ago it was a good opportunity for you based on what you wanted to do at that time. What do you say to those who say this is more opportunism on your part because as you embark on this new venture the church has now become a problem for you? What do you say to them?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I guess I would challenge the initial premise. It's hard to understand how exactly the church was helpful to me in -- please expand on your argument. What is the argument when I joined this church 20 years ago it was doing what?

Q: That as you were starting out as community organizer, this was a crucial church in the community and it afforded you a lot of contacts with important people in the community.

OBAMA: There are a lot of big churches on the south side of Chicago. Come to the south side sometime. There are a whole bunch of churches that were better connected politically so I reject that notion which I think is a very cynical one that I would join a church simply to maneuver politically. And I am offended by the suggestion. Point number one. Point number two, if I had wanted to be politically convenient then presumably when the problem surfaced with some of Reverend Wright's statements the day of my announcement, presumably that's when I would have thought about distancing myself from the church. I don't think anybody can suggest that I have really tried to make this work because I have cared about my relationship to the people of that church, who I care for very deeply.

Q: You talked in the past about how you didn't vet your pastor and didn't vet your church and you are actively involved in looking for another church. Can you talk about what you will do to vet your new church?

OBAMA: I am not going to approach this as a political exercise. This is a deeply personal exercise about trying to express your faith. Now, you know Michelle.. our lives are fairly unsettled right now. We don't know how this nomination is going to go. We don't know how the remainder of the election is going to go. I am traveling all the time anyway. So I am gone on Sundays often times. We probably won't make any firm decision on this until January when we know what our lives are going to be like. In the meantime we will visit other churches. There are a number of churches if we are at home in Chicago that I visited in the past. The important thing is I am not going to approach it with the view of figuring out how to avoid political problems. That's not the role of church. My -- again what I want to do in church is I want to be able to take Michelle and my girls, sit in a pew quietly, hopefully get some nice music, some good reflection, praise God, thank Him for all of the blessings He has given our family, put some money in the collection plate, maybe afterwards go out and grab some brunch, have my girls go to Sunday school. That's what I am looking for.

Q: We talk about some of the sacrifices running for president. Are you surprised how deep this has cut into your personal life and family? Obviously it's under a lot of scrutiny now you are giving up a church.

OBAMA: I have to say this was one I didn't see coming. We knew there were going to be some things we didn't see coming. This was one. I didn't anticipate my fairly conventional Christian faith being subject to such challenge and such scrutiny. Initially with e-mails suggesting I was a Muslim, later with the controversy that Trinity generated, and the interesting aspect of this is that as some of you know I have been somebody who really has insisted that the democratic party reach out to people of faith and to take issues of faith more seriously and have written and spoken about this in fairly extensive terms. It is something that I still believe that faith is a powerful force in our lives and should be part of our public conversation. This also indicates the difficulties at least in a presidential campaign around these issues. This isn't the first time this has happened. Obviously colleagues of mine who are catholic for example have had to deal with their public positions on issues verses the decisions the Holy C has taken predominantly on abortion and contraception. We work these through.

Q: You pointed to Trinity Church when discussing those rumors about being a Muslim and you pointed to the church as part of your faith. How politically as you move forward, how will you continue to talk about your faith and identify your faith?

OBAMA: My faith is not contingent on the particular church that I be long to. I don't think that I am going through a religious test.

Q: Harold Ickes has said that they are upset about the way the Michigan delegates were allocated. He even talked about hijacking four of the delegates, with 69-59. And said that Clinton is reserving the right to challenge the decision on Michigan before the credentials committee. Do you think that will happen? What will you do to try to dissuade her? What next on that?

OBAMA: I am not going to do anything to try to dissuade Senator Clinton to do what she thinks is best. I would point out that Senator Carl Levin who has been a leader in the Michigan delegation on this issue. My understanding he expressed satisfaction in the sense that the issue had been fairly dealt with. Don't quote me on that that was what I heard. You can quote me but make sure that with the caveat that I may be mistaken about that. But I think that Senator Clinton and former President Clinton love this country. They love the Democratic Party. I think they deeply believe that Democrats need to win in November. And so I trust that they're going to do the right thing.

Q: [inaudible]

OBAMA: They'll have to make a determination on that. But I think that they will be motivated by an interest in bringing party together and making sure that we're in a position to win Florida, Michigan and the presidency.

Q: Back to the church for a minute. Will you talk a little bit about the timing? You sent the letter on Friday and you said you came to us today because CNN got a leak of the letter. When would you have preferred to announce this?

OBAMA: I'll be honest with you, I wasn't ... this was a pretty personal decision and I wasn't trying to make political fear out of it. Had the letter not been released, it might have been something that I made a statement about. Since it was, this was an opportune time.

Q: We're in South Dakota today and this is a deeply religious church going state. Can you give us some context of how your spirituality, your practice of religion factors into your decision making process as a leader, as a politician?

OBAMA: Well, look, obviously as a Christian I believe in the values that are laid out in Scripture. I reflect on them often. I reflect on the lessons of Scripture as I'm going through the day. I pray frequently. I wrestle with doubts and try to figure out whether I'm doing the right thing, am I operating in an honest and moral way that is true to my religious precepts? Sometimes I may falter. So I guess the point is, I approach my work or I guess my faith is part of everything that I do. And I don't think there's a clear separation between my faith and how I try to live my life. And I certainly think that part of my motivation in the work that I do is a belief in what I consider the core precept of Christianity in addition to Christ dying for your sins and that is treating your brothers and sisters as you would have them treat you. A sense of empathy and a belief in the golden rule. And that's what I try to apply to my work and what I do every day.

Q: You are holding your Tuesday night rally at the site of the Republican National Convention. Do you see that rally as more of a formal declaration of the nomination?

OBAMA: Well, we've got three more contests, let's see how we do in Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico, but we are getting re very close to the number, the new number, now that Michigan and Florida have been added. We are getting close to the number that will give us the nomination. And if we've hit that number on Tuesday night we will announce that and I think even if we don't, this is the end of the primary season. And I think it's very important for us to pivot and focus on the clear contrast that will exist between Democrats and Republicans in this election. The fact that John McCain and I differ fundamentally on the war in Iraq, we differ on healthcare, we differ on tax policy. And so there is going to be a robust debate about where we need to take the country. That's going to start I believe on Tuesday night.

Q: You said your decision to leave the church was deeply personal but there are people who are going to say this is a politically motivated flip flop, so that combined with this kind of increasingly heated language with John McCain, does that run counter, does that threaten to run counter to your message of this new type of politics?

OBAMA: Well, hold on a second. You're kind of glomming a couple things on there that I'm not sure work.

Q: [inaudible] is it politically motivated? In the face of controversy you decided to leave your long term church?

OBAMA: I mean look, you guys will pick over whatever we do. Right? I mean, that's what you do. I am sure there will be a whole host of opinions about it. I have described why I'm doing this. I suspect if you were in my shoes it seems plausible at least that you wouldn't want your church experience to be a political circus. I think most American people will understand that and wouldn't want to subject their church to that either. If people have a different opinion about that than that's their right. But I've described why Michelle and I made this decision. Bonnie?

Q: There are a lot of people who look at your church, they rightly or wrongly they look at it and see a controversial church based on what they see in the media, what have you. There will be a lot of people who are not going to be happy with the reason why you left which doesn't it appear as though you're denouncing the church? How do you ...

OBAMA: I am not denouncing the church. I am not interested in people who want me to denounce the church because it's not a church worthy of denouncing. And so if they've seen caricatures of the church and accept those caricatures despite my insistence that's not what the church is about, then there's not much I can do about it.

Q: When was the last time you visited the church?

OBAMA: It's been quite some time. I don't remember exactly but it's been months.

Q: Do you feel like your faith and your church come under fire, more rapid fire, than other candidates in this presidential election? How do you feel about that?

OBAMA: Well, look, there's no doubt that had Reverend Wright's controversial statements not sur surfaced then this would not have been as -- this would not have been a prominent issue. And I have said before I think that some of the statements that he made were indefensible and deeply offensive. I do think that there is certainly a tradition in the African American church, but I think there's a tradition in a lot of churches, to speak out about injustice, to speak out against issues like racism or sexism or economic inequality. And, you know, my hope would be that pastors who -- well, let me put it this way. My hope would be that any presidential candidate can go to a church and hear a sermon and even hear some controversial statements without those views being imputed to them and being subject to the same exacting political tests that a presidential candidate or that presidential candidate's statements would be. Now, you know, we will see how this works outgoing forward.

Q: I was interested just in following up on that. I mean, you did -- obviously the church you attended -- woven into it, right? Is the notion of the poor as having sort of a privileged place in God's eye and all this sort of thing? As you look for a new church-

OBAMA: So does the Bible, by the way.

Q: Yeah. No, no, no, I'm not arguing that.

OBAMA: I understand. I was just pointing that out.

Q: As you look for a new church, how do you -- I mean, you sort of talked about it as a time for reflection and of all of this. But clearly, also, it seems that you sought a church where you would, in the best sense of the word, I suppose, get provoked, right?

OBAMA: Right. Exactly.

Q: I mean, provoked to though. So How, given the goal that you are now living --

OBAMA: I might not have wanted to be this provoked, apparently.

Q: How do you pp how do you find that church?

OBAMA: Yeah, well, it's interesting. This is where you trust in God's will. I assume he will lead us to a place where we can worship him and do good work. But it does raise an interesting -- an important point. I don't want to want -- you know, I don't consider Christianity a place to avoid the real problems in the world. Now, my faith tells me that we have to engage in those real problems in the world. And, you know, sometimes, when you are engaging in the real problems that are out there is going to be some conflict and some controversy. And I would expect that I would have a pastor who would not shy away from speaking out on those issues when he or she saw fit. Now, but I also think that it's got to be -- you know, it's a very personal decision for Michelle and I to find somebody who reflects a wisdom that ultimately is about reconciliation and unifying people and expressing a spirit of mercy along with a spirit of justice, a spirit of understanding along with a sense of righteous indignation about injustice. You know, hopefully we will find something that approximates that. Okay guys, thank you.

Barack Obama, Question and Answer Session Follwing the Decision to Resign from Trinity United Church of Christ Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Simple Search of Our Archives