Prominent Christian leaders such as Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes were praised by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) this weekend as role models of Christians who put their faith into action.
In his first speech on the intersection of faith and politics as a presidential contender, Obama discussed how religion should inspire people across the Christian spectrum to unite in helping to eradicate social problems rather than divide them.
"I'm hopeful because I think there's an awakening taking place in America," said Obama on Saturday at the United Church of Christ's 50th anniversary convention. "People are coming together around a simple truth – that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper."
During his speech to a crowd of nearly 10,000 people, the senator, a member of Trinity UCC in Chicago, criticized division within the Church, but praised Christian leaders and groups that have worked together to remedy social problems.
"That's why pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes and organizations like World Vision and Catholic Charities are wielding their enormous influence to confront poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the genocide in Darfur," Obama said.
Dr. Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in California, had invited Obama to his church's HIV/AIDS conference last winter despite vehement protests by pro-life groups that urged the megachurch pastor to rescind his invitation because of the senator's pro-choice stance. Warren had refused to uninvite Obama, explaining that he wanted the Church to work together on the HIV/AIDS crisis despite their personal differences on other issues.
"I'm hearing from evangelicals who may not agree with progressives on every issue but agree that poverty has no place in a world of plenty; that hate has no place in the hearts of believers; and that we all have to be good stewards of God's creations," said Obama.
"From Willow Creek to the 'emerging church,' from the Southern Baptist Convention to the National Association of Evangelicals, folks are realizing that the four walls of the church are too small for a big God. 'God is still speaking,'" the senator added, citing the motto of UCC's media branding campaign.
Obama also talked about health care, the genocide in Darfur, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and the controversial immigration bill.
The UCC, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on Saturday, is holding its biennial General Synod in Hartford, Conn., June 22-26. The liberal denomination, which prides itself on being the first denomination to ordain openly gay and lesbian ministers, emphasizes progressive causes and also began to endorse same-sex "marriage" starting in 2005 - a decision which caused a rift in the denomination and the departure of about 100 churches from the UCC.
Last year, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, UCC faced a 3.8 percent membership drop in the 1.2 million-member church body. Donations from church members to the UCC's national offices and regional conferences also decreased by more than $2 million in 2006, according to the church's annual report.