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…