This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 5, 2008 - Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama brought a centrist message of self-help and personal responsibility to thousands of AME church members on Saturday, imploring them to view problems facing black communities as moral ills that religious institutions and underpinning could do much to heal.
Speaking to enthusiastic members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church at a general conference at the St. Louis Convention Center, Obama offered remarks that were partly homiletic and partly political.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain had been invited to speak to the group but declined.
Obama sprinkled his remarks with promises to fulfill the “Lord’s will” and perform the “Lord’s work” and added that faith-based answers to social problems would serve as his administration’s moral center.
The speech reinforced the self-help message that he has been espousing to African-American audiences during his campaign for the presidency. It is a message that isn’t universally embraced by blacks and is in sharp contrast to speeches that presidential candidates generally deliver to black groups. Those speeches and themes generally have focused on government activism and spending on social programs as solutions to urban ills, ranging from the breakdown of single-parent families to unemployment and weak schools.
In his address Saturday, Obama conceded that his views aren’t popular with some blacks and that he ran the risk of being accused of “blaming the victim” when he calls on African Americans to take more responsibility for solving their problems.
But he said “the challenges we face today – war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools –” are “moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness.”
He added that “We are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make our lives what we will.”
Obama was greeted with a thunderous welcome when he arrived at the conference, was warmly applauded for many of his comments during his speech and received a standing ovation as he left the podium.
Many of those attending the conference said his message was on target.
“He talked about our need to take more responsibility in raising our children,” said Lula Davis, a retired warehouse worker from Wilmington, N.C. “He made the point that whether you are poor or rich – it doesn’t make a difference – you should have good moral standards.”
Rev. William Whatley of St. James AME Church in Newark, said he was pleased that Obama “unashamedly talked about faith. He’s right to talk about social justice with an affirmation of faith.”
Bishop C. Garnet Henning, who once presided over St. Paul AME Church on St. Louis’ North Side, said Obama had more credibility than most politicians when he talked about morality.
“When I listen to speakers, I want to know whether they believe in what they’re talking about,” said Henning, who presides over AME churches in Louisiana and Mississippi.
"Obama comes across as being very sincere, seems very comfortable in talking about faith and our individual responsibilities in solving problems. He has gone against the grain in talking about how faith is relevant to politics. He has the courage to say things (about faith) that could hurt him.”
On the other hand, Obama’s message of faith-based solutions and self-help among blacks may well help him appeal to white voters. It’s a message that’s embraced by many evangelicals and by many conservative whites.
What’s new is that the message is coming not from a centrist in the Democratic or Republican parties but from a candidate who was derided at the start of his campaign as one of the most liberal in the race. On the other hand, Obama says critics who argue that his message about self help and faith represents a shift apparently haven’t been listening to his comments during the past two years.