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Vision, Virtue, and Vocation:
the “Mainline Church” message to Obama

NOTE TO EDITORS: The following op-ed message is offered to you to use any time as you deem appropriate. The authors are well-known ecumenical leaders who offer their counsel and support to President-Elect Obama as he prepares to take the oath of office. Iosso and Kinnamon were also important architects of A Social Creed for the 21st Century (see, which updated the 1908 Social Creed of the Churches, then a revolutionary declaration of the responsibilities of persons of faith to work for social justice. The authors write out of the knowledge that the President-Elect comes out of the same religious tradition.

For interviews with the authors or additional information, please contact Philip E. Jenks at 212-870-2228, .

By the Rev. Christian Iosso and the Rev. Michael Kinnamon 

Everyone, it seems, has a message for the new President.  They are full of wish lists and urgent demands and heartfelt dreams for our nation. 

The churches have a message for President Obama, too.   

Mr. President, we have thought about what needs to be done, and have been working at it throughout the history of these United States.  And we are ready to help you achieve great deeds that will bring positive change for the people of America and the world. 

We Protestant and Orthodox churches – the ecumenical faith community – know how serious is the need for social reconstruction at home and the restoration of honor abroad. We have long worked in the soup kitchens, sheltered the homeless, pushed for environmental justice, defended public education, volunteered overseas, and steadily opposed the war with Iraq, despite the weaknesses of media and congressional oversight.  

As the President-elect knows, we do not scorn “community organizers;” our urban congregations have helped fund them and have given them a base from which to work. We visit the prisons and know how bad they are; we are regular caregivers in the hospital wards and emergency rooms.  We know first-hand how many are without health insurance.  

While many look at who has a role on the platform at the ceremony, we look at the commitments of the man being inaugurated:  long a member of a distinctive, well-informed congregation of the United Church of Christ (church of the historic pilgrims as well as contemporary prophets), he is one of us.  

The social vision of the ecumenical churches is summed up in the “Social Creed for the 21st Century,” unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches of Christ one hundred years after the first “social creed” was adopted by the churches in 1908.  

That earlier social message addressed the challenges of its day – industrialization and proposed measures like a “living wage,” the abolition of child labor, and prototypes of Social Security and Workers’ Compensation. When Franklin Roosevelt addressed the churches’ annual assembly in 1933 he thanked them for their biblically based social teachings. The text from Jesus that he quoted is in the 2008 version of the Social Creed and articulates the purpose of the Creed, and of faith’s prayer for society:  “that all may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  

The 2008 Social Creed, speaking to our day, addresses the challenges of globalization and sustainability and the context of war and inequality, which is both morally and politically debilitating. While the new Social Creed lists 20 specific reform measures under three theologically-grounded headings, it is the overall vision that is key: “a vision of a society that shares more and consumes less, seeks compassion over suspicion and equality over domination, and finds security in joined hands rather than massed arms.” 

The churches do not split personal and public virtue. Individual character and morality are crucial, but they depend on the character of churches and other nurturing institutions. Action for social justice — the “social activism” some critics scorn — is grounded in communities that lift up God first.  

While solidly patriotic, our churches have resisted the kind of arrogant nationalism that confuses the flag and the cross. We remember the Bible’s warnings about empire, that only a people who humble themselves shall be exalted.  

Especially now in economic life, the churches stand for “grace over greed,” and recognize the need for burdens to be fairly shared, and modern forms of usury to be regulated out of existence. This means affirming progressive taxation as well as adequate social welfare: a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members.  

The vocation of the church is different from that of the nation, but even a wiser and humbler United States still has a great vocation as “one nation” among others “under God.”  The Social Creed summarizes countless church statements that address our nation’s current challenges:  “multilateral diplomacy rather than unilateral force, the abolition of torture, …strengthening …the United Nations and the rule of international law.” The ecumenical churches helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago and have never forgotten its principles of “full civil, political, and economic rights for women and men of all races.”  

The churches do not affirm diplomacy without responsible power, but can never tolerate the deliberate violence of “wars of choice” and the economies distorted by them. We have seen the high tech and housing bubbles burst but it is now time for the military-industrial bubble to burst: we advocate “nuclear disarmament and redirection of military spending to more peaceful and productive uses.”  

The churches alone can not create a moral consensus for the redirection of America, but if President Obama harkens to his personal experience, he knows that the solid, unheralded work of the churches will be there, in support of more courageous action than most observers outside the faith community can imagine. In Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous words, we pray that we may now have a nation with the “courage to change” for the better.  

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon is General Secretary, National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and a former professor of theology. The Rev. Dr. Christian Iosso, formerly a pastor in Westchester County, New York, is Coordinator for Social Witness Policy, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The authors were among those who developed the Social Creed for the 21st Century.

NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228,

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