The Unitarian Church and Obama's Religious Upbringing

With the media carefully pretending not to notice, Barack Obama's choice to hold a memorial service December 23 for his late grandmother Madelyn "Toot" Dunham at Honolulu's First Unitarian Church underlines one part of the story of Barack Obama's leftist religious upbringing.   

What is First Unitarian Church?  Their website describes counter-recruitment efforts intended for "deconstructing the myth" ... "used in propaganda for the military (as with ads for Marine recruitment)." 

Another set of clues come from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin February 8, 2003 description of First Unitarian's 2003 golden anniversary celebration -- complete with "Liberal Religion for 50 Years" T-shirts.  The Star-Bulletin explains:

"The bumper stickers on cars outside the church gave an insight into its members' beliefs: ‘No War.' ‘If you want peace, work for justice.' ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.'

"Activism for peace and human rights causes has characterized the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu since it was organized 50 years ago. Members were instrumental in founding the League of Women Voters and activating a local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. It offered sanctuary to servicemen who went AWOL to avoid being sent to Vietnam. It helped launch the Save Our Constitution effort to fight the constitutional amendment on same-sex marriages. And just recently, the church sponsored a Death with Dignity poll that collected a 72 percent response in favor of end-of-life legislation....

"‘Unitarians walk their talk,' said Rosemary Mattson, 85, of Carmel, Calif., one of the charter members. She and Ruth Iams, 90, of Kaneohe, reminisced about the beginnings of the ‘Unitarian fellowship of Honolulu' at a Wednesday tea in the church, which occupies a rambling 1910 mansion built by Richard Cooke....

"‘What Unitarian Universalists have in common is an attitude toward life, an openness and interest in activities that relate to helping people. You can spot them.'

"After leaving Hawaii to work at the Unitarian seminary in Berkeley, Calif., Mattson and her husband were active in the international peace movement. She escorted more than 25 tours of Americans to the former Soviet Union for people-to-people experience. Still an activist, she took part in the Jan. 17 ‘No War on Iraq' demonstration in San Francisco.

"A memory that Jim Myers shared at the Wednesday reunion was the brush with history when the church offered ‘sanctuary' to infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her mother and son. It was 1966, and ‘she was the most hated woman in the United States,' he said. O'Hair was vilified by religious groups after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld her challenge against prayer in public schools. ‘We put her upstairs for a while,' Myers said. ‘There wasn't really an uproar in Hawaii, probably because of the tolerant situation here.'

"Later in the 1960s, ‘we gave sanctuary to Vietnam deserters...."

Obama hid his Unitarian connections during the campaign.  In a 2006 speech, Obama explained:

"I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were.  My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist.  My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual people and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself.  As a consequence, so did I."

But Obama's 2006 speech contradicted his own memoir Dreams from My Father (p17) in which he writes of his grandfather: 

"In his only skirmish into organized religion, he would enroll the family in the local Unitarian Universalist congregation...."

Stanley and Madelyn Dunham in 1955 picked up and relocated 2,000 miles from Texas to Seattle.  The next year they relocated to Mercer Island specifically so their daughter, Obama's future mother Stanley Ann Dunham could attend Mercer Island High School.  Another attraction: The East Shore Unitarian Church, also a hotbed of leftist activism.  

One year earlier, Mercer Island schools had distinguished themselves in a way which might have caused others to avoid them.  The Chicago Tribune explains,

"In 1955, the chairman of the Mercer Island school board, John Stenhouse, testified before the House Un-American Activities Subcommittee that he had been a member of the Communist Party."

After intense debate, Stenhouse decided not to resign from the school board according to an April 11, 1955 account in Time Magazine

Stenhouse was not the only leftist connected to the school.  The Seattle Times explains:

One respite (from Americans Stanley Ann Dunham looked down on) was found in a wing of Mercer Island High called "anarchy alley." Jim Wichterman taught a wide-open philosophy course that included Karl Marx. Next door, Val Foubert taught a rigorous dose of literature, including Margaret Mead's writings on homosexuality.

Those classes prompted what Wichterman, now 80 and retired in Ellensburg, called "mothers' marches" of parents outraged at the curriculum.

Dunham thrived in the environment, Wichterman said.

"As much as a high-school student can, she'd question anything: What's so good about democracy? What's so good about capitalism? What's wrong with communism? What's good about communism?" Wichterman said.  "She had what I call an inquiring mind."

She also showed her politics, wearing a campaign button for Adlai Stevenson. And despite flirting with atheism, she went to services at East Shore Unitarian church, a left-leaning congregation in Bellevue.

The Chicago Tribune mentions a description of the Dunham's chosen church as "The Little Red Church on the Hill".  According to its own website, East Shore Unitarian Church got that name because of, "Well-publicized debates and forums on such controversial subjects as the admission of ‘Red China' to the United Nations...."  Mercer Island's John Stenhouse, according to his 2000 obituary, once served as church president possibly contributing to the ‘red' label.

The Dunhams moved to Honolulu in 1960 after Ann graduated and quickly became friends with leftists such as now-Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) and Communist Party member Frank Marshall Davis.  Obama's mother-to-be enrolled at the University of Hawaii and soon met Barack Obama Sr. in a Russian language class.  She would remain affiliated with the University for most of her life.

The December 24, 2008 Honolulu Star-Bulletin describes the memorial for Madelyn Dunham:

"Obama did not speak to reporters at the small home that had been converted into the First Unitarian Church in Nuuanu. Aides said Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her husband, Konrad Ng, also were present...."

Konrad Ng, a Chinese-Canadian, is an associate professor at UH.  Soetoro-Ng, who also lectures at UH, was born in Indonesia in 1970, and teaches at the exclusive La Pietra--Hawaii School for Girls, across the street and four decades out of synch from the same Kapiolani Park in which Obama mentor Frank Marshall Davis described cruising for male and female sex partners in his 1968 book, "Sex Rebel: Black (memoirs of a gash gourmet)". 

In a January 20, 2008 New York Times interview, Soetoro-Ng explains, "Philosophically, I would say that I am Buddhist."  But she describes her car in a way which fits in perfectly with the crowd at First Unitarian: "I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: ‘1-20-09.  End of an Error'...that's just one bumper sticker.  I have three others on my car...."

Soetoro-Ng also describes her mother's beliefs in a way which very closely matches Unitarian pantheistic theology:

"I wouldn't have called her an atheist.  She was an agnostic.  She basically gave us all the good books -- the Bible, the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist scripture, the Tao Te Ching -- and wanted us to recognize that everyone has something beautiful to contribute."

Asked about the Koran, her reply is reminiscent of Bill Clinton's famous "but I didn't inhale" line: 

"I should have mentioned the Koran.  Mom didn't really emphasize the Koran but we did read little parts of it.  We did listen to morning prayers in Indonesia....I don't want to deny Islam.  I think it's obviously very important that we have an understanding of Islam, a better understanding.  At the same time it has been erroneously attached to my brother.  The man has been a Christian for 20 years."  

Soetoro-Ng is able to make that last claim based entirely on Obama's 1988 decision to join Jeremiah Wright's Black Liberation Theology Trinity United Church of Christ in 1988.   Dr James Cone of Union Theological Seminary invented Black Liberation Theology.   Explains Cone, "If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him."

But Obama resigned from Trinity after a May 25, 2008 sermon by Rev. Michael Pfleger worsened political problems caused by exposure of Wright's "God damn America" sermons.  Has Obama's "skepticism of organized religion" been rekindled by the damage done to his political aspirations by Trinity?   

At the time of his resignation Obama told reporters:

"I'm confident we'll be able to find a church that we're comfortable with.  We probably won't make any firm decision on this until January, when we know what our lives are going to be like.  My faith is not contingent on the particular church that I belong to...." 

Obama discarded the mushy Unitarian agnosticism to work as a community organizer on Chicago‘s Southside.

Obama discarded the angry anti-Americanism of Trinity UCC as a presidential candidate.

What kind of religion does Obama need to act as a President?

Honolulu First Unitarian was the first woman-led Unitarian congregation.  But that kind of gesture--now demanded by his gay political base -- is Obama‘s past.  Obama's political needs as President have led him to invite Rick Warren, Pastor of Orange County California's Saddleback mega-church, (and a favorite of Oprah Winfrey) to deliver the inaugural invocation.   

Many on both left and right wonder who is co-opting whom?  Given Obama's life history, there really should be little doubt.
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