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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Obama in Lynchburg: The Faith-versus-Works Debate

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Here’s a photo I took this weekend while driving through Lynchburg, the central Virginia town where religious right leader Jerry Falwell ministered and built Liberty University. The sign outside this small church reads, as you can see: “USA TELL OBAMA JESUS CHRIST NEEDED FOR SALVATION READ ACTS 4:12.”

Part of the reason this sign caught my attention is that I’d just read, via Religion News Service in the Washington Post’s religion news section (yes, they do have one - buried in the Metro section on Saturdays) a fantastic article by journalist Benedicta Cipolla: “On the Campaign Trail, Democrats Put Their Faith in the Book of James.” (A more complete version of the story is on the website of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, the PBS show devoted to covering religion news.)

In the article, Cipolla points out how Democrats like Obama, Clinton and even John Kerry in 2004 have often quoted from the New Testament Book of James - in particular, this passage:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (NRSV translation, James 2:14-17)

Missy Daniel, the editor at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly who assigned the story to Cipolla told me she had been noticing this trend toward quoting James among Democrats partly because her friend E.J. Dionne was tracking it as well, first writing about John Kerry’s reference to James in 2004.

Yet Cipolla writes that James is an “overlooked and sometimes criticized book of the Bible.” And what’s the problem? Many Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, saw this book as contradicting the idea that Christians are justified, or saved, through faith alone — meaning that the main thing is accepting and recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Here’s where the Lynchburg church billboard comes in. The pastor seems to be taking a shot at Obama’s James-like emphasis on works alongside faith. In the campaign’s much-dissected flyer aimed at voters in Kentucky, for example, Obama is quoted as saying: “My faith teaches me I can sit in church all I want and pray, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work.”

On the church billboard, however, the pastor is urging us to read Acts 4: 12:

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

in other words, “by faith alone.”

Now, I wanted to interview the Larry W. Fitzgerald, the pastor of the church in this picture — the Central Baptist Church — but let me assure other journalists out there that he’s not an easy man to find. I googled him up, down, and backwards, searching through numerous online phone directories and even called Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg (now pastored by Jonathan Falwell, son of Jerry) for advice. A very friendly and helpful man there searched through the local phone book, and his own memory, for me, but found nothing. He suggested the church may be so small that it has no church office or even phone number.

Obama office in Lynchburg, Va. (photo by Andrea Useem)I also stopped by the brand-new Obama office in Lynchburg, which happened to be empty and locked this past Monday afternoon. Inside were hanging two hand-painted signs: the one in the picture (”Obama ‘08″) and the other reading, “Hope.” (And yes, that’s my reflection in the glass, expert photographer that I am.)

It made news when the Obama campaign announced it was opening ten regional campaign offices in Virginia, including this one in Lynchburg. As Virginia state senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) said at the kick-off event covered by the Washington Post’s Tim Craig:

A lot of these places may have never had a presidential campaign before. It shows [Obama] is investing in the commonwealth and it is a bottom-up, not a top-down campaign.

Campaign office or no campaign office, evangelical outreach or no evangelical outreach, it looks like folks in Lynchburg are already talking about Obama — but he still has some distance to go to win over the pastor at Central Baptist Church.

There Are 2 Responses So Far. »

  1. Hello. First I want to thanks to you for to accept me to your web site .I2m writing from Gospel’s writer Paul city from Turkey.I’m a Jehovah Witness ( our web Site is )By the way I don’t interest about politics systems but I respect to state and goverment systems and respobsible persons despite their mistakes acording to God’s order on Bible.Still world is controlling as long as Arhmageddon(end of the bads,badnesses not earth planet)by Satan and partners by God permission (for some important reasons)unfortunately.By the way after USSR now USA is super power lonely (despite all economic/12 trillion dolars borrows/,militaric(Aphgan&Irak/,social(immigration,immoralaty especialy younth/,etnic/many different origines/… many troubles)This elections are very interesting; because after generalstaff,foreign ministery(Mr.Powel,Mrs.Rice)now Mr. Obama is candite to US president.Blacks are God’s lovely creation same parts like white .Skin colors are only value creation various like flowers,terees,animals differencies.But unfortunately hundreds years ago they brought by new continent bosses from Africa for to be slaves them.So their historic situations were very bad.But especialy last quarter of the 20.century many things changed by like Mr.JFKenedy&Martin Luther King and other precious persons humanist activities.We remember on first century first Christians origin Israel nation like Jesus Christ acording to God’s promise to Abraham and Jacop.So first three years after Jesus’s death and ressuriction they preached first to Jewishes and at B.C.36 first Peter preached to Cornelius by God’s angel order(Acts.’s 10.chapter )after this every nations invited to Godly truth acording to Him lovely purpose.Front of UN Headquarter under the stone Isiah’s 2:2-4 so every nation are value and equal.On the other hand nationalism and etnic differencies are still biggest obstackles for human brutherhood and important reaso for social violence unfortunately.We hope this dark situation will change by honest persons and organizations serious activities.With My deep regards.Yahya John Bardakch.

  2. the obama sign is to let people in this country know that obama is reglious but has faith in themselves and other leaders or friends.acts 4:12 deals with coming to know jesus christ in your heart not in your head.obama has a head knowlege.head knowlege will lead you to salvation will send you to hell.the heart is what god looks at rom.10:10.there are many reglious people but not all are saved.obama said jesus christ is not needed for salvation.john 14:6 jesus said he is the profess with the mouth i work my faith is not salvation.jesus said many will say they prophesied in my name but then he told them depart from me ye that work iniquity mat 7:22, get saved you must ask jesus into your heart not your mind.if obama was saved why would he stand for abortion,why does he make fun of the bible.obama is a actor.oh by the way you need to get a king james version of the bible so you can really understand the word of God.also here is a good verse for obama from the book of james.a double minded man is unstable in all his ways james 1:8.johnthan and i met once,at a funeral.we preach the word also.

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