That conversation took an awkward turn last week when Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) ruined his presidential campaign announcement with clumsy comments meant to praise Obama though widely interpreted as a putdown of other prominent black politicians.
Even the simple act of choosing a church can become fodder in a national political campaign, where every facet of a candidate's life and associations will be put under a microscope. A year before the first primary contests, Obama is taking fire from both the left and the right in these matters.
The product of a black Kenyan father, white American mother and a series of elite schools, Obama has prompted some African-Americans to question whether he is really in touch with their lives.
In conservative circles
At the same time, conservative critics already have begun a buzz on the Internet about a far less known part of his biography: his adherence to the creed of the prominent South Side church he attends, Trinity United Church of Christ. The congregation posits what it terms a Black Value System, including calls to be "soldiers for black freedom" and a "disavowal of the pursuit of middleclassness."
In an interview late Monday, Obama said it was important to understand the document as a whole rather than highlight individual tenets. "Commitment to God, black community, commitment to the black family, the black work ethic, self-discipline and self-respect," he said. "Those are values that the conservative movement in particular has suggested are necessary for black advancement.
"So I would be puzzled that they would object or quibble with the bulk of a document that basically espouses profoundly conservative values of self-reliance and self-help."
In his published memoirs, Obama said even he was stopped by Trinity's tenet to disavow "middleclassness" when he first read it two decades ago in a church pamphlet. The brochure implored upwardly mobile church members not to distance themselves from less fortunate Trinity worshipers.
"As I read it, at least, it was a very simple argument taken directly from Scripture: `To whom much is given much is required,'" Obama said in the interview.
That was then. On Saturday, Obama is expected to thrust himself into the hothouse atmosphere of presidential campaign politics, where the principles and teachings of Obama's church might require some explanation for, say, some white, middle-class voters in Iowa or New Hampshire.
As a candidate who has presented himself as able to enliven a national discourse on faith--he filled his now-famous Democratic convention speech in 2004 with religious language--Obama would not be the first presidential candidate to invite an examination of the political implications of his religious beliefs.
Like President John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, 2000 (the year as published has been corrected in this text) vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, or current GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, a Mormon, Obama at some point in a presidential campaign would be asked to explain how he would balance the tenets of his faith with his political positions.
The intended meaning behind certain Trinity precepts is complex, but some theologians argue that on one level they brush up against a number of the same issues raised by Biden's awkward choice of words.
"In both cases--in the value system and in the case of Biden's comments--we do have a situation where Americans are trying to talk across the wide chasm that is race," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
Harris-Lacewell until last year attended Trinity when she taught at the University of Chicago. "Perceptually, blacks and whites live in vastly different worlds," she added. "Biden didn't mean it to be racist. Certainly Obama doesn't mean that God doesn't love white people. . . . Malicious [intent] or not does not necessarily matter if the ideas are prepackaged with all of this historical baggage."
Looking to weigh Obama down with some of that baggage, conservative critics have seized on Trinity's 12-point Black Value System, especially the portion relating to "middleclassness," as evidence that Obama is a divisive candidate who rejects mainstream American values and is primarily focused on the black community.
"I question his . . . ability to be able to reach out to a lot of people when he is committed to a group of people who are focused on helping a certain group of people," said Fran Eaton, editor of Illinois Review, a conservative political blog. "It seems wrong."