Barack Hussein Obama, a 47-year-old African American junior senator from Illinois, will soon become the 44th president of the United States. What once seemed like such an unlikely proposition (for a variety of reasons) is now our nation’s future. Though pollsters and political analysts had been, more or less, calling the victory for weeks, it was difficult to fully comprehend the possibility until those big electoral maps on TV started filling up with blue where once red reigned supreme. And even then, it was too much to grasp.

But now it’s history.

One of the most vivid images on TV were the shots of the diverse crowds in Chicago’s Grant Park, in New York’s Times Square, in Downtown Los Angeles. Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans. They all celebrated with unbridled joy. A true rainbow coalition.

Equally powerful were the fuzzy digital video feeds from Kenya, where ecstatic Africans celebrated the announcement of America’s new leader–the man whose roots extend to their own land.

Then there were the awe-inspiring shots from African American churches from around the nation rejoicing in praise to God as if it were revival week all over again. On CNN, anchor Campbell Brown attempted a remote interview with Rev. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., but the exuberant worship from Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church choir and congregation rendered King’s voice inaudible.

It was clear that the election of Barack Obama was not just a political event but a uniquely religious one, as well. Of course maybe that should not come as a surprise, given the historically strong bond between social activism and faith in the African American community. And accordingly, pundit after pundit were quick to note this historic moment’s undeniable connection to the American civil rights movement, a phenomenon that was birthed in the black church.

From the beginning, faith and religion dominated this long, and often bitter, presidential campaign season like never before. From Jeremiah Wright and John Hagee to Rick Warren’s Saddleback forum to Sarah Palin’s Assemblies of God roots to Focus on the Family’s aggressive anti-Obama crusade, religion emerged again and again as an inextricable force.

In recent years, conservative evangelicals had become the face of faith in American politics. Looking in from the outside, one could easily have gotten the impression that true Christianity was the sole domain of white Republicans. Obama challenged that stereotype. Perhaps one of the greatest audacities of hope was the young senator’s attempts to court conservative, mostly white evangelicals. In the end, he failed to make any earth-shaking progress in that regard. Issues like abortion and same-sex marriage would inevitably keep white (and many non-white) evangelicals away.

Nevertheless, it was evident that Obama was a Democrat who understood the nuances of faith better than many Republicans. He was willing to talk about his personal beliefs and to graciously engage those whom he knew might never agree with him. Many younger evangelical voters saw this and were impressed by his optimism and conciliatory spirit.

Looking ahead, President Obama’s job will not be an easy one. He inherits a decimated economy, a nation at war and plagued by rumors of war, and a society still wrestling with its legacy of bigotry and injustice.

Obama must also face the reality of a divided electorate; some 47 percent of Americans did not vote for him. This country remains polarized, fractured, broken in pieces.

Yet, the election of this unlikeliest of politicians points to the possibility of something better.

From the start, Obama’s political career–and, for that matter, his life–has declared the importance of racial and social reconciliation. The son of an African father and Caucasian mother. The erstwhile community organizer. The upstart candidate for the U.S. Senate who announced, “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America!”

In his Grant Park victory speech, President-elect Obama told his hometown crowd–and the nation–that “we are, and always will be, the United States of America.”

He continued, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

Change indeed.

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