Relax. I have little or no interest in the shoddy stories about Barack Obama and his alleged years studying in a madrassa in Pakistan.
No, I am interested in the faith of the adult Obama. Which led me, the other day, to a Chicago Tribune story by reporter Manya A . Brachear about the career of Obama’s pastor and spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
I have to admit that I was terribly disappointed in this vague and, at times, confused story. Let me show you two examples of what left me a bit miffed. The key is that Wright is a rebel, a maverick, a prophet who breaks the rules. Thus, we read:
The rebellious son of a Baptist minister, Wright was hired by Trinity United when he could find no Baptist church to take him. The congregation on 95th Street, then numbering just 87, had recently adopted the motto “Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.” They did not mind his fiery red Afro and blackpower agenda.
Wright has continued on an independent path, often questioning the common sense of Scripture, objecting to mandatory prayer in schools and clashing with clergy who preach prosperity theology, a popular notion among black pastors that God will bestow wealth and success on believers.
There is some useful information in here, but also some crucial fog. I am well aware that there were, in that era, already issues of culture and style between clashing generations of African American clergy. I also know that the “prosperty Gospel” is a hot button, but one does not have to be a left-wing rebel to oppose that. The key, however, is the undefined phrase “often questioning the common sense of Scripture.” What in the world does that mean? We do not know and the Tribune does little to inform us. Does Wright deny basic doctrines of Christianity?
The very next paragraph is supposed to tell us:
In the process, he built a spiritual empire. The modest brown brick building that housed the church in the 1970s was converted into a day-care center when Trinity opened its new sanctuary in 1995 at 400 W. 95th St. Members run more than 80 ministries, including an outreach to gay and lesbian singles, also unusual for a black church.
Nope. That doesn’t help much. There are all kinds of churches that offer all kinds of ministries to gays and lesbians. Some clash with ancient, traditional understandings of sex and marriage and many do not.
In this case, the church’s own website does not do much to help. I mean, click here and look it over.
The story also tells us that Wright was heavily influenced by the black theology of the Rev. James H. Cone, an author I studied in graduate school (primarily his writings on violence and nonviolence). However, saying that someone was influenced by black theologians instead of white, European, “mainstream” theologians does little to tell us about what they believe on doctrinal issues. I mean, Wright could have been reading orthodox or neoorthodox black theologians instead of liberal white theologians. Again, we just don’t know — based on this story.
So, finally, we reach the link between Wright and Obama.
In his 1993 memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama recounts in vivid detail his first meeting with Wright in 1985. The pastor warned the community activist that getting involved with Trinity might turn off other black clergy because of the church’s radical reputation.
When Obama sought his own church community, he felt increasingly at home at Trinity. Before leaving for Harvard Law School in 1988, he responded to one of Wright’s altar calls and declared a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Once again, the phrase “radical reputation” is hollow. It tells us nothing. If Wright is so controversial and so radical, wouldn’t it have been good to have actually cited a concrete reference to one of his radical beliefs? Hey, the newspaper could have even quoted a critic or two. I mean, where is the doctrinal beef? This man could be a political progressive without offending the wider world of orthodoxy in the African American church. The same goes, by the way, for voices in African theology.
Meanwhile, there is that reference to Obama responding to an altar call and making a public declaration of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” It’s hard to get much more traditional than that evangelical language.
Finally, if anyone wants to know more about Obama’s faith, the new free daily called the Washington Examiner is running a series by Bill Sammon on “The 5 Most Important Things You Need to Know About Barack Obama.” Part one is about religion and it contains a wide range of interesting quotes about Obama’s faith — drawn from his own memoirs. It’s an interesting timeline. Check it out. Here’s the opening statement, which is hot but factual:
WASHINGTON — Although Sen. Barack Obama is a Christian, his childhood and family connections to Islam are beginning to complicate his presidential ambitions.