Where Barack Obama kneels

JeremiahWrightIf anyone is hoping that the loud relationship between politics and personal faith is merely a freakish and temporal effect of George W. Bush’s presidency, simply observing the candidates and reporters warm up this year should dispense with that fanciful wish.

Today’s edition of the Los Angeles Times brings news that Barack Obama was “registered by his family as a Muslim at both of the schools he attended” in Indonesia. Times reporter Paul Watson writes:

Having a personal background in both Christianity and Islam might seem useful for an aspiring U.S. president in an age when Islamic nations and radical groups are key national security and foreign policy issues. But a connection with Islam is untrod territory for presidential politics.

The Times article is enough for blogger Anya Kamenetz of The Huffington Post to hope that Obama becomes “Our First Muslim President.” This raises the awkward question of whether being Muslim is, for Ms. Kamenetz, merely an ethnic identity that one never fully leaves behind. I much prefer taking Obama at his word: Twenty years ago, he walked the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago and became an adult convert to Christianity.

Obama’s membership at Trinity already has generated its share of controversy, including his decision to ask that Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright (pictured), back out of offering the invocation at Obama’s announcement of his candidacy.

My friend Kim Lawton of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly reported on March 9:

In the past few weeks, conservative bloggers and pundits have begun raising concerns about Wright’s Africentric theology and his liberal — some say radical — politics.

I think the journalistic scent already has spread beyond conservative bloggers and pundits. Consider the reporting of Ben Wallace-Wells in Rolling Stone, who in an article dated Feb. 7 brought back this sample of Wright’s indisputably impassioned preaching style:

Wright takes the pulpit here one Sunday and solemnly, sonorously declares that he will recite ten essential facts about the United States. “Fact number one: We’ve got more black men in prison than there are in college,” he intones. “Fact number two: Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!” There is thumping applause; Wright has a cadence and power that make Obama sound like John Kerry. Now the reverend begins to preach. “We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional KILLERS. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. . . . We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. . . . We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!” The crowd whoops and amens as Wright builds to his climax: “And. And. And! GAWD! Has GOT! To be SICK! OF THIS [EXPLETIVE]!”

Ryan Lizza of The New Republic describes some of what drew Obama, as a young community activist using the strategies of Saul Alinsky, to Wright’s church:

From Wright and others, Obama learned that part of his problem as an organizer was that he was trying to build a confederation of churches but wasn’t showing up in the pews on Sunday. When pastors asked him the inevitable questions about his own spiritual life, Obama would duck them uncomfortably. A Reverend Philips put the problem to him squarely when he learned that Obama didn’t attend services. “It might help your mission if you had a church home,” he told Obama. “It doesn’t matter where, really. What you’re asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophesy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you’re getting yours from.”

After many lectures like this, Obama decided to take a second look at Wright’s church. Older pastors warned him that Trinity was for “Buppies” — black urban professionals — and didn’t have enough street cred. But Wright was a former Muslim and black nationalist who had studied at Howard and Chicago, and Trinity’s guiding principles — what the church calls the “Black Value System” — included a “Disavowal of the Pursuit of ‘Middleclassness.’”

I know that much more reporting on Obama’s church is inevitable. As Wright said to Kim Lawton in what sounded like a tone of experienced resignation, “You think it’s ugly now. It’s going to get worse. It’s going to get much worse.”

Evaluation, or criticism, of Jeremiah Wright’s theology is not in itself ugliness. Wright is a gadfly, and that’s bound to attract journalistic and political curiosity. Still, the decision about where to attend church always depends on the pastoral realities of a city, a denomination and a congregation.

Barack Obama made a conscious decision to become a Christian while attending Trinity United Church of Christ. For Christians and others who are inclined to vote for him anyway, that probably will be enough reason to allow Jeremiah Wright his political, social and theological hobby horses and not to assume that Obama predictably rides alongside him.

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  • Jerry

    “You think it’s ugly now. It’s going to get worse. It’s going to get much worse.”

    Sadly, that’s going to be very true. I wish we could have a political campaign that did not seem like a drunken bar brawl with everyone feeling hung over and unclean the next day.

    This is not to say that Obama’s faith does not reflect on what kind of person he is. And that makes it a legitimate area of exploration. But there will be those will that try to swiftboat him and recent history has taught the Democrats to respond in kind.

  • Cassie

    My first thought was that since Moslems believe that conversion away from Islam is worthy of death, what would happen if Obama is elected and this information, that he was once considered Moslem but now calls himself Christian, spreads?

  • Eric Omolo Otiende

    Sen. Obama is a Christian. Period. Fullstop. End of story. Why do you all prefer to obfuscate from the real problems that affect this country? Why does this non-story borne of some reporters craving for a story that is totally untrue consume you so? Or is it now true that some members of the fourth estate are now stooping so low a al agent provocateurs? This story is a non sequitur.

  • kim

    Obama was never a Muslim. Never has practiced it. He’s 100% Christian. People are just looking for a story!

  • Steven in Falls Church

    There is no doubt that Obama is a Christian, and therefore the media should stop pursuing this “story.” What warrants further exploration is Obama’s apparent adult conversion from Islam to Christianity. I say this because many liberals have been so enthusiastic in hammering the Bush Administration for sullying the reputation of the United States in the Muslim world. Well, given that conversion is deemed a serious apostasy under most interpretations of Shari’a (and punishable by death in some Muslim countries), wouldn’t the election of Obama be greeted as a serious affront across the Muslim world? If liberals have such concern over the need to improve the country’s reputation in the Muslim world, why would they enthusiastically back Obama over other candidates for the Democratic Party nomination?

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Well, given that conversion is deemed a serious apostasy under most interpretations of Shari’a (and punishable by death in some Muslim countries), wouldn’t the election of Obama be greeted as a serious affront across the Muslim world?

    It would certainly make overseas state visits interesting, to say the least.

  • Michael

    What warrants further exploration is Obama’s apparent adult conversion from Islam to Christianity.

    It needs exploration because it didn’t happen. He lived in a Muslim country, but was raised by athiests. His father was a “secular Muslim” in the way people are “secular Jews” or even “secular Christians.” He has the label Muslim forced on him because he lived in a theocratic country.

  • Stephen A.

    I love all the liberal angst about this being pursued as a story. The fact is, someone’s religion is fair game in a political race, just like their health history, the state of their marriage and their tax returns. It’s a very invasive career path, and Obama surely knew that when he got into it.

    I also hope these same people are posting furiously here when the overly-critical, somewhat hyped “Is Mitt Romney REALLY a Christian?” stories appear in Southern (and Northern) newspapers. Both are equally “unfair” (though also legitimate – up to a point) but it’s very easy to only come to the aid of ones political allies.

    On the substance of the issue, Obama’s affiliation with a radical black church preaching Afro-centrism is DEFINITELY a window into his soul, and (again, up to a point) is worth covering and exploring, just as a fundamentalist politician’s faith is (and certainly has been) the legitimate subject of at least a cursory story.

  • http://theodsseyblogger.typepad.com/theodyssey/ Bryan McKenzie

    The real problem is “the press…just doesn’t get religion,” whatever Sen. Obama’s religious beliefs are they are going to be overlooked because most media stories lack the nuance necessary to accuratly describe them.

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  • http://www.stanforpresident.com Stan Grant

    Christian or not, we don’t want an Obamanation. The prevailing culture of America is that of the English/Christian culture, and without people in office to defend that, we descend to the lows of other nations still experimenting where we’ve succeeded. No need to elect a president on the novelty of his character, but rather for the values that he can capably represent and defend.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    In case people don’t know it, in Indonesia there are five legally recognized religions and you have to be registered as one of them. None of the above is not an acceptable answer. This has zero to do with Senator Obama’s current views.

    Senator Obama does not strike me as a particularly radical person or a Black nationalist. He’s slightly to the left of Senator Clinton. But unfortunately in today’s politcally polarized atmosphere, personal atacks are the norm and not the exception.

  • Stephen A.

    Jinzang, I would find it hard to believe that Indonesia would demand that children of non-citizens would be required to declare their religion just as Indonesian citizens. Can you clarify?

    Also, “He’s slightly to the left of Senator Clinton” is a truly amazing statement, and I bet conservatives laughed out loud when they read those words. Hate to tell you, but Clinton’s very far to the Left, even after her short journey Rightwards in the past year or so.

  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (from Edinburgh)

    I don’t believe everything someone who speaks at my church says (to say the least!) – I tend to have a good chew and see what’s left. It’s the same for all of us, isn’t it?

    We aren’t clones, for sure. Unfortunately, the press will always see the Church as an institution (rather than a disparate collection of individuals), and then all you need to do is decide that the words ‘convert’ and ‘brainwashing’ might sound nice together and you have a first rate religious scandle. FUN?!

  • Stephen A.

    David, you are certainly correct that we don’t all agree with what is preached in the pulpit, though I have to say that we choose where we worship, and are – fairly or not – judged by that choice.

    Personally, no one – black or white – gets to preach racist separation from the pulpit and not be exposed as a racist. If a white candidate for president was attending a separationist/segregationist church, he would be rightfully exposed. Any reporter covering up the truth for Obama about his radical choice of church is exceedingly biased, or willfully blind to the facts.

  • Michael

    gets to preach racist separation from the pulpit and not be exposed as a racist. If a white candidate for president was attending a separationist/segregationist church, he would be rightfully exposed. Any reporter covering up the truth for Obama about his radical choice of church is exceedingly biased, or willfully blind to the facts.

    I think this is the danger in people who are unfamiliar with African American churches covering Obama’s faith. A reporter doesn’t have to be African American, of course, but they need to apprecaite the role of rhetoric and the Black experience in African American churches. This is a self-help message that is actually failry conservative. Not T.D. Jakes conservative or prosperity theology conservative, but a “you have to take responsibility for your life and quit waiting for others to do it” conservative message

    If you’ve never been in a Black church, this kind of rhetoric may sound radical and segregationist. But the message is one you’d here at many AME churches on any given Sunday.

  • Scott Allen

    Eric Omolo Otiende says: “Sen. Obama is a Christian…Why does this non-story borne of some reporters craving for a story that is totally untrue consume you so?”
    I don’t know why people care about Princess Di, or the blonde who just died, or American Idol. But they do, so it pays to just be up-front and honest.

    The story here is that after strongly denying that Obama attended a Madrassa (after 1 reporter phoned the school and mindlessly repeated an official’s position that it’s just a school that happens to teach some Islam classes — with no research into what they taught when Obama attended) and acting like this journalism was oh-so superior to that conducted by Fox News we find out from the L.A. Times that Obama was registered as a muslim. Wow, kudos to the liberal MSM, someone actually did some research!

    Sure, reasonable people recognize that Obama was a kid, and the registration says nothing about his personal beliefs. Still, Obama’s staff could have been proactive on this whole situation, but instead they have relied on the sentiments of people like you, Mr. Otiende. Since you believe Obama is now a Christian, hey, it’s a “non-story.” Well, since people ARE interested in it, it IS a story. Like it or not, Islam has sorta been in the news for the past few years. So your “non-story” comment truly doesn’t follow (and is the true non sequitur) to the issue of news coverage.

  • Marty

    Back before Christmas I visited the Trinity church website.

    I was somewhat dismayed to see a large announcement inviting everyone to attend the special Kwanzaa service — while there was no mention whatsoever of any special Christmas service.

    I kid you not.

  • Stephen A.

    And Marty, that’s exactly why this is a radical congregation, depsite the “spin” that that’s “just the way black churches are.” Most black churches actually worship and celebrate Jesus, not foment racial hate.

  • Stephen A.

    From the blog UCC TRUTHS comes this odd description of what reporters must agree to in order to interview the esteemed pastor of Obama’s radicalized church:

    Wright’s Chicago mega-church, Trinity United Church of Christ, imposes strict requirements on journalists who want to speak to the pastor. Reporters must sign two sets of legal papers on behalf of their news organizations before any interviews in order to be allowed inside the church.

    The church has a list of what it calls “policies and procedures for use with outside media sources” or OMS for short. The paperwork states that the journalist will “fact-check the article” with the reverend’s daughter, Jeri Wright, who is his media services director. The journalist also agrees to “give a full and fair idea of what to expect from the story.” In addition, the journalist promises to give the church “any quotes derived from the interview process, prior to publication” and promises that all published quotes “are original quotes and will not be altered by the OMS in any way.”

    The second agreement, entitled “official waiver for use with outside media sources,” states that “any infraction” of the church’s OMS policies and procedures would lead to the reporter’s “immediate removal” from the church and the confiscation of all interview notes and photos.

    A church spokesperson told Newsweek the papers were designed to “protect our church and its pastoral staff and congregation.”

    more: http://www.ucctruths.com
    Newsweek blog posting that included the quote above: http://wolffe.talk.newsweek.com/default.asp?item=520056


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