Covering Obama’s spiritual guide

JeremiahWright 01 01I was wondering what it would take to get some more mainstream media coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s United Church of Christ pastor. Wright has been mentioned in quite a few opinion columns and tabloid publications recently for his race-based preaching and teaching. But mainstream media coverage has been lacking. So it was nice to see an article by the Baltimore Sun‘s Michael Hill about Wright and the attention he’s been receiving:

The connection [with Obama] has thrown a spotlight on some of Wright’s more controversial remarks in a church that advertises itself as “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian” – at times espousing a black liberation theology that can sound as exclusionary as Obama’s message is inclusionary. He has also equated Zionism with racism.

On Sunday morning – amid intensified crossfire between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama over the use of race in the Democratic presidential campaign – Wright was preaching from the Gospel of John, using his powerful style to link the story of the loaves and fishes to a contemporary political message.

Man should not put limits on what God can do, but that’s what people always do, he told the crowd. Just as God made five loaves and two fishes feed thousands, God has provided liberators for blacks in the past – from Nat Turner to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and now Barack Obama.

I think it’s funny that the reporter says Wright’s message “can sound” exclusionary but Obama’s message “is” inclusionary. Anyway, not knowing what black liberation theology is, I can only surmise that the example given of it is representative. The article also quotes Wright saying that Bill Clinton did to blacks what he did to Monica Lewinsky. Yikes!

Just this week Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen complained that Wright’s church magazine gave Louis Farrakhan its person of the year award. They said he “truly epitomized greatness.” In the article, Obama distanced himself from his preacher, while also confirming his affection for the man. Hill’s story did a good job of explaining where that affection comes from:
barack obama audacity of hope

The candidate’s 1995 book Dreams From My Father depicts Obama’s decision to join Trinity United as a fundamental step in affirming his identity as an African-American. Obama’s mother was white, he was raised in large part by her parents and he spent much of his youth in Indonesia with his mother’s second husband. He only met his father, a Kenyan, once.

Obama took the title of his more recent book, The Audacity of Hope, from the first sermon he heard preached by Wright, whom Obama met while working in Chicago as a community organizer.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote of his reaction on hearing that sermon in 1988: “In that single note – hope! – I heard something else: At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and the Pharaoh, the Christians in the Lion’s Den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church on this bright day seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.”

Where the story is weaker, I think, is in the relative lack of thoughtful criticism about Wright’s preaching. Hill does a good job of speaking to people who defend Wright but not those who aren’t so keen on the content of his preaching. In fact, the only critic quoted — and for only a few words — is avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens.

One paragraph that struck me was this one:

Wright, who is about to retire, took over Trinity United in 1972. It was an odd black congregation, since the United Church of Christ is a mainly white denomination, predominantly in New England, that traces its ancestry back to the Puritans. Over the years, it developed a liberal reputation based in part on the independence of its individual churches.

The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 through the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (itself a merged church, as the name implies) and the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. It is not untrue that some of its ancestry lies with the Puritans — but its heritage is much richer than that. People always seem to point out the Puritan ties, but not the E & R. Or maybe I just remember this because my mother was baptized at an E & R church and confirmed at a UCC church. The UCC also descended from the Pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony.

Anyway, I think the article was necessary — the mainstream media silence about Wright was odd considering how many newsworthy comments he’s been making lately. What do you think is appropriate coverage for this pastor? And how do journalists cover him when he’s been reticent to work with the media?

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  • Joseph M. Smith

    It is also not an odd thing for there to be black churches in the UCC. The American Missionary Association of the old Congregational Church did a great deal of work in the reconstruction era, focusing on the needs of the freedmen. The Congregational Church lies behind the founding of Howard University, Fisk University, and other institutions for black Americans. You will find black churches among the strongest in that denomination. Andrew Young, I believe, is a minister in the UCC.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    FWIW, i’m working on setting up the clergy luncheon for my denominational biennial regional (think diocesan for some of you) assembly, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright is going to be our guest speaker. Contra many e-mails i’ve seen over the last few weeks, neither Rev. Wright nor his staff seem to hate white people (it is hard to be whiter than i am, unless you’re a loaf of Wonder Bread), they often work with predominantly ahite/Anglo groups like Disciples of Christ in Ohio, and i happen to have been to that church, where i got fewer odd looks than Wright or Obama would get at most of our congregations around Ohio.

    The Farrakhan thing i don’t get at all, but i’m aware that the Nation of Islam on the South Side of Chicago has done a great many things in helping the poor and isolated, not just their own members, that Trinity UCC sees as creditable. But i’ve done enough research to feel better about having Wright come speak to our clergy pre-Assembly than i would, say, Jesse Jackson.

    Me, i’d have John McCain come speak, but the choice was made before i came on board. Rev. Wright is a man of God who honors Christ, and sees respect for an African ethos as integral to his congregational mission in Chicago on the South Side. Let’s all ease up on the rhetoric — if Wright is wrong to honor Farrakhan, that’s a fair point to make, but turning it into “so he’s really a Muslim in disguise” in re: Obama is out of line and not helpful.

    And Jeremiah Wright doesn’t hate white people, and loves to preach the Gospel to them, but his calling is to African-Americans in a modern urban context; Paul had a mission to the Gentiles, which didn’t mean he hated Jews.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    I know you’re a careful researcher, Mollie, but I can’t help but think that your comment — “not knowing what black liberation theology is, I can only surmise that the example given of it is representative” — smacks of the rhetorical device by which one expresses dislike by expressing ignorance. That’s not your style, though. Nor is not knowing about a major 20th century American theological movement. Every religion reporter ought to be familiar at least with James Cone, author of many books, including “A Black Theology of Liberation.”

    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11232007/profile.html

  • http://www.news-leader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=BLOGS06 Brian Lewis

    I find Mollie’s phrase “race-based preaching and teaching” very odd.
    I don’t think Wright is that unusual in the black church tradition and most African-American preachers would call their message Bible-based.
    How is Wright all that different?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeff,

    I wrote that passage horribly — but not for the reason you cite. What I intended to write — and managed to not do at all — was compliment the reporter on not just saying that Wright espouses black liberation theology but *showing* an example of it. I didn’t actually get that out and I will spare you my excuses.

    I did want to make clear that I am completely unread on black liberation theology (make of that what you will and feel free to cast aspersions in my direction) and wanted to be honest about that. I am familiar with liberation theology in general and Latin American liberation theology specifically — so I probably overwrote my ignorance on the subject. But I think it’s best to be honest about what we know and don’t know. Sometimes I think I have sufficient understanding of some doctrinal point or theological issue to compliment a reporter for handling it well — and then 132 readers explain to me that I don’t know as much as I think I do.

    To Brian — Wright isn’t in the news for his “Bible-based” teaching but his preaching and teaching as it relates to race. So I think the phrase I used, in context, is fine.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Mollie wrote:

    I did want to make clear that I am completely unread on black liberation theology (make of that what you will and feel free to cast aspersions in my direction) and wanted to be honest about that.

    Thanks for clarifying that. I do agree with Jeff that this is a major 20th century theological movement, and I would go even farther—I think successful journalistic coverage of Rev. Wright would presuppose a working knowledge of James Cone’s work for contextual reasons. Much of the African-American religious traditions, from the Black Jews to the Moorish Science Temple and the late 19th century Missionizing Africa movement (Maria Fearing and such) has to do with dealing with what W.E.B Dubois called the “double-consciousness” of African-Americans. Race and its structural manifestations form one part of that, and Black Liberation Theology was one prominent response to that question.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    “What do you think is appropriate coverage for this pastor? And how do journalists cover him when he’s been reticent to work with the media?”

    I’m sure his sermons are published. Start there.

  • Drew

    Jeff:

    The Farrakhan thing i don’t get at all, but i’m aware that the Nation of Islam on the South Side of Chicago has done a great many things in helping the poor and isolated, not just their own members, that Trinity UCC sees as creditable. But i’ve done enough research to feel better about having Wright come speak to our clergy pre-Assembly than i would, say, Jesse Jackson.

    If you don’t know about Farrakhan’s anti-semitic past, you are either living under a rock or a complete idiot. Please spare us the “he’s really a do-gooder on the south side” crap – you are choosing to ignore it.

  • James Manley

    the Christians in the Lion’s Den

    I’m surprised that Obama wrote this, his editors didn’t catch it, and that the line doesn’t draw comment when it is cited in news stories.

  • Stephen A.

    I second Drew’s comment re: Farrakhan’s “good works.” Please. Give us a break. When will the mas media stop giving this racist a slide? When Time Magazine called him, on it’s mid-1990s cover “Minister of Rage” I wondered why he wasn’t, rightly, called “Minister of Hate.” (Of course, Time USED To get it right: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,960192,00.html?iid=chix-sphere )

    So too with those like Wright who praise him. Let me (to, ironically, borrow a phrase from Malcolm X) “Make it Plain” about this fellow.

    You can gussie up Wright’s Black Separationist rhetoric in all sorts of fancy citations from this author or that, or some arcane pseudo-intellectual theory from the 19th century, etc. etc., but what you’re left with is Black racism and separationism pure and simple, and it’s no different in degree and tone from what White racist militia groups were preaching back in the 1990s.

    Bear in mind that the man believes it goes against “blackness” for blacks to aspire to the middle-class. Does he want them to be perpetually poor, or simply jump into the Upper Classes? Is this Communism or simply plain old Marxist class envy? Either way, it’s bizarre, and breeds hatred, mistrust and envy among the races. NOT reflective of Obama’s supposed message, to be sure.

    Once the MSM stop pussy-footing around this man because the subject is black and not white (and I *think* that’s beginning to happen, ever so slightly) you will see some serious analysis of this man’s racialism, and it’s impact (or lack of it) on Obama and his rhetoric.

    Mollie asks:

    And how do journalists cover him when he’s been reticent to work with the media?

    Why, the same way the media covers, and exposes, all racists and bigots.

    The media can start by asking Wright, or his cronies (or Obama) whether he agrees with Farrakhan when he said: “You cannot say ‘never again’ to God, because when He puts you in the oven, ‘never again’ don’t mean a thing.” or “Schindler’s list was a swindler’s list.”

  • http://www.philocrites.com/ Philocrites

    The Christian Century published a very fine profile of Wright’s congregation last year that examines his theology and its relationship both to black Christianity and to the United Church of Christ. See Jason Byassee’s “Africentric Church: A Visit to Chicago’s Trinity UCC” (5/29/2007).

  • MJBubba

    Philocrites, thank you very much for that link.
    Both Mollie and Michael Hill were careful to avoid the description “Afrocentric,” using “race-based” and “Black Liberation Theology” to provide the needed information. It would have taken too much ink to provide Jeremiah Wright’s “Africentric” spin.

  • barry

    has no one noticed that if you switch the word black to white and change the homeland from africa to germany its a trip back in time to the year 1938 (wait can i say that and not be concidered politicaly incorrect?)


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