Race and religious affiliation

mobamaI finally got around to reading Lauren Collins’ profile of Michelle Obama in the March 10 New Yorker. It’s sympathetic but no puff piece — packed full of information that isn’t necessarily flattering. Obama’s stump speech includes the idea that we’re a country that is “just downright mean,” we are “guided by fear,” we’re a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents, and so on.

But much to my surprise, the article deals with Obama’s religious views head on:

The other Chicago connection that dogs the Obamas is Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., their pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ. Wright, who drives a Porsche and references Bernie Mac and Terry McMillan in his unorthodox sermons (“Take what God gave you and say, ‘In your face, mediocrity, I’m a bad mamma jamma!’”), officiated at Michelle and Barack’s wedding and baptized their two daughters. Barack took the title “The Audacity of Hope” from a sermon that Wright preached. In 2006, the Obamas gave $22,500 to the church.

Wright espouses a theology that seeks to reconcile African-American Christianity with, as he has written, “the raw data of our racist existence in this strange land.” The historical accuracy of that claim is incontestable. But his message is more confrontational than may be palatable to some white voters. In his book “Africans Who Shaped Our Faith”–an extended refutation of the Western Christianity that gave rise to “the European Jesus . . . the blesser of the slave trade, the defender of racism and apartheid”–he says, “In this country, racism is as natural as motherhood, apple pie, and the fourth of July. Many black people have been deluded into thinking that our BMWs, Lexuses, Porsches, Benzes, titles, heavily mortgaged condos and living environments can influence people who are fundamentally immoral.”

In portraying America as “a Eurocentric wasteland of lily-white lies and outright distortions,” Wright promulgates a theory of congenital separatism that is deeply at odds with Obama’s professed belief in the possibilities of unity and change. Last year, Trumpet Newsmagazine, which was launched by Trinity United and is run by Wright’s daughter, gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to Louis Farrakhan, leading to accusations that Wright was anti-Semitic.

To some extent, this description and analysis of Wright’s hostile preaching are standard. But the New Yorker permits Obama to respond:

“We don’t want our church to receive the brunt of this notoriety,” Obama told me. I asked her whether Wright’s statements presented a problem for her or for Barack. “You know, your pastor is like your grandfather, right?” she said. “There are plenty of things he says that I don’t agree with, that Barack doesn’t agree with.” When it comes to absolute doctrinal adherence, she said, “I don’t know that there would be a church in this country that I would be involved in. So, you know, you make choices, and you sort of–you can’t disown yourself from your family because they’ve got things wrong. You try to be a part of expanding the conversation.”

Remember that recent Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey that showed that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations? Many reporters covered the story by leading with anecdotes about people who had switched denominations or religions. And that’s where the news was, so that’s a good idea. But even at the time I found myself wondering about the people who don’t pick up and leave their denomination like so many of their fellow Americans.

I might not be Lutheran if my mother hadn’t left the United Church of Christ, so I’m not saying that leaving a church body is a bad thing. But sometimes I’m shocked at how easily folks switch out denominations.

Anyway, chapter two of that survey showed that Protestants in historically black churches were much less likely to engage in denominational switching than those in other evangelical or mainline Protestant churches. I know that the United Church of Christ is not historically black, but I think that this piece of data does inform this discussion about race and religion. At the time, it seemed like a minor point in a mound of data. But in light of recent events, perhaps reporters might want to revisit the survey for more context and additional story ideas.

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  • http://www.jabberwonk.com Jimmy Crackcorn
  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    Comments on this GR feature may want to be informed by Shelby Steele’s piece in today’s Opinion Journal. Steele’s words are very observant, but nothing that will likely keep Obama’s true believers from raising him up on the last day.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120579535818243439.html?mod=opinion_main_commentaries

  • Jerry

    Ken’s reference to the far right-wing Opinion Journal piece reminds us that we need to understand the political biases of commentators and often the biases of the newspapers, TV stations and web sites to put their comments in context.

  • Stephen A.

    We do need to understand biases. Like the ridiculous bias and hyperbole of some of the talking heads on TV like the one who, moments after Obama’s speech, said on MSNBC that it was (paraphrasing) “The most important speech given in America since the ‘I have a dream’ speech.’”

    Which of course, is ludicrous, even though it was a very, very good speech, which addressed the issues head-on and was extremely eloquently written and eloquently given.

    I wonder what it says of a lefty who immediately shoots down someone’s opinions because it’s in a far right wing publication. Whatever happened to “unity” and understanding the other guy’s pain and suffering, Jerry? Even Obama talked about the concerns of white Americans as being legitimate.

  • Ben

    The speech given today by Obama seems to repudiate the way the Wright controversy has been framed by the likes of Shelby Steele a la Ken’s link above. There’s no sense of “bargaining” with whites, rather he extended challenges to both the white and black communities. I agree with Molly that sticking with a church despite disagreements may be less common these days according to Pew, but it’s still a common enough experience for many churchgoers. It’s the sort of perspective that may be lacking by writers who do not regularly attend a church and therefore might not understand the familial analogy Obama makes to an uncle you love but don’t always agree with.

  • Dave

    Thanks for the link, Jimmy. Obama’s speech simply blows me away, hardly at all for his handling (and adroit framing) of the Wright controversy. He did what every politican needs to do at a moment’s notice — turn a liability into an asset. And he touched upon all the major themes in this year’s election, but more importantly he brought to the surface the racial stuff that, as he says, never gets talked about these days in polite company. I think this one will go down with JFK’s speech about electing a Catholic.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Mollie, excellent post. I agree that there are many potential stories around why some people switch churches or denominations while others stay put in churches where they have significant disagreements with denominational theology or what emanates from the pulpit. Once the dust settles on the Obama/Wright controversy, however, I predict that reporters will lose interest in writing such stories. For too many reporters, if there isn’t a political angle, there isn’t a story.

  • Gary

    Mollic,

    What has happen to the radio program Issues, etc? It was abruptly cancelled and the Issues, etc. web site has been taken offline.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    Gary’s question of Mollie best depicts the wandering attention given to the subject of this article. So it really isn’t surprising that at the end of the day when Obama has, according to the mainstream media, “hit a home run” and put the Rev Wright matter to bed, we can look back at Jerry, Ben, Dave and the rest and wonder if they equate Kennedy’s pledge to the country in 1960 that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope, and Romney’s pledge that the tenets of his religion wouldn’t get in the way of his being able to take the oath of office…, why those speaches are on a par with Obama’s latest disclaimer of a guy that served as his pastor and whom he sat and allowed his children to sit in the company of as the hate filled racist man, crudely chastised the country Obama now wants to elect him.

    I am Christian and Christianity informs my life. That means that when a preciding bishop of my denomination makes remarks that clearly separate her from not only the church but the basic tenets of the faith; I don’t continue to sit in the pew, nod my head and say “amen.” I get my kids together and leave. We get to do that in this country whether we’re white or black.

    Those praying at the idol of Obama need to be aware that their envy is enabling the worst brand of politics seen in our nation since prophet Elijah Mohamed last appeared on a Chicago stage. Who knows, maybe Rev Wright was there too. Watch for the video.

  • Dave

    Ken writes:

    [...W]e can look back at Jerry, Ben, Dave and the rest and wonder [...] why [Kennedy and Romney's] speaches are on a par with Obama’s latest disclaimer of a guy that served as his pastor and whom he sat and allowed his children to sit in the company of as the hate filled racist man, crudely chastised the country Obama now wants to elect him.

    Ken, your obfuscations and omissions won’t work this time. Any of us can go to Jimmy’s link and see Obama’s speech in toto, see how much more there is to it than your crude distortions.

    Those praying at the idol of Obama [...]

    Obama isn’t a deity and no-one mistakes him for one. He’s a politician who, uniquely, is addressing issues that poltics has been failing to cope with for a generation. A decade ago EJ Dionne Jr wrote a book titled Why Americans Hate Politics. The reason, in summary, is that politicians keep re-fighting the issues of the Sixties instead of dealing with real problems of the present. Obama may be the one to break that pattern.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, check out the messianic-like cover of Rolling Stone. And the March 10 cover of TIME, the one with the halo around Obama’s head. He’s reaching levels of virtual deification that hasn’t been seen since RFK. That’s exceedingly dangerous.

    And actually, it was Obama’s spiritual advisor who is still living in the Sixties, and it’s Obama who is hanging out with Weathermen terrorists from the Sixties. And both of them who think that race is the most critical issue we face (rather than a worthless dollar, Islamic extremism, globalization, illegal immigration, etc.) as if we were still living in the Sixties.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    obfuscate |ˈäbfəˌskāt| verb [ trans. ] render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible : the spelling changes will deform some familiar words and obfuscate their etymological origins. • bewilder (someone) : it is more likely to obfuscate people than enlighten them. DERIVATIVES obfuscation |ˌäbfəˈskā sh ən| noun obfuscatory |äbˈfəskəˌtôrē| adjective ORIGIN late Middle English : from late Latin obfuscat- ‘darkened,’ from the verb obfuscare, based on Latin fuscus ‘dark.’

    I don’t think I obfuscated at all. I don’t intend to — ever.

  • csmith

    I am Christian and Christianity informs my life. That means that when a preciding bishop of my denomination makes remarks that clearly separate her from not only the church but the basic tenets of the faith; I don’t continue to sit in the pew, nod my head and say “amen.” I get my kids together and leave. We get to do that in this country whether we’re white or black.

    Ken, we may “get” to do that in this country but as a Christian I think the question that has been overlooked throughout this coverage is whether – as Christians – we should do that.

    I’ve mentioned this in several other posts, but virtually all of the commentary and news I’ve seen on the whole Obama/Wright story seems to assume that we should simply get up and walk out of our church community if the pastor says something we disagree with.

    There’s a much larger story about what it means to be a member of a church – to confront in private, disagree and grapple with difficult issues as a community that is being ignored, and that would shed a lot of light on this Obama/Wright story.

  • Dave

    Stephen A writes:

    Dave, check out the messianic-like cover of Rolling Stone. And the March 10 cover of TIME, the one with the halo around Obama’s head. He’s reaching levels of virtual deification that hasn’t been seen since RFK. That’s exceedingly dangerous.

    This is the wrong board to use terms like “worship at the idol” and “deification” in an allegorical sense. Those words have literal meanings that are important to commenters here.

    And actually, it was Obama’s spiritual advisor who is still living in the Sixties, and it’s Obama who is hanging out with Weathermen terrorists from the Sixties.

    Rev Wright is nothing like a Weatherman from the Sixties. They didn’t just talk; they blew things up.

    And both of them who think that race is the most critical issue we face (rather than a worthless dollar, Islamic extremism, globalization, illegal immigration, etc.) as if we were still living in the Sixties.

    This comment implicitly assumes that our racial problems were solved in the Sixties. They were improved enormously, but they weren’t solved by any means, as anyone who really listened to Obama’s speech could tell. He didn’t address the weak dollar or illegal immigration in the speech because that was not the controversial matter in Rev Wright’s (in)famous sermon; quit trying to change the subject.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    Csmith: “getting up” was written in the context of the Obama time scheme — 20 years. Now that’s a long time to sit in warm water without knowing your’re cooked but maybe that goes to a lack of discernment or the ability to make reasoned decisions. Or being too comfortable in your surroundings.

    Throughout this country, orthodox Christians of many stripes are leaving and have left their churches because the reconciliations of the past several years have only resulted in more heretics advancing to leadership roles. Now lots of people balk at the use of those strong words with “who’s you boy to call that fine man [or woman] a heretic? You ain’t no preacher.”

    And here is where I go to scripture, accepted Apologetics volumes, and Doctors of the Church and display the evidence.

    You see, for me when I call myself a Christian I am ready to challenge my own need to define what that means — and deal with the truth.

    This latest episode in our politics is — for me — just another example of a dissembler being paraded out [well maybe two]. But as I noted when this string began there are many who will — despite what they are shown or told, or read, or see — raise [the idol] up on the last day. And as scripture tells us in a number of places, they will not have been the first.

  • Dave

    Ken writes:

    But as I noted when this string began there are many who will — despite what they are shown or told, or read, or see — raise [the idol] up on the last day. And as scripture tells us in a number of places, they will not have been the first.

    Idolatry is an exaggerated charge to level against enthusiasts for some political candidate. For one thing, you may have no idea how many Democrats who firmly back one of the contenders will gladly support the other one if s/he wins this contest; that’s pretty weak idolatry. For another, politicians who stir up a devoted following in the primaries generally disappoint their most fervent followers once they actually have to start governing. The comparison with RFK is telling; he was cut down in the middle of the primary season, so we are left with the cultural memory of his committed support without any resolution of his actually being in office.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    Dave, it’s Holy Week. Have you ever heard of parables?

  • Dave

    Ken, this isn’t a pulpit; it’s a journalism blog.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave: Please go back and read my post. The covers of magazines with DISTINCT halo-like imagery is what I find distrubing. We don’t do Stalinist cults of personality here in the US, and we’re not starting now, I hope, and would hope the media would be less fawning.

    The level of hero-worship being done here on his behalf (and you KNOW I did not mean “deification” in the literal, Roman Imperial sense) is indeed over the top, and is irresponsible journalism.

    As we’ve discovered, many news organizations went down that path early in the campaign, and discovered that failure to do their due dilligence and investigate the candidate came back to bite them when the other candidate began leaking information on this man’s radical pastor, among other things.

    You’ve also conflated two issues, I hope not deliberately. I was not implying Rev. Wright was a ’60s era Weathermen member. But Obama has indeed had contact with at least one of them on a regular basis – one who is unrepentant and says frequently that he wishes he’d bombed MORE buildings. Google it.

    And I’ll reassert that the Left is obsessed with race to a degree that is unseemly and unrealistic in today’s society, and will even note that not only predominently black churches, but MANY ‘mainline’ churches appear to engage in this type of hyperbolic political rhetoric, although perhaps without as much Black Separatist noise in the majority white churches. The UCC’s Website has always been filled with anti-Israel, anti-Bush, and white guilt philosophy. So much so that it seems like the Democratic National Committee Website at times. When I went back to the UCC church of my youth for a visit 10 years ago, it was all leftist politics and social activism, all the time. Unlike Obama, I got up and left, for good.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to this discussion, but I think it’s pretty obvious the media have been glorifying Obama.

    I also think it’s amazing the media charity (apart from Fox News) shown toward Obama’s pastor that would *never* be shown to a pastor with extremist political views and interpretations of Scripture if that pastor were less aligned with the media’s political outlook.

    I’m sure we will have a chance to dissect these things in much greater detail in the future.


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