Striking the Wright balance

ObamaI watched Barack Obama’s speech on race and religion yesterday morning. But I imagine that I was one of relatively few people to actually watch the speech in its entirety (see it here) or read the whole transcript. That means that it’s been up to the media to summarize, translate and convey meaning about the speech to a larger audience.

I watched the address on MSNBC and knew the media had been completely won over when, upon the final word of the speech, Joe Scarborough immediately praised it as glorious and inspiring. Everywhere I flipped, broadcasters and pundits were talking about the brilliant, historic speech. So I guess Obama has retained the broadcast media vote.

I thought the speech would deal more with religion, since it was the rhetoric of Obama’s hostile pastor that caused this speech. The deft and nuanced speech was mostly about race. And the media coverage seems to get that point.

Still, the 37-minute speech did include discussion of religion and there has been media coverage of that, too. Nedra Pickler and Matt Apuzzo filed a report for the Associated Press that included this snippet:

[The speech] was prompted by the wider notice his former pastor’s racial statements have been receiving in the past week or so.

[Obama] said he recognized his race has been a major issue in a campaign that has taken a “particularly divisive turn.” Many people have been turning to the Internet to view statements by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who suggested in one sermon that the United States brought the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on itself and in another said blacks should damn America for continuing to mistreat them.

That last sentence kind of cracks me up. The major reason why people are turning to the Internet to view statements by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright are because the mainstream media keeps characterizing them in just this bland, anodyne, tepid manner. One almost wonders what the fuss has been over.

I have stated before that context is desperately needed when discussing Wright, but covering up the incendiary rhetoric just serves to drive viewers and readers further away. You can’t keep the information — which included some amazingly offensive insults about white Americans, conspiracy theories about the federal government targeting blacks with the AIDS virus, and some nontraditional exegesis about the race of Jesus and his oppressors — away from people and it’s not right to do so in any case. Incidentally, the Pickler/Apuzzo report misstates Wright’s contention. He said blacks should sing “God Damn America” instead of “God Bless America,” not that blacks themselves should somehow damn America.

Speaking of the need for context, I thought Associated Press reporter Eric Gorski did a great job of providing it for his look at the speech. Having said that, he also characterized Wright’s views in the blandest way possible. But here’s how Gorski began:

As shocking as they may be, the provocative sermons of Barack Obama’s pastor come out of a tradition of using the black church to challenge its members and confront what preachers view as a racist society.

Yet while the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s racially tinged messages still resonate in some black churches, evidence also suggests his style is receding into the past as civil rights-era pastors retire. Sermons in other congregations now focus less on societal divisions and more on the connection between spirituality and a materially prosperous life.

Some media outlets seemed to take Wright’s views completely out of context. But others kept on acting like what Wright said was as normal in black churches as women in hats and Gospel music. As if it’s perfectly fine to say some of the hateful things that Wright said. I really appreciated Gorski coming to the defense of black churches by providing a bit of perspective on where things stand there.

I don’t actually think it’s acceptable to be racist under any circumstances, particularly when you are a Christian pastor. But I do think that some media coverage made Wright into a bit of a caricature. Gorski does a good job of balancing out the picture — mentioning Obama’s defense of the man and explaining how Wright built Trinity United Church of Christ into the denomination’s largest congregation.

At the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ, the slogan “Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian” has meant preaching about divestment during South Africa’s apartheid era. It has also meant fighting poverty, homelessness and AIDS at home. The religious message has been anything but watered down, with Wright dissecting Bible passages line-by-line. . . .

“The whole generation that Rev. Wright represents is expressing what they call a righteous anger, the anger from the failed promises of America,” said Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. “The prophetic anger is toward expanding the democracy, expanding it so all citizens can walk through the door of opportunity.”

Often lost in the attention paid to Wright’s fiery sermons is the typical conclusion, Hopkins said — that despite all obstacles, you are a child of God and “can make a way out of no way.” That phrase, common in the language of the black church, was used by Obama in his 4,700-word speech Tuesday.

That last paragraph, in particular, is what has been missing from so much of the coverage. But one of the things that bothers me with even Gorski’s story is that he doesn’t really talk to people who have any problem with Wright. Some of the things Wright said in his sermons didn’t sound like they were advancing democracy at all. I’m sure there are many people who would like to address just that point.

Gorski speaks with a religion professor at Columbia who defends Wright and says white Americans just don’t get race issues. And the omnipresent historian Martin Marty — a Democrat from Chicago, no less — is brought in to defend Wright, albeit it to balance out the discussion in a way that has been needed:

Wright does not focus his ire on white America alone, said Martin Marty, a retired professor of religious history who taught Wright at the University of Chicago.

“He is very hard on his own people,” Marty said. “He criticizes them for their lack of fidelity in marriage, for black-on-black crime. He is not saying one part of America is right and one is wrong.”

Gorski rounds out the Wright love fest by talking to parishioners who love Wright. Only one person quoted is in any way critical, and only at the very end of the article:

Bishop Harry Jackson, a conservative evangelical who leads a multiracial congregation in Beltsville, Md., said Wright and his defenders are wrongly portraying his comments and Afrocentrism as common in black churches and acceptable to most black believers.

“The people who are listening to him are listening to rhetoric that reinforces their sense of alienation and rejection while, ironically, not giving them any hope and not giving them any remedies,” Jackson said.

At least there was this solitary quote, showing that there actually exist people who have not been won over to Wright’s rhetoric. It also points to the obvious place reporters should look for balance in their portrayal of Wright.

It is good to explain the anger that Wright feels and it is good to place Wright’s preaching in the context of political struggles. But there are religious issues at play, here, too. How do other Christians feel about Wright’s message in particular and black liberation theology in general? We’ve gotten a lot of defenses of Wright from a religious perspective — and a lot of attacks of Wright from a political perspective. But it might be nice to have a bit more balanced conversation from a religious perspective.

Photo via Daniella Zalcman on Flickr.

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  • Jerry

    Mollie, there are two issues here. One you addressed: putting Wright in the context of his era which also includes white racist preachers. So while you’re right that the coverage of him has been unbalanced, a complete coverage would include looking at his white generational peers as well along with more diverse voices discussing the messages.

    The other question is about Barack Obama’s relationship with Wright. The vast majority of people I’ve talked to today about Obama’s speech talked in terms of people they know and like with some real character or behavior flaws. Obama succeeded with many in drawing a parallel between how he thinks of Wright and how many people think of their Pastors or relatives.

    Here too fair coverage of Obama and Wright would also mention other cases how other congregations react when a minister says or does something unacceptable. Sure many people leave but some defend him in very similar terms as Obama used.

    And he subtly raised an interesting question: how often do many people actually listen carefully to a minister’s sermon and reflect upon the message. I suspect the people reading this blog are very highly atypical in that regard.

    I’m an Obama supporter (if that is not obvious), but I would not characterize the speech as historic. Brilliant, yes, especially when compared to the typically low standard that most politicians set.

    He could have tried to distance himself from Wright which would have not been at all convincing. Instead he gave people an adult explanation. And by bringing in how many whites feel about affirmative action and similar programs, he said that he understood not only the black experience but also the white one. And he did it in a way that might be called rhetorical aikido: using the attacks as a platform to reinforce his basic message.

  • David Hamstra

    One difference I’ve noticed between black and white preachers is that white preachers tend to leave their audience feeling good and affirmed and black preachers tend to leave their audience feeling challenged and confronted. When set beside the biblical prophets who spoke of God’s judgment on Israel, Wright’s condemnation of America is very much in line with that tradition. So characterizing his comments as “hateful” or “inappropriate”, only makes sense if you’re used to your preacher primarily encouraging as opposed to rebuking you.

    I think what happened here is that many white Americans (and I am one myself) who are used to having their ears tickled by their pastor got their first exposure to a pastor who calls out sin and condemns it. What they heard were his most extreme soundbites, and took offense at the notion that God might judge America (this reaction was exacerbated by wacky conspiracy theories). No one likes to hear their problems pointed out, especially with such pointed rhetoric, and the person who does the pointing is not going to be popular.

    This is where the role of politician and prophet diverge. The politician needs to be popular; the prophet doesn’t.

  • Jerry

    One thing I forgot to mention: I’ve seen a tiny snippet contrasting Obama’s speech to Romney’s earlier one. We’ll never know, of course, but I wonder what the Republican race would be like today if Romney had given an Obama-type speech about his Mormon religion rather than the one he actually gave.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    Jerry: your comments suggest that you look for idols and heros instead of truth.

    I think that Romney lost out because he was slick but couldn’t convince the core that he’d be an effective fighter. Since fighing [defense] is the primary thing Republican conservatives look for the federal government to provide, it is an important attribute for that party’s candidates.

    Democrats for the most part look to government to take away their grievances; to end their victim-ness. They trust government “to wash away the sins of ….” Okay, maybe I should stop. But not because it isn’t true.

    That said: I’ve begun to realize my disconnect with some of those who contribute to this site. I’m a member of a traditional liturgical church. We have prayers and recite creeds that are over a thousand years old, read Old Testement lessons, Psalms and New Testement verses that take us through the Bible over a span of time. For the most part, the preacher speaks on the lesson, explaining how it pertains to our lives. We sing anthems and hymns, some of which were written in the Middle Ages. We celebrate Faith, Reason and Tradition. We don’t have a tron on the wall and socialize as a community outside of the sanctuary.

    The Constitution of the United States wasn’t fought for and defended to be a transitory document on a stepping stone of history. Nor did any of the founders think for a moment that the country could survive without citizens with some education [especially in history] and an abiding trust in God. George Washington was a white man who abstained from being made a king. Despite owning slaves, he could be termed a godly man.

    Why it is that some folks in this country have for the past few years allowed politicians to assume or pretend to an annointed status as if they were looking for a intercessor boggles me; until I read the Old Testement in my old fashioned church as I continue to trust in the Lord.

  • http://www.bridgeway242.org danr

    I’m grateful for the Bishop Jackson quote at the end, I’ve been to his church. It’s a bit tiresome to hear that “this is just what’s preached in ‘black churches’!” No, make that *some* black churches. My own exposure to, and worship in, mixed/predominantly African-American churches (both radio and in-person) has been conspicuously void of Wright-ish rhetoric and black liberation theology.

    Another egregious example from the article:

    Sermons in other congregations now focus less on societal divisions and more on the connection between spirituality and a materially prosperous life.

    Wow, so it’s EITHER black liberation theology OR “prosperity gospel”??? Incredibly short-sighted. I’ve heard plenty of preaching that would fall into neither camp – rather, the “plain, simple Gospel” delivered once for all people.

    It’s crude stereotyping to describe the “black church” as some theologically monolithic entity. At this point, I’m curious what kind of survey/analysis might exist of how many black Christians in general, and black ministers specifically, endorse this type of teaching and to what degree. I’m somehow guessing it’s somewhat less than the proportion of favorable quotes we hear from self-professed experts quoted in articles like above. If so, it wouldn’t be so much to ask journalists to research and factor that into their reporting, to minimize broad-brush assumptions about “The Black Church”.

  • csmith

    Ken:

    Your comment below shows that there’s a much bigger disconnect between you and “some” who contribute to this site – which, by the way, was founded by a member of the Orthodox church (did I get that right TMatt?) – and tries to deal with press coverage of the full range of religion, including traditional liturgical churches, modern evangelical churches, synagogues and the occasional coven.

    We’re here to discuss press coverage of religion – not to argue about our faith traditions and what the constitution says unless it has something to do with how the press covers religion. I honestly think you may be looking for a different kind of dialog.

    That said: I’ve begun to realize my disconnect with some of those who contribute to this site. I’m a member of a traditional liturgical church. We have prayers and recite creeds that are over a thousand years old, read Old Testement lessons, Psalms and New Testement verses that take us through the Bible over a span of time. For the most part, the preacher speaks on the lesson, explaining how it pertains to our lives. We sing anthems and hymns, some of which were written in the Middle Ages. We celebrate Faith, Reason and Tradition. We don’t have a tron on the wall and socialize as a community outside of the sanctuary.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    Gee CS, that’s pretty stiff.

    I’ll pray about what you suggest. Or, maybe I’ll look for a story in Newsweek and pray about that. But I’ll not be praying to that.

  • csmith

    Ken-

    I’m sorry but, again, I don’t get your comment…what are you trying to communicate when you say “I’ll not be praying to that”?

    My point is simply that you don’t seem to be interested in discussing press coverage of religion as much as you want to argue about religion (and talk down to the rest of us by implying that we’re idolaters or are somehow less Christian than you are).

  • Tara

    # David Hamstra says:
    March 19, 2008, at 11:28 am

    One difference I’ve noticed between black and white preachers is that white preachers tend to leave their audience feeling good and affirmed and black preachers tend to leave their audience feeling challenged and confronted. When set beside the biblical prophets who spoke of God’s judgment on Israel, Wright’s condemnation of America is very much in line with that tradition. So characterizing his comments as “hateful” or “inappropriate”, only makes sense if you’re used to your preacher primarily encouraging as opposed to rebuking you.

    I think what happened here is that many white Americans (and I am one myself) who are used to having their ears tickled by their pastor got their first exposure to a pastor who calls out sin and condemns it. What they heard were his most extreme soundbites, and took offense at the notion that God might judge America (this reaction was exacerbated by wacky conspiracy theories). No one likes to hear their problems pointed out, especially with such pointed rhetoric, and the person who does the pointing is not going to be popular.

    This is where the role of politician and prophet diverge. The politician needs to be popular; the prophet doesn’t.

    Very good observation! I have to add in many cases the Black Community cannot afford to leave church with their problems sugar coated and swept under the rug. Not to be disrespectful as I was raised in both, because my parents wanted me to have an objective view where God was concerned. I guess the best way of describing it would be that White churches tend to attack problems in the community with fellowship, prayer, and a pat on the head. Churches in the Black communities tend to be the exact opposite in a swift kick in the butt, prayer, then fellowship!

  • Sarah P.

    I am wondering why it is a surprise that Trinity is steeped in Black Liberation Theology. Consider where it is, when Jeremiah Wright took charge there, and what life experience and training were to that point. The Chicago south side home of Trinity was a desperately downtrodden area, and the church reportedly had a whopping total of 87 members. Crime was high there, and hope almost nonexistent.

    Today the church has over 8000 members, and has done so much for its southside area that my dear, lily white, conservative friends joined in support and appreciation of their work. Think about that for a minute. 8000 members, in an urban ghetto. And then go look at all the things they do:
    http://www.tucc.org/ministries.htm

    THAT is what people stayed for. Wright inspired them, goaded them, and served as an example for them to lift up their community. No, he was not always politically correct. Yes, he was sometimes horribly offensive in expressing his anger, and occasionally his words were downright nutty. But most of the time he was doing the hard, day to day work of convincing his church members to embrace their responsibility to each other, and organizing them into a community with the power and the will to effect change on a much grander scale.

    Like it or not, his approach was born of his black experience, and that of his ancestors in this country. Virtually everything was segregated in his early experience, including churches, and it was true, for generations, that only in black churches did black Americans have any power or control. Church was the center of community, the source of leadership, and the only place where organization or call to action was possible.

    Outside the black church, there was a long history of Christian theologians using religion to justify slavery and segregation. James Cone (I recommend reading some of his work if you haven’t) argued that because white theologians were complicit in teaching oppression (justifying slavery and segregation with religious teaching) and neglecting the needs of poor blacks, it was incumbent on blacks to take back responsibility for their own relationship with god, interpret scripture for themselves in a way that was relevant to the black experience, and most of all, live up to the biblical duty to help all the poor and marginalized members of society.

    Liberation theology taught the transformation of anger and resentment into action, through understanding of Christian principles of love and charity, and the power of hope. Where in the larger black community anger produced crime, and often morphed into hate or indifference, within the black church, anger stirred forth power, and became the fuel to make good things happen.

    Preachers like Wright depended on bringing out emotional responses, and then channeling those into positive action. Trinity’s church members, by accounts told to me, went to hear what would get them fired up and angry, what would get them riled up enough to DO something to right the injustice and inequality they saw all around them.

    But it was never, ever about being better than. It was about equality and justice. It was about getting motivated to do better, to help each other. And was rooted solidly in the black experience, in a black community – and was then and is not now very well understood outside that community.

    Younger generations have moved beyond that, but there are so many people still living whose wounds still pain them, who may never break free from the experiences of their youth, who treasure the fiery rhetoric that helped them lift up their children and grandchildren to something better, even if it’s beyond their own reach.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    This is my response to CS above. If I had his email I wouldn’t clutter this site.

    [And I'm appreciative of Sarah's explanation. I thought the only liberation theology was what had been rejected by the Catholic Church as an outgrowth of Communism in South and Central America.]
    Naomi Riley writes the following in her March 21 Weekend Journal entry:

    Much has been said, in an effort to excuse the toxic content of Pastor Wright’s sermons, about the ways in which his speeches are part of the “black tradition.” But most black churches are Baptist, Methodist or independent. They have religious doctrines with a long history. Trinity, on the other hand, belongs to the United Church of Christ, a mostly white denomination defined almost entirely by its social-justice agenda.

    My disconnect CS is in that I’m from a church with a religious doctrine[s] with a long history. I’m not a seeker but there are many in our midst including those who are wounded for a multitude of reasons.

    I hope you get to see this CS. Bye.


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