Seeking the roots of Wright’s audacity

wright 01 Barack Obama supporters won’t like this, but let the word go forth. Reporters should write more stories about Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and his relationship with the Democratic presidential candidate. Yes, I say this even after Wright left the campaign.

This is not a case of piling on. Journalists have underplayed this story.

As Doug LeBlanc noted, consider this profile of Obama in Rolling Stone. Far from being a fresh revelation, some of Wright’s remarks were reported more than a year ago. Yet only now have Wright’s comments caused an uproar. If reporters had scrutinized Wright, the current contretemps would have been long past.

A key starting point for reporters should be the roots of Wright’s theology. In the most recent coverage, newspapers have offered two different explanations. The Chicago Tribune quoted Obama as saying that Wright’s theological views are a byproduct of the 1960s:

Obama compared Wright to an uncle he was fond of but with whom he disagreed, adding: “Like a lot of African American men of fierce intelligence who came of age [then], he has a lot of the language and the memories and the baggage of those times.”

By contrast, The New York Times mentioned nothing about the sixties. Instead, reporter Jodi Kantor emphasized the religious roots of Wright’s vision:

Mr. Wright, 66, who last month fulfilled longstanding plans to retire, is a beloved figure in African-American Christian circles and a frequent guest in pulpits around the country. Since he arrived at Trinity in 1972, he has built a 6,000-member congregation through his blunt, charismatic preaching, which melds detailed scriptural analysis, black power, Afrocentrism and an emphasis on social justice; Mr. Obama praised the last quality in Friday’s statement.

His most powerful influence, said several ministers and scholars who have followed his career, is black liberation theology, which interprets the Bible as a guide to combating oppression of African-Americans.

Granted, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. Every theology is rooted in some historical era. Yet readers of the two stories are confused. Does Wright’s theology owe more to “Soul on Ice” or “A Black Theology of Liberation.” (To her credit, Kantor quoted James Cone, the author of the latter book.)

If the public were better informed about this question, they would know more about Obama and Wright.

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  • csmith

    As a huge fan (and daily reader) of Get Religion, I expected much more from GR on this story than what Mark has written here. While reporters may have underplayed this story until now, a lot of the play that it has been getting in the last 48 hours seems to be shallow “gotcha” politics that fails to scratch the surface of these issues.

    Is the issue really getting a better understanding of the roots of Wright’s theology or digging into his theology and the impact it has had on Obama?

    I’d also like to see someone in the press dig into the question of what it means to be a member of a church…Sean Hannity asked Obama if he would have quit the church if he heard those comments but that seems to gloss over the questions of what it means to be a member of a church (even one whose pastor makes controversial statements) – as Christians do we (and Obama) just up and leave at the first sign of trouble or do we stick it out because we see ourselves as part of something bigger.

    I don’t think the roots of Wright’s theology are really the issue here – if you watched the interview on Fox (that is used in the picture here) you would have seen that when Wright tried to answer that question Sean Hannity kept cutting him off.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Is the issue really getting a better understanding of the roots of Wright’s theology or digging into his theology and the impact it has had on Obama?

    CSmith makes a good point, except that Doug LeBlanc urged reporters to examine the effect that Wright’s theology had on Obama. I did not want to reiterate Doug’s point. A case can be made, however, that I should have.

  • Greg Trujillo

    This is the type of influence on Sen. Obama that makes me question his future support of Israel. The “chickens coming home to roost” comment is the type of thing people say and believe when they think we caused the attacks by supporting Israel. And how can a real Christian say “*** Damn America”?
    Here are the two basic reasons America is blessed the way she has been and continues to be: The freedom to preach the real gospel and her support of Israel. I think after 20 years of hearing the preaching of the same Pastor there must be more times that these types of remarks were used. At least the ideology was there. True churches and Christians do not differentiate along ethnic lines in their preaching of the Gospel or the use of scripture. If we ever have a president or government that stops supporting Isreal we will fulfill this verse: “I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you”. Remember, the Jews are still God’s people and Jesus was a Jew.

  • Michael

    This is an almost impossible story to tell, because to tell the story of Wright’s theology–and to understand it–is to also tell the story of race and African Americans in this country. They are intertwined and they make people very uncomfortable.

    That’s why K-Lo at the National Review was more than ready to be a Romney apologist when it came to his Mormonism but is worked into a frenzy over Obama; the same could be said for Dreher who can talk about almost nothing else.

    Because to understand Wright’s theology–and Obama’s by extensions–we need to be able to talk about race. About the idea that Christianity for African Americans–whether it is in a UCC megachurch or the cornerstone AME or a storefront Pentecostal church–is not going to sound like what you hear in American Catholic churches, in Protestant churches, in the Orthodox churches where white people pray and dominate.

    The idea that Black people may be angry–and that the ministers may preach about that anger–is an uncomfortable reality to face . . . and to write about in any effective way.

  • Stephen A.

    Greg finds the “chickens” comment familiar because Farakhan, and before him, Malcolm X, used the same line. Their views on Israel are well known, but what isn’t known (as he correctly mentions) is how Obama feels about this.

    While I personally believe America is here for America, and that we don’t necessarily have to agree with any other nation’s actions and foreign policy – including Israel’s – the media needs to press him on this point.

    This isn’t a “gotcha” issue, unless by “gotcha” you mean to ask whether a close friend and preacher for 20 years has somehow all of a sudden gone off the rails and started spouting racialist nonsense, or if it’s more plausible that perhaps the Obama family may buy into it more than they’re letting on.

    From a political view, of course, that would be poison for his campaign, since whites won’t vote for a faux Black Panther, but have demonstrated (in the primaries at least) that they will vote for a black man.

    From a media and religious point of view I want to media stories to answer a few questions:

    1. What is black liberation theology? Most people don’t know, I’m sure. Many blacks may not even know.
    2. Does the anger Rev. Wright has been spouting reflect the general black christian community? Are my black neighbors THAT angry, bitter and resentful of “whitey”?
    3. Is this classist, racialist rhetoric backed up by, and reflected in, the liberal United Church of Christ denomination? Admittedly, it isn’t a creedal church, but a ‘mindset’ may exist.
    4. Were the Obamas present during any of these sermons? I’m sure the networks are playing those CDs right now for that answer.
    5. Do Rev. Wright’s outbursts shed any light on Michelle Obama’s comment that she’s never been proud of America – until now? (a religious question inasmuch as it would prove that he has influenced them, which I can’t imagine he didn’t.)

    Side note: It’s remarkable that Rev. Wright appeared on Hannity & Colmes, and that Obama also appeared on Fox News. Wright is famously camera- and reporter-shy, and Obama has pretty much boycotted Fox News up until now, if I recall correctly.

  • Asinus Gravis

    Mark professes to be interested in finding out more about Wright and Obama, but leaves it unclear about how finding out about Wright’s theology will inform us about Obama. The story is about Wright, at least on the surface, so why suggest that it automatically tells us about Obama?

    csmith (#1)appropriatels raises the question of what it means to be a member of a church. I have been members of Baptist churches that had a very strong tendency to be involved in worshipping the minister. When he (it was always a male) left (or was booted out), so did many of the members. But far from all churches are like that. Is there some presumption in this news coverage that the members of the church that Wright used to pastor was involved in worshipping Rev. Wright–and that Obama must have been one of the uncritical flock?

    Greg (#3) wants to divert the issue onto pro- or anti-Israeli politics. He suggests that “the chickens coming home to roost” remark meant that we were attacked on 9/11 because of our support for Israel. I believe the attack had a great deal more to do with our oil control politics in the Middle East for decades, and that was what Rev. Wright was discussing.

    Greg seems puzzled about a minister saying or preaching, “Damn America.” Apparently he is unfamiliar with Biblical preaching in the U.S.
    And he is equally unfamiliar with the prophetic preaching found in the prophetic books in the Jewish Scriptures–e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah, etc., where these prophets explicitly spoke of YHWH’s condemnation of their own country.

    Apparently he is also unfamiliar with Jesus, Paul, and John being explicitly critical of the leadership of their own country–ruled by the Roman leaders (with the collusion of the Jewish leaders). The Apocalypse pronounces damnation on that corrupt political system.

    By the way, the audiences for the prophets, Jesus, Paul, and John, like Greg, were not pleased with what they were being told about their country–some were angry enough to kill the messenger!

    Greg also inconsistently wants us to favor Israel but does not want us to differentiate among peoples along ethnic lines. Make up your mind!

    Mark (#5) makes some very good sense about the difficulty of making sense of Wright’s theology and preaching without a lot of background that many journalists lack.

  • Jerry

    There are many threads here, perhaps too many for one story. There’s the right wing swiftboat types going after Obama the same way they did Kerry including the participation and cheerleading by the entertainers that work for Fox News. There’s the black history perspective. There’s the whole history of how America is perceived in the world including the distinction between blind patriotism and the patriot who will admit that his country makes mistakes. There’s the question about how we feel about our Pastors when they make statements which with we disagree. I’m tired just thinking about all those questions.

    Mark is right when he said that good reporting would have brought all of this up earlier. So I do agree with the concluding point. Too often, and this is one case, how a story is handled tells us more about those doing the reporting than it does about those who are the point of the story. This is a good example case.

  • danr

    Michael I’d fully agree it’s a difficult story, but voting for a presidential candidate is (or should be) a difficult, well-informed decision. That’s especially true when in terms of a candidate’s political experience and overall familiarity to the public, he’s still colored somewhat green. Journalists need to make that difficult effort to better inform the public, which is what they’re ostensibly educated and paid to do.

    African-Americans obviously have every right and reason to be angry at their history of oppression. And Obama has the same right as any American: whether and where to worship. Nonetheless, shouldn’t US citizens of all stripes have the right to question the ongoing affiliation of a candidate with a church whose pastor has preached such hatred against the country that candidate seeks to preside over? Obama represents himself and his own views, and he’s legitimately pleaded against guilt by association. But when his pastor’s teaching is that incendiary (9/11 is our fault?), it has to be considered fair game for exposure and critical analysis.

    csmith, the meaning of church membership may vary between different churches/individuals. Typically, I’d say it involves not only a commitment to persevere in relationship, but also a shared vision and determination to adhere to sound doctrine according to that church’s beliefs – and by corollary, to reject unsound teaching. Obama did, to his credit, condemn Wright’s controversial teachings and wrote that he chose to remain in the church because “Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community.”

    Personally, I’m white and have attended several mixed and predominantly black churches, and both churches I’ve ever belonged to have been intentionally diverse. Though not unfamiliar with Afrocentric teaching, I’ve never heard anything like what Wright preached. All I heard taught, and felt expressed inter-relationally, was the unity in love of all believers in Christ regardless of race, class, gender, etc. The mandate for such Divinely-empowered unity is hard to ignore in the New Testament, to put it mildly.

    Obama talks eloquently about breaking down division and stereotype, and overcoming the sins of history to forge a unified future direction. I just find it a pity he doesn’t live it out by having chosen a church/pastor that does likewise.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I don’t know if the Liberation theology in Catholic countries in Latin America was as full of anger, divisiveness, and racial insult as Rev. Wright’s supposedly Black Liberation tirades are. But it certainly makes the Vatican’s attempts to squelch Liberation Theology in Catholic circles seem genuinely prophetic.
    The question is, is it really theology or Marxist race-class hatred gussied up in Christian garb that Liberation theologians–Protestant or Catholic–are promoting.
    And the effect of 20 years of imbibing this unChristian hate-mongering philosophy by Obama should be deeply probed by the media–not brushed off as irrelevant when compared to other issues. It is certainly not irrelevant whether a future president has wrapped hiself in Black or White racism or radical left-wing ideology and is now a master of deceit in hiding it through artful speeches and rhetoric.
    But how many times in the last 24 hours have I seen apologists for Obama in the media say with a straight face that there is no difference between McCain or Clinton accepting an endorsement from some religious leader they barely know and Obama’s apparent deep involvement with Rev. Wright over 20 years.
    And, I guess Obama can lie as skillfully as Dems repeatedly say Bush does. For one news web site already claims to have evidence Obama was at some of these United Church of Christ hate-fests, although Obama claims he hadn’t the foggiest notion how virulent Rev. Wright’s preaching is. (Do the leaders of the national denomination know, I wonder????)

  • SouthCoast

    The only moral difference between Rev. Wright’s rantings and those of some Aryan Nation skinhead howling about “racial holy war” is…uh…yeah…

  • csmith

    “But how many times in the last 24 hours have I seen apologists for Obama in the media say with a straight face that there is no difference between McCain or Clinton accepting an endorsement from some religious leader they barely know and Obama’s apparent deep involvement with Rev. Wright over 20 years.”

    Deacon John, your comment is exactly the story that I would like to see someone dig into from a religious perspective (although I think my perspective is very different from yours). From the religious (or, in this case, Christian) perspective is it necessarily a bad thing that Obama has been faithfully involved in a church – albeit a controversial one – for over 20 years.

    Every story and interview that I’ve read about this question seems to assume that, when a pastor says controversial things, church members (or at least those who are running for office) should just quit the church and the community that it represents. I’ve even seen stories that treat Obama’s donations to the church characterized as donations to Wright (instead of to the church).

    I’m not defending Wright’s theology, and agree that the comments that have been widely publicized are appalling – but were these isolated comments that are taken out of context or that erupted out of passion (like the idiotic comments that Jerry Falwell made about 9/11), and that went unchallenged by members of the church (including Obama)?

    I respect the fact that Obama has been a dedicated member of a church for 20 years but would like to know more about what that really means before assuming that he should have quit the church or condemning him for his association with Wright.

    Finally, as a founding member of a (now large) church, I, and others in our community, had to confront our founding pastor over several comments he made in sermons over 15 years. There were times when his words landed wrong, others when he misspoke, and others where we just had to agree to disagree – I suspect that anyone who regularly attends any church has been in that situation, and I think we’d learn a lot more about Obama and Wright if someone were to dig deeper into that side of the story.

  • http://yahoo.com linda

    I would like to knw more about this our country needs to know more.

  • http://NONE Ivan Truman

    How many churches of various denominations have been on the IRS hit list for comments made from the pulpit? Go back to Lyndon Johnson who was castigated for supposed illicite behavior outside of his marriage…It was he who forced legislation through Congress to disallow pastors from having a moral voice from their chair…the Bible is clear on how we are to view Pastor Wright’s behavior…God will judge him on his worthiness for heaven. We can, however, consider his fruits. (Galatians 5:22) Mr. Obama should honor the office of Pastor, but review the man’s behavior…especially if he wants the highest office in the land. At this point whatever he does is in hindsight.

  • steve

    If it were not for the link to obama, this would be a non-story.

  • Louis T.

    It is sad that Rev. Wright should display so much anger and hatred towards our land and Country of birth. Freedom of speech is fine, but it has consequences. What judgement does Sen. Obama display by associating with Pastor Wright, and pretending he just has heard of his utterances. There is more than meets the eye.

    Shame on Rev. Wright for being a traitor; and more shame on Sen. Obama for insulting the American people with his deception.

  • Elizabeth D.

    Everyone go to http://www.tucc.org and read their doctrine..which is called “Black Theology” and is no where in true Christianity. It reads, “We are an African people, and remain TRUE to our native land, the mother continent” (pagan Mother/Goddess worship) Looks like a cult church to me. But, not to Obama. He’s under a spell by a scorcerer with theologian degrees. Do we want a President with allegiance to a foreign country? “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the pit”, according to Jesus. So, now we know Obama does not know the bible, even after 20 years. Now we know, he is like the Galatians, who Paul knew were “bewitched” by false teaching. (He knew, because he had the gift of discerning demon spirits) And, he warned us never to follow any man. For the day is coming, when you will all follow and worship the anti-christ. Anyone who preaches black theology, teaches unforgiveness, so let him be “accursed”, as Paul said, “If we,or an angel preaches any OTHER gospel”. GET GOD, get free of religion, and pagan practices, (including praying to statues) as in pagan Roman times.

  • PBurns

    If you want to know more about Obama, how about reading about Barack Obama directly? As a general rule, Oats are not much improved by being run through a horse. Failure to do primary research suggests a desire to reach a pre-conveived conclusion.

    It’s not like finding out about Obama is very difficult. The man has written two excellent best-selling books available in any store or libraru, has a solid record of cast votes, has made a lot of speeches, and has been sorted through in a great detail. He has an exemplary record of service and scholarship. His web site is a click away. and Jeremiah Wright is not running for office; why is he the issue if the candidate himself remains unexplored?

    As to Trinity church, it is the largest congregation in a mainstream, largely-white, church. Wright has been preaching for 38 years at the church, and his sermons are on radio and TV and their web site. Wright’s inflamatory remarks are sufficiently rare that it apparently matters quite a lot whether Obama was at church on this one particular day (he was not).

    What is laughable here is that so much to-do is being made about Wright’s remarks, while so little controversy has been made by far more inflamatory rhetoric from right-wing ministers. As Frank Schaeffer notes at >> http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/17/obama-was-in-chicago-the-_n_91876.html :

    “[W]hen my late father — Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer — denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr. We Republican agitators of the mid 1970s to the late 1980s were genuinely anti-American in the same spirit that later Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (both followers of my father) were anti-American when they said God had removed his blessing from America on 9/11, because America accepted gays. Falwell and Robertson recanted but we never did. My dad’s books denouncing America and comparing the USA to Hitler are still best sellers in the ‘respectable’ evangelical community and he’s still hailed as a prophet by many Republican leaders. When Mike Huckabee was recently asked by Katie Couric to name one book he’d take with him to a desert island, besides the Bible, he named Dad’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race? a book where Dad also compared America to Hitler’s Germany.”

    Read the whole thing. But more importantly, read Barack Obama. He’s the candidate, not Rev. Ike, not Rev. Falwell, not Rev. Bakker, not Rev. Swaggert, not Rev. Robertson, not Rev. Meyer., not Rev. Hagee, and not Rev. Parsley.

    Patrick Burns

  • Stephen A.

    Patrick, recently liberal Democrat Senator Dick Durban compared American troops to those of Pol Pot. We can all play that game.

    BTW, Francis Schaffer isn’t running for president, either. That’s the difference. And I assume those nasty statements of his were not made in the 21st century. Oh, and you’ve listed yet another reason Huckabee wasn’t nominated by the GOP. Interesting, but irrelevant.

    The technique I’m hearing and reading in the media of Obama-backers didging up nasty things on the other side to prove your guys aren’t that bad after all is logically flawed. Which is ironic because you decry that in your last line, but used it above. Nobody’s perfect, for sure, but McCain doesn’t attend a racialist church founded on “blackness” and racial identity politics. That’s the difference.

    Speaking of digging up dirt, it’s the Clinton camp (Democrats) who are doing a lot of digging. The Right gets blamed, but it’s the Clinton camp that has raised EVERY nasty non-issue so far in this campaign (Hussein, madrasas, Obama “dressed”, etc.) And for the record, it was ABC News, not McCain or Rush Limbaugh, who investigated Obama’s pastor’s sermons on DVD. I hope the more strident liberals here remember that.