Why Oprah left and Obama stayed

obama and wrightNews reporters are starting to step up to the challenge of exploring the complicated issue of why a person joins a church. A pair of articles published this week explore both sides of the coin that is a person’s decision to attend the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

On one side, Sunday’s The Chicago Tribune an article exploring “what led Obama to Wright’s church.” On the other side, Newsweek asks why afternoon television talk show star “Oprah Winfrey left Rev. Wright’s church.”

Here’s the heart of the Tribune‘s news analysis:

But in Chicago, the choice to attend Trinity for so long is a little less of a puzzle, given Obama and Wright’s shared history on the city’s South Side and the spiritual and cultural haven the church and pastor offered the aspiring politician.

Membership at Trinity is often taken as a progressive credential, a sign that a person is attuned to issues of social justice and equality and supportive of issues important to its gay and lesbian members.

“Rev. Wright is more sophisticated intellectually than many pastors,” said Kwame Raoul, the state senator who took Obama’s place in the Illinois legislature and who is a member at Trinity. “He’s well-read, he takes the theology seriously. He doesn’t just make quick references to the Bible but offers a very deep analysis and an application to current events.”

Shocking isn’t it, that Obama sought out a liberal/progressive church?

But his choice of church — as tmatt stressed the other day — shows a rather strategic decision. Obama intended to avoid what the article puts forward as the less intellectually “sophisticated” pastors in America’s black churches. As for what it takes to be considered sophisticated, the Tribune explains:

Theologically, Trinity has always stood apart from the constellation of black churches in Chicago, many of which offer a more socially conservative message. Wright questions the common sense of Scripture, ordains women, defends gay rights and preaches a theology of black liberation, which seeks to make the gospel relevant to the black experience.

Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a longtime member of Trinity, said Wright has always defied boundaries by cultivating an array of black religious traditions. Visitors on a typical Sunday morning might see and hear flavors of Pentecostal worship, prophetic preaching, political activism, self-empowerment and individual salvation and healing.

Those paragraphs are so packed with the need for explanation. What exactly does it mean for Wright, a very informed pastor theologically, to question “the common sense of Scripture?” Could there be a more vague way of stating what a person believes about what the Bible says? Since what a Christian believes about the Bible is pretty close to the heart of what one believes, vague undefined language is not good enough. A better explanation is needed.

As for Oprah, her decision to leave Wright’s church seems to be motivated by even more self-interest than the aspiring politician’s reasons for joining the church. Oprah, who has endorsed and campaigned for Obama, wanted to set up her own church:

According to two sources, Winfrey was never comfortable with the tone of Wright’s more incendiary sermons, which she knew had the power to damage her standing as America’s favorite daytime talk-show host. “Oprah is a businesswoman, first and foremost,” said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity when discussing Winfrey’s personal sentiments. “She’s always been aware that her audience is very mainstream, and doing anything to offend them just wouldn’t be smart. She’s been around black churches all her life, so Reverend Wright’s anger-filled message didn’t surprise her. But it just wasn’t what she was looking for in a church.” Oprah’s decision to distance herself came as a surprise to Wright, who told Christianity Today in 2002 that when he would “run into her socially … she would say, ‘Here’s my pastor!’ ” (Winfrey declined to comment. A Harpo Productions spokesperson would not confirm her reasons for leaving the church.)

But Winfrey also had spiritual reasons for the parting. In conversations at the time with a former business associate, who also asked for anonymity, Winfrey cited her fatigue with organized religion and a desire to be involved with a more inclusive ministry. In time, she found one: her own. “There is the Church of Oprah now,” said her longtime friend, with a laugh. “She has her own following.”

It’s great that journalists are starting to take a closer look at why Obama joined Wright’s church. It’s also interesting to compare him to why someone like Oprah would leave Wright’s church.

Obama’s motivation for joining seems pretty well established. He wanted to be apart of a liberal church that was active in helping others in inner city Chicago.

The next question to answer is whether American voters will hold this decision against him and see it as a flaw in his judgment. As Indiana demonstrated Tuesday night, the answer is anything but clear.

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  • danr

    “Wright questions the common sense of Scripture”

    Could be wrong, but I presume they were clumsy and meant Wright questions the common (traditional) interpretation of Scripture, rather than he questions whether the Bible has idiomatic “common sense”. Though, from what I’ve heard from Wright, he doesn’t seem shy about doing either.

  • Jerry

    Of course you’re entitled to your cynical explanation about why Obama joined that church, but sometimes the cynical explanation is not the right one.

  • Pope Linus

    So, we’re entitled to our cynical explanation, even though it’s wrong. Well then Jerry, what is the right explanation for why he joined that church?

  • Jerry

    I take him at his word – he found a Church where he felt at home.

  • Katy

    Obama has explained “why” he started attending Trinity – because people thought he should attend a church for his job – for appearance purposes. With the help of Rev Wright he found God.

    Obama was not looking for a place to worship because he did not have a relationship with God. His mother rejected organized religion.

    I have known people that attended a singles group at a church because they were lonely and hurting and the found God in the process. One woman in her upper 40s had never attended church. She is now a pastor.

    People attend or leave churches for many reasons, but the most important thing is whether the church transformed their life. It is apparent that God used Rev Wright to transform Obama.