Wright stuff: Hot questions in Texas (updated)

Your GetReligionistas have, of course, been following the post-Easter and pre-Denver Armageddon coverage of the ties that bind Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

At the national level, there hasn’t been much going on that is hard news. But all of the thunder and lightning in the chattering classes has turned into a form of news on its own, with the usual division between folks on the left and the right. Perhaps the most interesting views came from someone on the right, that would be Peggy Noonan, who had a more nuanced and balanced view.

But we try to stick to the news around here and, in that department, the most interesting story to me has been developing down in Texas. To follow the story, go to Google News and search for “TCU,” “Brite” and “Wright.” Here’s the top of the latest Associated Press report by Jeff Carlton:

The Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth will go ahead with its plans to honor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright this weekend, even though Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor decided to skip the ceremony.

The divinity school announced on its Web site Wednesday that it had “received notice” that Wright will not attend its 4th annual State of the Black Church Summit and awards banquet. Wright had been scheduled to appear there Saturday evening, following a luncheon panel at Paul Quinn College, a historically black school in South Dallas.

Wright has also canceled plans to speak at three services Sunday at Houston’s Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Wright cited security concerns, the church’s pastor told Houston television station KTRK and the Houston Chronicle. Wright also canceled his appearance Tuesday at a Tampa-area church at the request of church officials, who had security concerns about the pastor’s three-day appearance there.

There are all kinds of interesting dynamics at work here. Brite is, of course, located on the campus of TCU — the institution that many people continue to call “Texas Christian University” (but that is controversial in some corners). While TCU remains linked, in some ways, to the liberal Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), it is also in Texas. Thus, paying a highly public salute to Wright is, at this point in time, controversial. This might affect fund raising. At the same time, it is also not good to push away someone who is a hero to many people at your seminary and university.

A Catch-22, in other words. This is a story that is not over. To read Brite’s point of view, click here. I imagine that you will be able to follow the ongoing coverage at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News.

Here is the interesting question, which I have hinted at in a previous post. To what degree are Wright’s controversial views rooted in the fact that he is an African-American pastor and to what degree are they linked to his high-profile role as a superstar in America’s most edgy, proudly liberal oldline Protestant denomination? In other words, where are the voices of black evangelicals and charismatics in this public free for all?

That brings me to another eyebrow raising column from our friend Julie “Bible Girl” Lyons of the alternative Dallas Observer.

The key, of course, is that Lyons is a white Pentecostal Christian who has, for years, chosen to worship in a black Pentecostal congregation. Her normal Sunday morning and (probably) Wednesday night church routines involve voices and views that are not what most white evangelicals run into all the time.

bible girl 03Thus, her column on Wright and the Obama speech contains materials that will make readers on left and right sweat, just a little (or a lot).

Read it all. But here is a sample:

This … is what is so frustrating to many black Christians and to the Reverend Wright, whose incendiary comments about race have rocked the Obama campaign: that white America’s churches neglect to acknowledge their own sordid past in perpetrating and prolonging racial hatreds. That they have indeed been the enemy on many occasions, churning out racist rationalizations for slavery and failing to defend their black brothers in the eras of Jim Crow and civil rights. That some, such as the revered commentator of the original, unsanitized Scofield Reference Bible, went so far as to twist the Scriptures to gin up justifications for treating blacks as inferiors.

Even today, white evangelicals display only a tepid interest in bridging the divide between black and white. The Word of God teaches that we know what is right, and it is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before our God. I’ve always found it interesting that the Scriptures command us to do justice: thinking nice thoughts about justice evidently won’t cut it with God.

And just a few sentences later there is this:

… (Truth) is, bigotry against whites is often deemed an acceptable bigotry among blacks, a reasonable response to jacked-up times.

It is the extraordinary believer who refuses prejudice in any form, who simply calls a hater a hater. But I have known men and women like this, who understand the eternal truth of the Christian faith that God is love. Prejudice, to them, is a form of hate. The Scriptures speak in uncompromising terms about men who hate their brothers: They are murderers, and they have no place in the Kingdom of God.

My two closest friends are black evangelicals. We know each other intimately; they’ve seen me at my best and worst. One thing that’s remarkable about them is that I have never seen even a trace of bitterness toward white people. I suppose I wouldn’t be a close friend of theirs if this weren’t true, since I am as white as a white baby’s butt.

I wanted to know how they got that way — devoid of bitterness — since I saw so many opportunities for a different outcome. Turns out their backgrounds were markedly different, but their conclusion was the same: My faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t give me the option to hate.

Read on. And keep your eye on Fort Worth this weekend.

UPDATE: To go with that video, the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc (remember him?) dropped me an email to share a link to the full audio file of that famous Wright sermon entitled “Confusing God and Government.” Here it is.

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Newsy, honest Episcopal obit (updated)

NationalCathedralIt is my strong belief that one of the hardest jobs in all of journalism is writing an obituary that — in order to cover the basic facts in a person’s life — has to deal with some controversial issues.

Thus, consider this a salute to Washington Post staff writer Matt Schudel for managing to work a lot of news content into his obit for the quiet, but very controversial, Bishop Ronald H. Haines, a former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.

This starts right in the lede:

Ronald H. Haines, 73, who was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington throughout the 1990s and ignited a stormy dispute when he ordained a lesbian priest, died March 21 of cancer at his home in Lancaster, Pa.

Bishop Haines was named acting bishop of the Washington diocese in September 1989 upon the death of John T. Walker, the diocese’s first African American bishop. Formally elected bishop on June 30, 1990, Bishop Haines became in effect the second most powerful figure in the Episcopal Church, after the presiding bishop of the full denomination.

Less than a year later, Bishop Haines ordained the Rev. Elizabeth L. Carl, an open lesbian who was pastor at Church of the Epiphany in Washington. The move sparked a period of protests and internal examination, and the matter still has not been fully resolved within the church.

During the ordination ceremony June 5, 1991, Bishop Haines asked whether there was any “impediment or crime” to prevent Carl from becoming a priest. Two people, including a priest of 50 years’ standing, came forward to declare that homosexuality was inappropriate in a church leader.

Bishop Haines turned to the congregation and asked, “Is it your will that Elizabeth be ordained a priest?”

Responding in unison, the congregation said, “It is.”

“The ordination of one whose life style involves sexual relations outside of marriage troubles me greatly,” Bishop Haines said in a statement at the time. But he determined that Carl’s character and priestly commitment, as well as the support of her congregation, outweighed the voices of opposition.

While I am sure that conservative critics might — repeat “might” — want to see a harder edge in this obit, all of the basic facts are there. And there are all kinds of landmines here linked to the warfare that has torn Anglicanism in recent decades. The key is that hard issues are not avoided.

It is true that the views of Haines’ many conservative critics are not featured in the story, but this is not unusual in an obituary.

However, it is understandable that the voice of the bishop’s most important critic is missing — but that is not all that surprising, in light of the circumstances. Thus, Schudel headed into the archives to document one of the awkward realities that shaped the later years of this bishop’s career:

According to a 1992 article in The Washington Post, one of the bishop’s most vocal critics was his wife, Mary, an antiabortion activist who was vice president of the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life. She even favored her husband’s censure, which he narrowly avoided, at a national gathering of bishops.

“All our family opposed the ordination, except maybe one,” Bishop Haines’s son Joshua said in 1992.

Bishop Haines told The Post that his mind had been opened by the diverse backgrounds of church members in the 42,000-strong Washington diocese and by his experience in raising a gay son. “I saw the pain and the anguish that comes with secret-keeping,” he said.

And near the end, there is one more painful issue to mention:

In 1994, his son Jeffrey sued an Episcopal priest and other church leaders in North Carolina, saying he had been sexually molested for 12 years. The case was settled out of court.

Once you have read the whole piece, click here and compare this very basic — but fair — story with the official obituary from the national Episcopal Church. Quite a contrast. I think they call that public relations.

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Let Easter be Easter

church of the holy sepulchre insideBefore I sign off for the day, let me make note of a provocative essay by Father James Martin, a Jesuit, over at Slate.com. The headline tells you what this is all about: “Happy Crossmas! Why Easter stubbornly resists the commercialism that swallowed Christmas.”

As the old saying goes, the American economy is — year after year — driven by two great forces, the Pentagon and Christmas. Why isn’t the greatest Christian holiday of the year more of an economic force? C.S. Lewis had a great answer for that, when he noted that the Christian faith, ultimately, asks believers to face the bad news before they get to the Good News. Good Friday comes before Easter.

This really isn’t a news story, but Martin tries to link these questions to the news. Thus, his essay contains lots of images sure to provoke readers on the political and social right as well as the left. Take this one for example, focusing on the images of Holy Week:

We may even sense resonances with some painful political issues still before us. Jesus of Nazareth was not only physically brutalized but also casually humiliated during his torture, echoing the abuses at Abu Ghraib. In 21st-century Iraq, some American soldiers posed prisoners with women’s underwear on their heads as a way of scorning their manhood. In first-century Palestine, some Roman soldiers pressed down a crown of thorns onto Jesus’ head and clothed him in a purple robe to scorn the kingship his followers claimed for him. After this, Jesus suffered the most degrading of all Roman deaths: crucifixion. Jesus remains the world’s most famous victim of capital punishment.

To his followers, therefore, his execution was not only tragic and terrifying but shameful. It is difficult not to wonder what the Apostles would have thought of a crucifix as a fashion accessory. Imagine wearing an image of a hooded Abu Ghraib victim around your neck as holiday bling.

But that is not the ultimate question. Martin is onto something when he makes the simple observation that the doctrinal core of Easter is harder to avoid or to link to stuffed Santas at the local shopping mall.

In the end, Easter demands some kind of “yes” or “no” response. The answer is at the heart of the Christian faith itself.

This is why, in the tmatt trio, the question about the Resurrection is always the most important question and, in the end, is linked to all other questions about Christian theology. That’s why it is the No. 1 question. Always.

Now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

holy sepulchreThus, Martin writes:

Even agnostics and atheists who don’t accept Christ’s divinity can accept the general outlines of the Christmas story with little danger to their worldview. … It’s hard for a non-Christian believer to say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead.” That’s not something you can believe without some serious ramifications: If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, this has profound implications for your spiritual and religious life — really, for your whole life. If you believe the story, then you believe that Jesus is God, or at least God’s son. What he says about the world and the way we live in that world then has a real claim on you.

Easter is an event that demands a “yes” or a “no.” There is no “whatever.”

Slate.com is on to something here. It would be interesting to see a major news organization take on this question — as a news topic.

Is Easter all that important, really? Who celebrates this feast with their intellectual fingers crossed? If people say that Easter — Pascha, in the East — is the most important truth in the faith, how does that affect their lives in reality?

Was Jesus raised from the dead? That’s a hard question to ask on A1. Christmas sales are easier to cover.

Photos: Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

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Easter as Rorschach test

rorschachThe Easter Vigil, held tonight, is one of my favorite services of the church year. At my church, we gather outside, bless a new Paschal Candle, offer prayers for those who will be baptized, and proceed into the darkened sanctuary. The smell of lilies, the holding of the candle before the darkened altar, the lengthy Scripture readings. But my favorite part is when catechumens are baptized and others are confirmed or transferred into membership.

This weekend we get religion reporters’ Easter stories. They’re always trying to get some new angle on this ancient holiday. Which is how we get all those wonderful “Scholars Cast Doubt on Resurrection” type stories. I thought I’d look at two of the Easter stories that have come out thus far.

The first, from the Dallas Morning News, is about the Easter Vigil as practiced by the Diocese of Dallas:

Matthew Parks was born Protestant and raised in an Assemblies of God church near Houston. By midnight tonight the 28-year-old will be Catholic.

As Catholics around the world celebrate Easter Vigil, the start of the church’s traditional celebration of the risen Christ, the Diocese of Dallas will usher in 2,196 people, among whom will be 585 converts receiving baptism, Holy Communion and confirmation.

The remaining, those already baptized Christians, will receive Communion. The Dallas numbers are among the highest in the country for the Easter season, according to figures released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

What a great local angle for an Easter story. Reporter Jean Nash Johnson speaks with some of the converts and puts their story in the context of the recent Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. She tells the story of Guy Hollis, a Dallas irrigation specialist who used to accompany his wife to Sunday Mass and became interested in her faith. He and their two children will be joining the parish in Garland:

“Being of the same faith and belief system is a plus to raising a good family,” he said. “We can now pass our morals on to the children together.”

When Mr. Hollis, 42, began his initiation process, Mrs. Hollis became his sponsor. Her participation made the experience richer, he said, and it was a nice way for her to gain a refresher on the religion she was born into, he said.

“We hear from sponsors all the time about how they come out of the process appreciating and loving their Catholic faith in a much deeper way,” said Lucas Pollice, Fort Worth Diocese director of Catechesis.

John Christensen of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed a report headlined “Finding a deeper meaning in Easter.” His reporting showed that the deeper meaning is . . . good works. So whereas the Dallas Morning News story is all about sacraments, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlights personal piety:

Tom Murphy discovered the true meaning of Easter not on his knees at St. Ann Catholic Church in Marietta where he worships, but in a Stone Age village called El Mico in north central Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. . . .

“For the first time, I actually realized the meaning of Easter and some of the other things I was brought up with in the church,” says Murphy. “The takeaway is that it cleanses your mind to the point that your spirit is open and you’re truly aligned with the purpose of the Lenten period, which is to get closer to Christ in deeds and words.”

While Murphy went to great lengths for his awakening, he is no different from many other Atlanta Christians when it comes to the seriousness with which they regard Easter.

While I won’t quote them all, I appreciated the wide variety of people Christensen spoke with. Still, it seemed like it really could have been a story about Christians at any point in the year. It’s not like trips to the Honduras occur only in March. Easter commemorates, of course, the resurrection of Christ. A story about Easter should make that it’s central focus. Instead, the article lacked any focus, as this excerpt demonstrates:
Cierge oeuf super

The Rev. Susan Allen Grady, senior minister at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Grant Park, says Easter is particularly meaningful now when people are oppressed by hard times and bad news and, for some, it seems that the American dream has turned into a nightmare.

“So the meaning of Easter is to say that there are elements beyond our control, but that faith can renew hope in a way that economics and homeownership and job stability never can,” Grady says. “That spiritual hope can lift our lives and sustain us, that God is able to make things better, although maybe not in the time frame we prefer.”

Barbara Kennedy grew up a Methodist in Mississippi but now attends the evangelical Church of the Apostles in Buckhead. “Easter has way more meaning for me now,” she says. “I understand the price that Christ paid to atone for the sins of those who would believe in him. … I see it as Jesus conquering death; he lives. When I was younger, I understood the historical fact, but I didn’t understand the complete meaning.”

While that first paragraph is cringe-inducing, what do those two quotes have to do with each other? That they both had a Methodist connection? Those three paragraphs comprised the entire section with the subhead ‘Spiritual hope’. And yet what they are saying couldn’t be more different.

If you’re going to write a story claiming that the point of Easter — the day on which Christians celebrate Christ’s resurrection and triumph over death — is other people doing good works, that story better be very tightly written and well argued. I’m not saying that different denominations don’t emphasize different things about Christ’s resurrection, but treating Easter as a Rorschach test for the people you interview might not be the best way to handle Christian’s highest holy day.

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Why did Obama seek out Trinity?

obama 03 It’s a famous storyline from Western literature, not to mention the lives of millions of believers: a person responds to God’s call and becomes Christian. Think of St. Paul falling to the ground and hearing God’s voice or St. Augustine hearing a voice say “Take and read, take and read.”

So have reporters examined why Barack Obama sought out Trinity United in the first place? As you might guess, the answer is no. None of the stories about Obama’s speech have addressed this question.

This is no trivial matter. After all, Obama did not seek out Trinity United as a child. He sought it out as an adult. By then, his reason and will were mature. He could have sought out and joined other churches in Chicago; instead, he sought out and joined this one. As Doug LeBlanc pointed out more than a year ago,

Barack Obama made a conscious decision to become a Christian while attending Trinity United Church of Christ.

Worse, Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times obscures the truth, implying that Obama did explain his decision to seek out the church:

Standing against a backdrop of eight American flags on Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama offered the most thorough explanation to date about his association with the church and his pastor, whom he has known for nearly 20 years.”

“For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course,” he said. “Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely–just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

In fact, Obama’s explanation was not his “most thorough explanation to date” about his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.. In an interview with Dan Gilgoff, Obama said that he sought out Trinity in admiration for Wright’s speaking ability, despite Wright’s views:

People who are familiar with the black church tradition know that Reverend Wright’s considered one of the greatest preachers in the country. Our church, Trinity United Church of Christ, even though it is part of a 95-, 97-percent white denomination, very much draws on the historical black church tradition and Reverend Wright’s sermons do as well. And that means that sometimes he’s provocative in ways that I’m not always comfortable with and in ways that I deeply disagree with occasionally.

Why Obama sought out Trinity United in the first place might be impossible to determine. But surely reporters should start asking more questions. After all, the South Side of Chicago has plenty of churches, as does the rest of the city. Finding clues as to why he chose Trinity might reveal about not only his politics but also his faith.

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Race and religion in Obama’s sermon?

Unless I have missed something (if so, please correct me), the Washington Post has a mere six news stories and columns in today’s paper about The Speech by Sen. Barack Obama. This may seem a bit out of line, but somewhere out there in evangelical-land there has to be a twisted, right-wing novelist or a screenwriter who is thinking about writing some kind of sequel for the “Left Behind” series. This was one amazing speech.

Following the lead of the Divine Mrs. MZ, your GetReligionistas will be looking at the coverage of the speech today — seeking different takes on the religion elements of the story in various publications. So I think I will try to handle the wave of Post coverage, starting on A1 and working our way inside.

It’s hard to take the religion angle out of a story about years of controversial preaching and, if you stop and think about it, the conversion of an adult to Christianity. That’s what the relationship between the senator and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. boils down to — the birth of Obama’s faith. So what does the Wright controversy tell us about what Obama actually believes?

That’s the story. But there is little new we can learn from the main report by Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz. It’s politics, baby. There is this coverage of some basic facts.

Obama was emphatic … in his criticism of what his former pastor has said, but he refused to walk away from the man who had brought him to Christianity, performed his marriage and baptized his children. He spoke from a biracial perspective, as the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother.

“Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive,” he said, “divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.”

Obama acknowledged that he had heard his pastor say controversial things with which he disagreed, but he also said that in personal conversations he never heard Wright speak in a derogatory way about any ethnic group. And the senator described his congregation as typical of African American churches in embodying “the struggles and successes, the love, and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America.”

Things get a bit more interesting back on A6, where reporters Alec MacGillis and Eli Saslow dig into the actual rhetoric of the speech and how it might have played with different audiences.

That’s a solid angle and here are the transition, summary paragraphs:

As skilled an orator as Obama is, he has faced few moments as fraught as yesterday’s. The clips of his longtime spiritual mentor declaring “God damn America” for its mistreatment of blacks and saying that the country had provoked the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks threatened to undermine Obama’s promise to bind up racial and political fissures.

Obama needed to address several audiences with the speech: undecided white voters in Pennsylvania, whose Rust Belt cousins Obama struggled to win over in Ohio even before the Wright controversy; African Americans aggrieved by the opprobrium being heaped on Wright; and staunch supporters … who needed reassurance about their candidate.

His solution was to grapple broadly with the nation’s racial problem, beginning with slavery and Jim Crow and the inequities they produced, but to also acknowledge the roots of resentment among struggling whites who “don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.” He admitted a fundamental disagreement with Wright that went beyond the angry sound bites, saying the minister had made a “profound mistake” in doubting that the United States could be redeemed over time.

Yes, yes, but what about the actual religious content of the speech? In this case, the Post found someone rare — an expert in political speechmaking who also happens to be an articulate Christian. (Personal confession, this source happens to be a friend of mine.)

So this is promising:

Martin Medhurst, an expert in rhetoric at Baylor University, was struck by the religious intonations as well as the echoes of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on his Catholicism, particularly the summons to overcome divisions to confront common threats.

Will yesterday’s speech be remembered along with Kennedy’s? “If Obama goes on to win the presidency, it will,” Medhurst said. “If he wins the presidency, this will be seen as a very important speech.”

Yes, yes? But that’s it?

You know that if Medhurst said he was impressed by the religious themes of the speech then he probably offered a few specifics. Can we please read a few paragraphs of that?

Here is my point: Did anyone consider that one of the audiences Obama needed to reach is made up of, well, people in pews? This audience is black, white, brown, tan, you name it. But there are lots of readers out there — voters even — who would want to know how this remarkable candidate handled the faith elements of this controversy (which, again, is rooted in his own coversion to faith).

What about the folks in the Style section? A news feature by Kevin Merida offered this headline: “Obama, Trying to Bridge America’s Racial Divide — Pastor’s Remarks Spurred Need to Address Subject.”

Yes, this controversy was caused by sermons — s-e-r-m-o-n-s.

(Obama) had been pushed to this moment by a controversy over video snippets of sermons given by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While condemning Wright for comments that were “not only wrong but divisive,” Obama also sought to put the minister and the black church in context. In doing so, he seemed to recognize that only a frank public disquisition of America’s racial problems and challenges might move the national dialogue forward. …

Obama said that his church home, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, “contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and the successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America. … And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Rev. Wright. … He contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served so diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

Yes, yes? The story does raise the point that the pulpit, in African-American churches, is a logical place for prophecy and even anger. Take, for example, a famous sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “I Have A Dream” text included some tough, even angry language.

King, from 1963: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But what does it say that King’s sermon is best remembered for the passages that are rooted in faith and hope, passages that are quoted today by Americans of every color and creed for the precise reason that King used the language and logic of faith to reach out to those who were not already part of his flock? Was Obama able to build a similar bridge of faith language?

In other words, was this speech about religion as well as race?

There’s more in the Post, starting with another Style piece about how these issues are playing out there in the world of YouTube and the “church of the Internet.”

The facts are, I will confess, striking:

One of Wright’s sermons was the most viewed video online in recent days, according to Viral Video Chart, a daily catalogue of popular videos on Google Video, MySpace and YouTube. On Sunday, days after Wright’s remarks had been replayed on cable shows and dissected in print and online, type “Wright” and “Obama” on YouTube and some 300 videos popped up. Another 500 videos were uploaded the next day. By early Tuesday, hours before Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech in Philadelphia on race, the tally had risen above 900.

This is the nation that we live in, these days. I would also imagine that people who love Obama, and people who do not, were talking about these videos in the pews.

Moving on to the editorial pages, Eugene Robinson played the ultimate insider card in this kind of Beltway situation:

Yesterday morning, in what may be remembered as a landmark speech regardless of who becomes the next president, Obama established new parameters for a dialogue on race in America that might actually lead somewhere — that might break out of the sour stasis of grievance and countergrievance, of insensitivity and hypersensitivity, of mutual mistrust.

“My goal was to try to lift up some truth that people talk about privately but don’t always talk about publicly between the races,” Obama told me in a telephone interview later in the day.

Once again, however, this unique access to Obama is used for a discussion of race — period.

Then, a few inches over on the op-ed page former White House scribe Michael Gerson weighed in, under the headline: “A Speech That Fell Short.” Gerson hit hard on one of the facts behind some of Wright’s rhetoric. This is a case where the specifics really sting:

Take an issue that Obama did not specifically confront yesterday. In a 2003 sermon, Wright claimed, “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”

This accusation does not make Wright, as Obama would have it, an “occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy.” It makes Wright a dangerous man. He has casually accused America of one of the most monstrous crimes in history, perpetrated by a conspiracy of medical Mengeles. If Wright believes what he said, he should urge the overthrow of the U.S. government, which he views as guilty of unspeakable evil.

And Gerson also returns to the lessons of King.

… Obama attempted to explain Wright’s anger as typical of the civil rights generation, with its “memories of humiliation and doubt and fear.” But Wright has the opposite problem: He ignored the message of Martin Luther King Jr. and introduced a new generation to the politics of hatred.

King drew a different lesson from the oppression he experienced: “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate myself; hate is too great a burden to bear. I’ve seen it on the faces of too many sheriffs of the South. … Hate distorts the personality. … The man who hates can’t think straight; the man who hates can’t reason right; the man who hates can’t see right; the man who hates can’t walk right.”

In other words, there are theological differences between King and Wright. Has anyone written about that? What are the differences? Where do the doctrines clash? And what does Obama believe? That’s a story that needs to be written.

Believe it or not, but today’s Post needed a seventh story or column.

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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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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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