Obama, Wright, Faith, Politics, and Race

This is an important and perhaps pivotal moment in American politics, American religious life, and American race relations.

As I listen to the left and the right (both in the secular realm and the Christian realm) react to the controversy over Barack Obama and his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, I believe that we have come to the place in our nation’s history where we need to stop the inflammatory rhetoric and seek to understand and be understood. God has provided a unique kairos moment here: an opportune time to understand faith, politics, and race… and how they all interrelate in 21st Century America.

To review, videos of Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ where Barack Obama is a member (and who married the Obamas and baptized the Obama children) started to become the fodder of the right-wing media. Sean Hannity of Fox News especially worked the story, recently stating that if Obama agrees with Wright, “that would mean a racist and an anti-Semite would be president of the United States.”

If you haven’t watched or read Barack Obama’s speech that deals with this issue, "A More Perfect Union,” given in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, you can read the text of the speech and watch it here.

The Obama - Wright controversy brings to the forefront the question of the proper role of faith in politics. It also highlights the fact that our country is diseased by the factionalism of the Left-Right divide - all the two sides want to do is politically destroy the other side without seeking to understand and cooperate for the good of the country. The Obama - Wright controversy also highlights the fact that we have not overcome the issues of racism in our country - evident in how whites are so offended by the rhetorical style of a black preacher and how whites are shocked that there could still be "angry black men" who have "not gotten over the past." It is clear whites have a long way to still go in understanding the black experience.

All that being said, I want to focus in on the proper relationship between faith and politics.

This nation’s founding is based on a clear distinction between church and state (contrary to the pundits in some Christian circles of the “Christian Nation” myth).

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The entirety of this amendment tells us what our constitution sees as the proper roles for faith and politics: The government must have no role in “establishing religion.” It must also be careful never to hinder the “free exercise” of religion. In light of the rest of the amendment, this includes the preacher’s right to “freedom of speech,” and the church members’ right to “peaceably assemble,” to “petition the Government” to remedy or rectify grievances with the government, and to write criticisms of the government in publications (for the “freedom of press” applies to churches as well). In other words, the First Amendment recognizes that the nation's government must not infringe on the rights of its citizens. It is not "unpatriotic" to criticize the government, to publicly voice grievances with the government (whether in a sermon or in a article published in the press), or to gather a group of people to demonstrate the people's frustrations about the government. This is what is means to be American. It is a patriotic act to criticize the government!

This tells us the proper role of faith in politics: to be a prophetic voice; to clearly criticize the government for its wrongs and to admonish the government to move in a more righteous direction. We must state this clearly: As Americans, Christians have these rights according to the First Amendment.

We must also state this clearly: As Christians, it is our duty to exercise this right. The role of the faith community is to be that prophetic voice, to act as a dissenting voice whenever we deem that there is a need for one. We are citizens of both the Kingdom of God and the United States of America. We must never allow our loyalty to our nation trump our loyalty to our true King, Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is (according to the constitution!) a patriotic act to criticize the nation and its leaders. And it is a Christian act to do so when it or they act counter to that which God has determined ensures Shalom and Justice in the lives of human beings. When we read our Bible, we see that prophets have always called out the government for its corruption, for its oppression of the weak, for its wrongful use of military might, and for its unrighteous laws that do not fit with God’s good order for his Creation.

With that being said, different faith communities and different spokespeople will have, obviously, different understandings of what needs to be those prophetic statements. Depending on your reading of the Bible, your cultural circumstances, and your understanding of the pressing issues of contemporary culture, these statements will have different slants and nuances, and often times, totally different agendas.

Shortly after America was attacked on 9/11, Jerry Falwell appeared on the 700 Club with Pat Robertson and said, "The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, by throwing God – successfully with the help of the federal court system – throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America. I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen." To which Robertson said, "I totally concur.”

Christians like Falwell, Robertson, John Hagee, and Rod Parsley see America as a Christian nation that was once pristine and God-honoring, but that now has gone pagan and thus is being judged by God because of the evil people who are taking us away from the good old days. God sends planes into the World Trade Center and a hurricane onto New Orleans to judge us (John Hagee said on NPR’s Fresh Air that "all hurricanes are acts of God because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that.") Those who combine religious conservatism with political conservatism interpret events in light of conserving the past. These prophets of the Right are exercising their American right as “patriotic” citizens by offering what they understand to be a prophetic voice to criticize the nation.

Jeremiah Wright has that same right to criticize the nation. But in contrast to the Christian Conservatives who believe in the good old days when we were a Christian nation, Wright is a Christian Liberal whose viewpoint makes him see a nation that has fallen short of the glory of God. He sees a nation that has embraced evil in its past. He is a product of the racist America of the previous generation, when blacks were still fighting for equal rights in a nation that supposedly was based on the idea that all humans were created equal. He is of a generation of African Americans who were forced to ride in the back of the bus, to drink from water fountains marked "Colored," and had to be bussed across town, passing several schools in order to get to a segregated one. He has long been a vocal critic of a nation that continues to hinder African Americans from having equal opportunity. Wright sees his Christian calling in the midst of such injustice as to speak prophetically against it and thus to progress our nation beyond where we have been and where we continue to be, moving us toward becoming more of a Christian nation.

This is why Wright would say in a 2003 sermon about how blacks have been treated at the hands of the government, “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strikes law and then wants us to sing, ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no! God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people! God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human! God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme!”

Echoing Jerry Falwell's attempt at being prophetic after 9/11, Wright told his congregation, "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye...We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Whether or not you agree with Wright or Falwell or Hagee, as a citizen of this nation, you must believe that they have the right to speak to our nation in what they feel are prophetic statements like these. And (and this is a large AND!), as a Christian, you must be willing to listen to their statements and, putting aside your patriotism for America, judge whether or not what they are saying is what God would say about our nation. At the end of the day, we might say that Wright does more harm than good with his statements (as I've said for years about Falwell, Robertson, and his ilk on the right), but it still remains that he has the right as an American and a duty as a Christian to say what he feels must be said.

It becomes the job of the Christians to evaluate these statements based on Scripture. When someone attempts to be prophetic and simply says something that is out of step with God's revealed Word, these outrageous statements are to be denounced – be they from Jerry Falwell or Jeremiah Wright.

But the fact remains that religion is meant to be a separate and prophetic voice into the political world – both constitutionally and biblically. The proper role of faith in politics is to be a dissenting voice for the glory of God's Kingdom, and a patriotic voice established by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Whether or not these "prophetic" dissenting words should have influence is to be determined by the civil discourse of a free and pluralistic nation.

As Christians, we all can think of better prophetic words from the Right and the Left than the words quoted in this post! There are some very responsible people trying to engage the political issues of our day from a Christian worldview. We especially do well to listen to those from varying vantage points on the political spectrum, Christian and non-Christian. We should first listen intently before coming to judgment, and after hearing and understanding the point-of-view, weigh the words against what we continue to discover in the holy Scriptures.

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Scott Childress said...

great post - it was refreshing to read a slightly different take on the role of our religious leaders in American politics....

i would add the following shade on what Jerry Falwell said after 9/11.

(this coming from an emerging christian deep within the belly of the beast, since i went to Liberty U. for my undergrad and i still live in Lynchburg, aka. Jerryville to the locals)

the Falwell quote had a different theology behind it than Hagee's comments on Katrina. And although that difference may be slight, its important IMHO to note that Falwell was not saying that 9/11 was a direct judgment from God, but rather the results of God removing His protective hand from the U.S.

i think to expound on what he was saying, one could say that Falwell believed that since we had rejected and thrown out God, that He was no longer around to save us from disaster.

I'm not saying that i agree with this - i just think its important to understand accurately what Falwell was saying.

thanks for pointing out the parallel between Falwell's comments and Wright's...

this should be a warning to all with spiritual influence that we be careful in speaking for God.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for that clarification.

I think that it is a constitutional right and a biblical mandate for Christians to speak prophetically about the nation, our government, and our leaders.

But to be clear for our readers here: that is NOT to say that I agree with the quotes here from Falwell or Wright.

I believe that there are better ways of fulfilling this right and mandate, ways that are less divisive and more biblical.

betsy784 said...


Things take a slightly different perspective when viewed in the right context.

Whether one agrees with Reverend Wright or not, it seems to me that he has been unfairly demonized to make a media controversy.

Watch Rev. Jeremiah Wright's 9-11 sermon in context on youtube and decide.


Jeremiah Wright's God Damn America in context on youtube


Bob Robinson said...

Also, for "context," PreachingToday.com has made available the original 1990 sermon Jeremiah Wright preached that inspired Obama's "The Audacity of Hope." In a recent post at the "Out of Ur" blog from Christianity Today's "LEADERSHIP JOURNAL," they wrote, "Barack Obama’s bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope, takes its title from one of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. We were surprised to discover the transcript of that message in our PreachingToday.com archives. We’ve posted the entire sermon for you to read.
Jeremiah Wright’s "The Audacity of Hope"

Dan Sullivan said...

I agree that preachers must be allowed to criticize the government and critique culture. I do cringe when conservatives like Fallwell or Roberson say some of the things they have said. Seems like the big difference with Wright, however, is the accusation that we invented aids, the honoring of Louis Fahrakhan and the apparent link to "black" theology that suggests its purpose is to kill the white Gods. In that sense, it is not hard to see why it caused a stir, given Obama's claims to be one who can unite.

Bob Robinson said...

I find it interesting that Wright's incredibly stupid statement about AIDS has been such an issue.

Many of us make really stupid statements out of ignorance. We hope and pray that people will not judge everything we say or do on those few times we say something stupid.

How does Wright's ignorance reflect on Obama? I doubt that it does in any real way. My pastor once said that our nation was founded by Christians and that we need to renew our nation's Christian heritage. That was also a stupid and ignorant statement. But it did not outweigh all the other proclamations that were more accurate to the truth that he had made.