Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, and the Problem with Race in America

In last Wednesday’s editorial, The New York Times wrote, “It took more time than it should have, but on Tuesday Barack Obama firmly rejected the racism and paranoia of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., and he made it clear that the preacher does not represent him, his politics or his campaign. Senator Obama has had to struggle to explain this relationship ever since a video surfaced of Mr. Wright damning the United States from his pulpit.”

Here’s how I see this issue:

Most of what Jeremiah Wright says is actually not that crazy. I thought this after watching the sermons in question in their full context (here and here). I also thought this when I took the time to read the manuscripts from all three of his appearances this past week: On Bill Moyers Journal, at the National Press Club, and at the NAACP Dinner.

However, to read the words of those three appearances and to watch the videos of those same words are two different things. Wright’s style of delivery is over-the-top; Wright is the consummate showman. He is dramatic and bombastic. While his style may do well in the context of an African-American church, it does not do well in the context of C-Span, You Tube, and Fox News.

It certainly is not an appropriate rhetorical style for civil discourse. Barack Obama knows this. But Jeremiah Wright does not know this. He doesn’t have a clue. In fact, he purposely speaks in a manner that almost becomes a caricature of being “black,” purposely thumbing his nose at civility in the name of “cultural difference.”

I thought that the speech that Wright presented at the National Press Club was pretty insightful. He said that “the prophetic theology of the black church is a theology of liberation; it is a theology of transformation; and it is ultimately a theology of reconciliation.” As a Christian, I can say “Amen!” to all of these things.

However, at that same event, he began to lose us when he began to answer questions. That’s when he began being belligerent to the moderator and to all who were watching that are not familiar with him and his rhetorical style. The theatrical angry black preacher arrived, and it was inappropriate to the moment.

Wright’s dramatic, bombastic style is the polar opposite of the calm and purposeful style of Barack Obama.

No doubt, both men have the desire to talk about race and move the nation toward dealing with the issue. Wright comes at it from the angle of “Here I am, a black man with a chip on my shoulder! Blacks have been done wrong in the United States and the country must repent for this!”

Obama comes at it from a very different angle, one that says, “I am the product of mixed-race. I seek to think that we can progress past the sins of the past and change the future. While I honor the history of black culture and frustrations, I represent a new way to solutions.”

Some on the Right are wondering how Obama could have stayed in Wright’s church for 20 years. Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both Roman Catholic, are making the case that if a person has a problem with their church leaders, then they should leave their church. Yet, both remain Roman Catholic, in spite of the tremendous sexual scandals of the past few years in this church. I state this not to recommend that O'Reilly and Hannity leave their church, but to point out that one's choice of a religious community is a much more complex thing than simply liking or not liking the idiosyncrasies of the leadership of that community.


Byron Harvey said...

Analogy not well-taken as to Hannity or O'Reilly. The analogy would be good if the priests under whom those men sat had, for 20 years, been publicly guilty of something like Wright, whether that be child molesting or what-have-you. Had Hannity or O'Reilly knowledgeably sat under such faux leadership, we'd have an analogy that holds water. Obama sat there for 20 years; he had to know what Wright thought, even if he wasn't there for all of the more egregious things we've heard recently. Again, I guess we can be grateful after a fashion that apparently Obama wasn't particularly committed to that church; making well over $4 million last year, he only gave a little over $26,000, so he's not helping fund the nonsense in a major way...then again, his credibility when speaking on matters of faith is just about zilch.

Bob Robinson said...


I challenge you to name all the "egregious" things that Wright has said in his church. What terrible things did Wright say that should have forced the 6,000 members of TUCCC to leave their church family? How do we, as white evangelicals, dare to say are such "egregious" things? How many members of Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church should have left during his "egregious" statements while pastoring there?

Byron Harvey said...

Well, first, Trinity UCC is part of the most liberal denomination in America, and further, TUCC is a purveyor of "black liberation" theology, contrary to the message of the gospel. Changing the subject to Falwell--whose church I'd not have been a member of, by the way--doesn't really answer the question re Wright/Obama. I can't name all the "egregious things", but what I heard in the "sound bytes" (and spare me the "gotta take 'em in context" stuff; yes, context matters, but some of the things he said speak for themselves with or without context) was a-plenty. He's buddies with Farrakhan; he misquotes Scripture (his press conference was terrible); he's a universalist, apparently (again, from an answer to a question in his press conference). Need I go on? You telling me that as an evangelical, you could in good conscience recommend a person to be a part of this far left-wing UCC church where the gospel is distorted?

And the "white evangelicals" remark is just silly, IMHO. Does the fact that I'm white mean I can't call lunacy "lunacy" when I hear it? To suggest otherwise seems to me to succumb to the "soft bigotry of low expectations", the idea that we have to make allowances for people on the basis of skin color. If Jeremiah Wright were Snow White, his comments would be just as egregious/ridiculous. We'll never get to where we need to be in race relations if we can't treat comments such as Wright made on their merit (or lack thereof) without regard to the color of the person saying them. No, I don't know what it's like to be black in America; yes, there still exists latent racism; no, there's no excuse for it; yes, there are blind spots that I have as a white American (but then again, there are blind spots all the way around). But TUCC is not a place fit for any true Christian to be a part of, irrespective of Wright's comments, because theologically-speaking alone, the liberalism of the UCC is rampant. Further, there are plenty of "black churches" in Chicago that preach the gospel, as well as churches where blacks and whites worship together; if Obama wanted to really bring blacks/whites together, why not choose one of those? It'd be a tremendous addition to his meager resume!

Bob Robinson said...

There are a number of issues you raise:

1. "Egregious" means that something is "conspicuously bad or offensive." With this definition, I'd say that watching the videos (see links in this post above), no. The things he said were NOT conspicuously offensive in their context (in which is what the listeners would have heard it). They were "egregious" only OUT of context in "sound bites" on Fox News. Your argument that these are "egregious" with or without context severely weakens your argument. You, of all people, know that context means everything in our hermeneutic. Why won't you look at context before interpreting Wright? That's below you.

It also seems to me that we are conflating two issues here: Are we asking if Wright says "egregious" things from the pulpit at Trinity UCC politically or theologically?

The UCC is not an evangelical denomination; that is well known. Trinity UCC embraces black liberation theology; that is also well known. Jeremiah Wright did indeed say that he is a universalist in that news conference; that is granted.

You ask me if I, as an evangelical, could in good conscience recommend a person to be a part of Trinity UCC. I wouldn't do that without knowing more of the facts. I have friends who are pastors of two UCC churches in my area that I would have absolutely not problem sending people to. Just because a church is in the UCC does not mean that there are not born-again believers in the congregation and in its leadership. In fact, the one church has done a tremendous job of bringing many of its members to faith after the pastor came to faith in Christ many years ago. That church is more alive and vibrant with the both/and gospel (both personal salvation and social justice) than most other congregation I've ever spoken at. But you are right: Even my friends would say that their own denomination is very liberal theologically. So, I wouldn't necessarily assume that Trinity UCC would be an evangelical church to recommend to somebody to attend.

That is the theological issue. Granted that Trinity is not an evangelical church, what does this have to do with Barack Obama and his presidential campaign? Ronald Reagan rarely atended church...what does that have to say about him? George H. W. Bush is a member of the Episcopal Church...what does that say about him? Bill Clinton is a Southern Baptist...what does that say about him?

If you are saying people should not vote for Obama because he should have attended an evangelical church in Chicago instead of Trinity UCC, then you are advocating AGAINST Article VI of the Constitution that states, "but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

So, make this clear for us: Are you telling people not to vote for Obama because he's not an evangelical? Are you saying that we should not elect him president because he didn't attend an evangelical church? If so, I'd like to know if you voted for George HW Bush.

joe said...

I am not going to jump in on you and byron's conversation. I am just wanting to say that i watched the sermon in context and it does seem to make a difference. Context is everything is a sound byte world.
Yet we so easily accept sound bytes as fact. I wont pretend that I have Jeremiah Wright figured out. I dont think that is my responsibility. What i can say is, i think it is his personality more than his content that is getting him in trouble.
It is interesting how some can accept the "fact" that tragedy happened to this country by the hand of God because of homosexuality but not because of consequences of poor choices and wrong actions in the world. It is easier to close our eyes and say terrorists hurt us because we are rich, free and christian. sorry, i am veering off course. I'm done Bob.

Byron Harvey said...

No, dude, you're twisting my intent. First, we do know what kind of "gospel" Jeremiah Wright preaches; that's why no one should attend his church. I have no doubt that there are, here and there, some UCCs worth attending, but Trinity ain't among 'em. Therefore, to your "what egregious things" question regarding Trinity, I'd say that there are plenty of reasons not to be part of Trinity, and they revolve, beyond Wright's pronouncements, to his theology. But you still couldn't bring yourself to give me an unqualified answer regarding Trinity involvement, even though you admit Wright is a universalist? Sheesh, Bob, isn't that enough, particularly added to his Scriptural misunderstandings as evidenced in his news conference? I don't need any more evidence than that, and remember, that's the original question you asked me.

It's "below me" to suggest that the idea that the U.S. government spread AIDS among the black population speaks for itself? Please. There's some "context" out there that justifies a blatant, conspiracy-mongering lie? "God d*** America"? Is there any context in which that is appropriate? "U.S. of KKK A."? OK, maybe if he was talking about what the U.S. was 150 years ago, fine; is that the case (instead of speaking about today)? If so, fine; I'll consider the context there. But tell you what: give me the link in which I can get these outrageous comments in context, and I'll listen to 'em in context. Good luck changing my opinion on those, but I'll try to be open-minded.

No, I'm not saying that people shouldn't vote for Obama because he didn't attend an evangelical church; I'm saying that if he had attended one, he'd likely not have heard the black liberation nonsense of Rev. Wright, and I'm saying that if he really wanted to bridge the racial gap he's talking about, he could have chosen an interracial church. That's what I'm saying. Further, I'm saying that the gospel isn't generally proclaimed in most non-evangelical churches, so from that angle as well, he's not gotten the true gospel. And from that angle, no church that neglects the gospel is worthy of support, from Obama or anybody.

Beyond that, even if I were suggesting that we shouldn't vote for Obama because of his chosen church, I wouldn't be in violation of Article VI, because Article VI doesn't speak to individual voters; it speaks to the qualifications for candidacy of an individual candidate, in order to appear on a ballot or to serve. If I say, "I'll never vote for a Satanist", I'm not violating Article VI; if I said, "no Satanist should be allowed to run for president, and I'll do all I can to keep his name off the ballot because he's a Satanist", then I'd be violating Article VI. As a voter and an American citizen, I can use whatever test I darn well please to decide upon whom to vote for, and I'm violating neither the letter nor the spirit of the Constitution in doing so.

Bob Robinson said...

Oh, yes. I think that universalism is a major reason NOT to recommend a church. Definitely. Sorry about not being clear about that.

Bob Robinson said...

Like I said, the links of Wright's sermons are provided above in this post. I've watched them, and quite honestly, they aren't worth getting all riled up about.

Bob Robinson said...

I don't think that your line of thinking is valid on this one: That if Obama really wanted to bridge the racial gap he's talking about, he would have chosen an interracial church. I don't think that this is a prerequisite for seeking to bridge the racial gap. Plenty of white people want to bridge the racial gap and they still attend suburban white churches.

Byron Harvey said...

My faith in you is restored, Bob. So, then, you'd agree that Trinity Church isn't worthy of the support of those already there (if you couldn't recommend it)? Then you yourself acknowledge that there is an answer to your question in comment 2 (even if it's not, per se, the sound bytes)? I mean, you'd have to take that position, right? I recognize it's a different question, though, and I'll listen to the links. Good luck...

Bob Robinson said...

On Article VI of the Constitution. Yes, I agree that you have the right to use whatever criteria you want to choose a candidate that's on the ballot. Okay.

But here's where we need to bring in a Christian political philosophy to guide our decisions on who to vote for. Should an evangelical Christian only vote for evangelical Christians? Is that the ultimate criteria for us in our voting decisions? I don't believe you think so, but many, many, evangelicals do think so. They've bought the Religious Right line that only evangelicals are capable of making moral decisions - especially since they are the ones who are consistently "Pro-Life."

But a Christian worldview sees Common Grace in public office - allowing for God to work even in those who do not attend evangelical churches.

Bob Robinson said...

Like I said,
There are two separate issues here: What, as an evangelical, I would say about a church and those who attend the church on a THEOLOGICAL basis, and what, as and evangelical, I would say about a presidential candidate based on what church he or she attends.

Byron Harvey said...

No, in one sense, you're right: Obama wouldn't necessarily need to join a mixed-race church in order to prove that he was working for racial harmony. But here's my take: for him to come out, after the initial Wright issues came to light, and then begin to take up the issue in a way he hadn't before, as though this were some significant part of his "crusade", would have been bolstered greatly if he'd not been part of a black liberation theology church. I mean, if it was so important to him, even if he didn't get into a mixed-race church, still to place himself in some other setting than a black liberation theology church would seem to have lent more credibility to his argument.

Byron Harvey said...

You're right; I agree that a person need not attend an evangelical church in order to get my support for the presidency. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that McCain had been attending North Phoenix Baptist for years (though his technical affiliation is purportedly Episcopal). But I'm just reacting to what I consider to be a red herring, this talk I've heard about a violation of the 6th Amendment if an individual uses some religious test in his voting. It may or may not be valid, but it's not unconstitutional...

Byron Harvey said...

OK, just watched it, and context doesn't alter my perception of his "God d*** America" comments. His history is pretty good, if you only want to look at it from one angle, and his politics is as far left-wing as they come. He uses the pulpit to get into partisan politics in an egregious way (and yet maintains the tax exemption, of course). The first video, the "chickens coming home to roost" video, had some merit to it, but some of the equivalences he drew were decidedly off-base. We can have a gentlemanly discussion about the wisdom and morality of some of America's acts of war; to equate them with the indiscriminate nature of terrorism, such as 9/11, isn't warranted, so far as I can tell.

Neither of these videos talk about the government planting AIDS in the black community, nor the "U.S. of KKK A." comment. Further, his recitations of the shameful history of this country regarding race relations focus so much on past offenses (that were, admittedly, grievous), and little if any on the tremendous strides we've made. Sermons of this kind serve to reinforce the "victim" mindset that keeps people down, it seems to me; such foster contempt and further divide people. To be talking about Dred Scott 150+ years later, and to rehearse all the injustices done to a people, seems to serve little constructive purpose, given the tremendous efforts undertaken by our nation in the last 50 years to do everything possible to set things straight. We can't undo the past, but neither need we to wallow in it.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Harvey is dead on and Mr. Robinson is dead wrong. Looks like you'll never realize it though. I don't see what was so egregious about Falwell's statements....he was concerned about the homesexuality and abortion...this country will pay in some way for what its doing. Falwell is gone...let him rest in peace. Let me know where you go to church or pastor so I make sure I never do!