How much of Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s race-based “theology” does Barack Obama really share?
In 2008 America elected a president whose pastor for 20 years preached anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, advocated bizarre pseudo-scientific racial ideas, opposed interracial marriage, praised communist dictatorships, denounced black “assimilation,” and taught Afrocentric feel-good nonsense to schoolchildren. When Americans discovered the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s views during the 2008 campaign, they rightly wondered if Barack Obama, like his pastor, really believed that HIV/AIDS was created by the American government to kill black people. Even to this day, no one knows for sure whether Obama shares the views of Wright, whom the Chicago Sun-Times once described as Obama’s “close confidant.”
Candidate Obama tried to dismiss his support for Wright, telling Charlie Gibson of ABC News, “It’s as if we took the five dumbest things that I ever said or you ever said…in our lives and compressed them, and put them out there, you know, I think that people’s reaction, would be understandably upset.” And rightly so. In sermon after sermon, Wright’s radical black nationalist ideas were clearly and emphatically stated. They were not an aberration, but the focal point of Pastor Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama was an active member for 20 years.
Nor has Wright renounced any of his anti-Americanism. In a sermon last September 16 marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 entitled, “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall,” Wright seemed to celebrate white America’s comeuppance. “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!” Wright preached. “We 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 into our own front yards.” He closed, invoking Malcolm X’s statement about the assassination of J.F.K, “America’s chickens! Coming home! To roost!” White America, he was saying, had gotten its just deserts.
Candidate Obama tried to distance himself from Wright’s more damning comments. But, crucially, he didn’t disown the pastor himself. In fact, in his rise to political fame, he had made Wright’s sermons his own, drawing on Wright’s “Audacity to Hope” sermon and appropriating its theme for his political coming-out speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. He even borrowed the sermon’s title for his second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, in a bid to get Wright and other black churches to support his candidacy.
The question is why Barack Obama, raised without any faith at all, chose one of the most incendiary preachers in Black America to preach the word of God to him. Wright became, in Obama’s words, “like family to me. [Wright] strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.” Obama told a group of ministers in June 2007 that Wright helped “introduce me to my Christian faith.” But what, exactly, is Barack Obama’s faith? Just as important, what is Jeremiah Wright’s?
JEREMIAH WRIGHT WAS BORN on September 22, 1941, in Germantown, a racially mixed, middle-class Philadelphia suburb. His father, Jeremiah Wright, Sr., became the minister of the local Grace Baptist Church in 1938 and served there for 42 years. His mother, Mary Elizabeth Henderson Wright, was a schoolteacher who eventually became the first black vice-principal at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, one of the city’s top-performing magnet schools.
Education mattered deeply to the Wrights. They helped their son with his homework while they bettered themselves with part-time courses. They enrolled him at Central High School, an all-male magnet establishment considered among the nation’s best public schools at the time. It was 90 percent white. The class yearbook announced, “Always ready with a kind word, Jerry is one of the most congenial members [of his class].” But Wright himself dismissed that period of congeniality in a later sermon. “I used to let my behavior be determined by the white world’s expectations,” he recalled ruefully.
The young Jeremiah was off to a promising start, but at age 15 was arrested for grand larceny auto theft. His parents sent him to the all-black Virginia Union University. But Wright quit after two years and joined the Marines. Wright later said he hated being educated at “black schools founded by white missionaries.” Still, during his short time at VUU he met fellow students who made a lasting impression: a young PhD student named John Kinney who had studied under both Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Cone, the founder of black liberation theology; and Samuel DeWitt Proctor, a longtime friend and mentor of King.
After quitting the Marines, Wright joined the Navy, where he served for four years. He was stationed mostly in Washington D.C., and was there to help operate on President Lyndon B. Johnson as a cardiopulmonary technician before enrolling in college again at Howard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1968 and a master’s in English in 1969. At Howard, Wright heard firebrand Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture, lecture on black power. He was further influenced by Cheikh Anta Diop’s racialist tomes advancing Afrocentrism, the theory that Africa was the cradle of modern civilization. After that, it was off to the University of Chicago Divinity School for six years. Then Wright, 31, joined Trinity United Church of Christ as pastor on March 1, 1972. In his provocative words, “the fun began.”
Trinity, on its last legs when Wright joined it, was an odd choice. After all, as Bill Moyers of PBS recalls in his new book, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, Wright “could have had his pick of large, prosperous congregations, but instead chose one with only 87 members in a largely black neighborhood” of Chicago. Wright often compared Chicago to apartheid-era South Africa: “Just as Blacks could not be caught inside the city of Johannesburg after dark…the same held true for Blacks on the Southside of Chicago.” Breaking with his parents’ Baptist denomination, Wright recognized that at Trinity he could have complete authority to implement his vision.
There were, of course, impediments to that goal, not least his white colleagues. Many couldn’t understand his love of black-style worship or emphasis on the role of Africans in biblical history. Wright recalls nearly coming to blows in 1978 with a white associate minister who called his church a “cult” and derided him for having a “big ego.”
TWENTY-TWO BLACK church members who did not like the direction in which Wright was taking Trinity lodged a complaint with the UCC, then left the church. Wright attacked them as Uncle Toms “running to ‘massa’ to tell a white man what they thought was happening to their Negro church.” He had nothing but contempt for these middle-class blacks. They were, he noted, “bourgeois Negroes who wanted to be white.” Wright considered himself a “new Black who is not ashamed of his Blackness.”
Wright had come under the sway of the writings of James Cone, a professor of divinity, father of the black theology movement and author of the seminal Black Theology and Black Power (1969). Cone taught that Christianity needed to be freed from “whiteness.” He and Wright conceived of a Christianity in which black rage and the black power ideology fused with Marxist thought. According to Cone, “black people must find ways of affirming black dignity which do not include relating to whites on white terms.” Integration was impossible because it was brought about by “black naïveté” and “white guilt.” Cone approvingly quoted Malcolm X: “The worst crime the white man has committed has been to teach us to hate ourselves.” Freeing blacks would require getting them to love their inner African and Wright would do just that—Trinity’s longtime parishioners be damned.
Trinity gave Wright a chance to introduce ordinary blacks to these writings. During the initial media dustup over Wright’s views in 2007, the media couldn’t understand Wright’s, or Obama’s, Christianity because they couldn’t understand the underlying phenomenon of black liberation theology.
It didn’t help that the mainstream media had decided to take the issue of Obama’s faith off the table. The New York Times ludicrously editorialized in 2008 that Obama’s “religious connection” with Wright “should be none of the voters’ business.” Unlike George W. Bush, Obama wouldn’t “carry religion into government,” the Times promised. In fact, Obama often invokes religion in areas—health care and economics—where it isn’t normally mentioned. An analysis by Politico found that Obama invoked Jesus far more than George W. Bush did, and cited the Sermon on the Mount to make the case for his economic policies.
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