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.
Wright was Obama’s missionary in a sense, so it is worth looking at how he educated his parishioners. “I had as my goal in starting a weekly Bible class the idea of connecting the study of God’s Word to where it is we lived as Black people in Chicago in 1972,” he recalled. It would be the Gospel according to Wright. Trinity’s slogan would be “Unapologetically Black and Unapologetically Christian.” It was to be black first and Christian second. Preaching black theology, Wright made his dashiki-wearing flock the largest—and blackest—church in the largely white UCC.
In his church-associated Kwame Nkrumah Academy, the congregation’s children learned such canards as the claim that “[h]istorically, Europeans tried to build themselves up by tearing down all that Africans had done.” Obama biographer David Remnick notes that Obama approved of this “African-centered” grade school, where Wright’s God loves all people, but black people especially. And why shouldn’t he? Jesus, Wright taught, was “an African Jew,” as were most of the figures of the Bible. As Wright said in Africans Who Shaped Our Faith (1995), “evidence exists within and outside of the Bible to support the notion that the people of Israel…were of African descent!”
It is in this context that Wright’s comments on Zionism should be seen. Attacking Israel’s right to exist, Wright held that “[t]he Israelis have illegally occupied Palestinian territories for more than 40 years now.” America, by defending Zionism and its apartheid-like regime, had too long practiced “unquestioning” support of Zionism. Given his hostility to Zionism and non-“African” Jews, it wasn’t surprising that Wright’s anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in June 2009. “Them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me,” he told the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Virginia. They were “controlling” Obama and therefore preventing the United States from sending a delegation to an anti-racism United Nations conference. (America boycotted it on the grounds that it would descend into an anti-Jew hate fest as it had in previous years.)
Wright remained loyal to Malcolm X (Trinity United Church celebrates his birthday) and to Louis Farrakhan.
Wright even joined Farrakhan on a trip to meet with the latter’s benefactor, Muammar Gaddafi, in 1984. (Wright has also routinely bragged about his trips to Castro’s Cuba and Ortega’s Nicaragua. He predicted that his trip to Libya would cause trouble for Obama in 2008: “When [Obama’s] enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli to visit [Gaddafi] with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell,” he said.)
To further his claim that the white man was an active enemy of the black man, Wright has often recommended a favorite book of the Nation of Islam, Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola: Nature, Accident, or Intentional? (1996), a self-published screed by Leonard G. Horowitz, a conspiracy theorist and former dentist, who argues that HIV began as a biological weapons project. “Based on this Tuskegee syphilis experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.” As white people were responsible for the makeup of its government, white America bore a collective guilt, Wright said. It could not accept a black man as president of “this racist United States of America,” “the United States of White America,” and “the U.S. of KKK-A.”
WRIGHT GOT ON OBAMA’S BUS early, in the mid-1980s, when he supported Obama’s efforts to organize blacks for “social change” (i.e., to increase government welfare), and only left in 2008 when there was an increasingly serious chance of his winning the Democratic nomination and becoming president. It was, after all, Hillary Clinton—not John McCain—who used Wright as a campaign issue against Obama.
Wright had remained on the bus for so long because his friendship gave Obama an authenticity on the South Side that he otherwise lacked as a highly educated black man who grew up in white and multiracial environments. Had Obama not successfully defined himself as an ordinary African American, had he not worked the streets on poverty wages, his political career probably would have gone nowhere.
Obama came to join Wright’s church in a roundabout way, as Stanley Kurtz argues in his well-researched Radical-in-Chief (2010). We don’t know if he encountered Wright before he moved to Chicago, but it seems safe to assume he had. David Remnick recounts a significant meeting between the young Obama and Pastor Alvin Love of Lilydale First Baptist Church in Chicago. Obama and Love had organized blacks through the churches starting in 1985, so “[Obama] knew it was inconsistent to be a church-based organizer without being a member of any church, and he was feeling that pressure,” according to Love. “He said, ‘I believe, but…I want to be serious and be comfortable wherever I join.’” A pastor whom Love recommended—Pastor L. K. Curry—suggested that Obama meet Jeremiah Wright. Obama apparently liked what he saw at their meeting and he began to attend Trinity in 1988.
Obama’s decision to join Trinity was very much one of convenience. Even though he plotted his every move, we’re supposed to believe that he just happened to join the largest black church in America, whose pastor had a record for getting blacks elected to higher office. (In 1983, Wright led a coalition of black churches to help elect Harold Washington as the first black mayor of Chicago.) Obama liked to try out his ideas on Wright. “What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice,” he told the Chicago Tribune in January 2007. “He’s much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I’m not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that’s involved in national politics.” Wright was a means to an end.
Steeped in Marxist thought and the community organizing tactics of the radical Saul Alinsky, Obama was probably comfortable with the view that religion was the opiate of the masses and black liberation theology the opiate of blacks. Trinity Church is a place where black movers and shakers congregate. “My commitment is to the church, not to a pastor,” Obama said in May 2008. But left unsaid was just what the members of that church believed.
According to Wright, leading members have included Jawanza Kunjufu (author of Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, which blames, among other things, interracial marriage), Iva Carruthers (who coined the term “Afrocentric” and whose work at the Jew-hating Durban Conference on Racism Wright enthusiastically endorses), and Bobby Wright, psychologist and author of The Psychopathic Racial Personality, which argues that white attitudes toward blacks are psychopathic. Other influential members include the black entertainment elite, like the rapper Common and Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey, who joined the church in the mid-'80s, eventually left in the early '90s. An article entitled “Something Wasn’t Wright” in the May 12, 2008, issue of Newsweek explains that she knew Wright’s rants were too radical for her fans. Interestingly, though Oprah endorsed Obama and helped catapult his books to the top of the bestseller lists, she has declined to endorse him for 2012.
Common frequented Wright’s pews, occasionally rapping for its congregants. With Wright’s approval, Common even “free-styled sermons” against interracial marriage in 2005 when the Obamas were attending Trinity nearly every Sunday. (Perhaps that’s why Michelle Obama invited Common to perform at the White House in May 2011.)
Growing up in a heavily “segregated” Chicago, Common noted, you had to “enforce” black culture.
Ironically, Wright’s Afrocentrism, implicit segregationism, and explicit reverse racism didn’t prevent him from retiring to a $1.6 million home his church built for him in the lily-white Tinley Park neighborhood in 2008. The luxurious four-bedroom house features an elevator, a butler’s pantry, exercise room, four-car garage, master bedroom with a whirlpool, and spare room for a future theater or swimming pool. It abuts the Odyssey Country Club and golf course. (Its mortgage was paid for by the corrupt ShoreBank, with which Wright, along with most of the Chicago black elite, always had a cozy relationship before it went bust in 2010.)
WHERE DID OBAMA FIT in all of this? It seems he too rejected assimilation in favor of Wright’s separate-but-equal-yet-superior status for black Americans. A December 1995 article, “What Makes Obama Run,” by Hank De Zutter in the Chicago Reader, a local black newspaper, suggests as much in its profile of Obama’s first bid for the Illinois Senate. Obama, thanks to Reverend Wright’s Trinity Church, “learned that integration was a one-way street, with blacks expected to assimilate into a white world that never gave ground.” Obama bristled at the “unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks ‘move up, get rich, and move out.’”
Obama was merely following the teachings of Wright when he railed at Trinity against corporations that, Wright explains in his history of Trinity, “discriminated against women, corporations that discriminated against Blacks and Browns, corporations that supported sweatshops in Third World countries and corporations which stood in direct opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Capitalism was part of what led to slavery, Wright had argued. He often mentioned the black sociologist Chancellor Williams’s jeremiad, The Destruction of Black Civilization, which argues that African civilization was destroyed by the acquisitiveness—the capitalist nature—of white European civilization.
But when Wright became too embarrassing, it was time for Obama to distance himself from him. That was the not so subtle message behind Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech in March 2008 in which he rejected Wright, not because he disagreed with him, but he had to protect himself from the charge that Wright and Trinity disliked white people. “Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect,” Obama improbably claimed. The speech, much celebrated and quickly forgotten, did what it had to do: it derailed the whiteness issue as a campaign issue.
And yet Obama never explicitly rejected the black power, anti-capitalist core of Wright’s teachings. That includes beliefs like Wright’s credo that “White folks’ greed runs the world in need.” For all Obama’s talk, he can’t claim to never have heard Wright say it. Obama titled his second book, The Audacity of Hope, after the very sermon where that line appears. Candidate Obama’s declared intention to “spread the wealth around” echoed what he had absorbed at those Trinity sermons. Now President Obama’s thinking clearly shows the same imprint, as when he preaches that “at a certain point you’ve made enough money.”
“Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., took me on another journey,” Obama once said. He merrily went along, every step of the way.
Charles C. Johnson is a writer based in Los Angeles and author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge.
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