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Obama & the Black Church

Black people can be fatalistic about the persistence of racism in American society and a pollster would perhaps have to search to find a black person who is voting for Obama because he or she believes he plans to do anything special for blacks as a group, although he symbolizes so much concerning the aspirations of black people in America. I’ve heard whites bristle that just because they are not for Obama does not mean that they are racist, and I’ve heard blacks complain that many whites are not willing to admit that they’re against Obama because he’s black, so they point to other reasons—although in fact as many as 20 percent of white voters in such states as Kentucky and West Virginia have been willing to say “race” influences their vote. But if Obama’s candidacy is asking white Americans to think about racial politics in a new way, then it is also asking black Americans to suspend the anger in their racial politics, a concession that has to do with Obama’s view of Wright as someone overburdened by the past, and with his decision to leave the Trinity Church.3

Reverend Wright offered the National Press Club a quick introduction to what he called the African-American religious experience, going back to slaves praying in secret. The Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave, he noted, but the black church embodies the spirit of reconciliation. He invoked Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who were both born into slavery in Delaware in the eighteenth century. They purchased their freedom and settled in Philadelphia, but they brought so many blacks to St. George’s Methodist Church that in 1787 the white parishioners forcibly ejected them. Allen and Jones then founded the Free African Society, a self-help organization that functioned as church, school, and hospital. Allen also founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he declared as a matter of principle was open to black and white alike. Whites didn’t come. In time, the segregated church came to mean autonomy, an institution that blacks had authority over.

In The Negro Church in America (1963), E. Franklin Frazier described how after the Civil War the “invisible institution” of slave religion merged with the denominations of free blacks. As black people were forced out of the political life of America, church affairs became a substitute. “The Negro church community has been a nation within a nation.” The Negro church enjoyed this independence so long as it didn’t threaten white dominance in economic and social relations. Most Negro colleges were affiliated with churches, the supposed conservers of moral values and strengtheners of family life. With the movement of Negroes to the North, Negro churches became more secularized and involved in community affairs, as exemplified by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who, having succeeded his father as pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, then became Harlem’s congressman.

Frazier contended that the Negro church was being undermined by integration, that it was no longer the refuge it had been, even though it was the religious heritage of the Negro rather than the ideas of Gandhi as interpreted by Martin Luther King that determined the character of protest against desegregation. Frazier made his study of the Negro church at a time of optimism in the civil rights movement, but in the aftermath of Black Power and the assassination of Dr. King, C. Eric Lincoln in The Black Church Since Frazier (1974) declared that the Negro church had died and been reborn as the black church, an instrument of freedom, not only a symbol of it. He gave expression to the rise of black liberation theology in the late 1960s and its critique of “white theology” for its failure to address the culpability of the white man in the oppression of blacks and for having encouraged the notion that black people were lesser beings in the eyes of God and therefore incapable of Christian witness.
“Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning has been called the most segregated hour in America,” Wright told the National Press Club. The line goes back a long way. Dr. King was alert to the ironies of segregated religious services in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 in response to a statement from eight white Alabama clergymen who condemned not his crusade for social justice but his doing so through a campaign in the streets. Wright was saying that he stood in the same tradition as Dr. King, the strenuous mood of revelation that Andrew Young, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Cornel West also belong to. Their style has a European antecedent in George Whitefield, an English leader of Methodist revivalism whom Olaudah Equiano, the first black man to write his autobiography without the help of a white editor, heard preach in Philadelphia in 1766. He said Whitefield sweated more during his emotional sermon than had any slave he’d seen laboring on Montserrat beach.

Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, urged King to go to divinity school because his private wish was to get the hollering of Daddy King’s Baptist church out of the son who’d started college when he was fifteen years old. After Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University in 1951, earning his degree four years later, when he was already in Montgomery at what he called “a silk-stocking church.” The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman took up a post at Boston University in King’s last year. A former classmate of Daddy King’s at Morehouse and a much-loved professor of religion at Howard University, Thurman published in 1949 Jesus and the Disinherited, an early work of black liberation theology.

In 1935, Thurman was part of a friendship pilgrimage to Ceylon, where the head of the law college at the university in Colombo, a Hindu, asked him what he was doing with a Christian group when the European traders who had enslaved Thurman’s people for hundreds of years called themselves Christians. When Thurman traveled to India in 1936, Gandhi asked him why the slaves in America did not become Muslims, because, unlike Christianity or Hinduism, in the Muslim faith slaves and masters were equals in worship. African religious practices had been forbidden to the slaves, making Christianity the only religion available to them.

To defend himself against the charge that he was “a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth,” Thurman went on a quest for the historical Jesus. He came to understand Jesus as a poor Jew, a member of an oppressed minority, who resisted the power of Rome by focusing on the need for a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. Jesus rejected fear, deception, dishonesty, hatred, and bitterness as ways of coping with the ever-present threat of violence, because what begins as a protective mechanism for the weak “becomes death for the self.” But love of the enemy is an attack on the enemy’s status and power. King, influenced by Thurman and Gandhi, carried Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited with him throughout his travels in the South.

In a remarkable work, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991), James H. Cone, a prominent black liberation theologian, examines the influence of teachers such as Thurman on King, and that of pacifists such as A.J. Muste and critics of pacifism, especially Reinhold Niebuhr. But Cone is adamant that the black religious tradition shaped King’s ministry far more than any work of Protestant liberalism. Cone traces King’s spiritual journey from the optimism of the Montgomery bus boycott—“If we are wrong Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth”—to his distress over the war in Vietnam during the last year of his life. Along the way he offers some insights into the differences and similarities between King and Malcolm X as freedom fighters. “Malcolm felt that the goal of loving your enemy was insane,” because his faith was defined by the particularity of his blackness while King’s came from the universality of his humanity. But the achievement King and Malcolm X shared as black leaders of the postwar era was that they showed black people how to be unafraid when confronting white power.

Murray Kempton once said that King was the first black leader to say to white people exactly what he said to black people. King stood in all humility with the black masses, but he never spoke in a vernacular. Like Frederick Douglass, he made no distinction between the written and the oral; his biblical idiom sustained him as a literary language. Cone, however, thinks that as a mediator, an interpreter of black feeling, King spoke more to whites, especially when they were threatened by the increased militancy of the movement. To Cone, it was Malcolm X who didn’t trim what he said to suit his audience. He was equally intemperate in his criticisms of King and integration before whites and blacks, though Cone points out that his frankness made it easy for whites and blacks alike to dismiss him as an extremist.
Wright’s cultural nationalism in the pulpit involves an extreme kind of Afrocentrism. “Assimilation is like that. It slowly kills you,” Wright claims in a sermon included in the collection What Makes You So Strong? (1993). He equates assimilation with sin, referring to Esther’s getting used to her Babylonian captivity and forgetting that she had ever been Hadassah. In another sermon he asserts: “Children of these African exiles are drilled in…Chaucerian Babylonian literature, Elizabethan Babylonian literature, Shakespearean Babylonian literature.” Yet another sermon is a version of the speech on black cultural difference that he gave to the Detroit NAACP, in which he sides with a black educator who claims that black children do not have the same “left-brain cognitive object-oriented learning style” as white children.

Still, the minister shown on YouTube screeching that Obama knows what it means to be a black man in a society controlled by rich white people, and that “Hillary ain’t never been called a nigger,” can come across as a gentle voice of enlightenment when he tells his congregation in Good News! Sermons of Hope for Today’s Families (1995) that God made homosexuals, just as he made brown and black people, and that references to homosexuality in Scripture must be taken in context, because it wasn’t so long ago that Scripture was used to justify slavery.

Though the United Church of Christ nationally is a liberal, predominantly white denomination with a history of involvement in social struggle, it was as though all those talking heads on TV and in the press were demanding that Obama renounce the Afrocentric view of American history, which he could do easily, because that is simply not who he is. What he seemed to mind most about Wright’s remarks was Wright saying that political expediency dictated that he distance himself from him, and that in doing so he was being insincere, calculating.

It has been suggested that Obama joined Trinity because it was popular and he knew that membership would improve his street credentials as a community organizer. When the Wright controversy heated up, critics were asking why Obama had stayed so long at Trinity, what that said about his judgment, and what else there might be about him that we didn’t know, as if he hadn’t written two revealing books about his life and his political philosophy.

Wright’s successor at Trinity stresses the church’s tremendous growth over three decades, its housing projects, hospice care system, and its seventy ministries that address everything from drug and alcohol abuse to math and science programs for students on Chicago’s South Side. In one of his sermons, Wright is proud of Trinity’s highly diversified membership, noting that the church includes former cultists and former Muslims as well as traditional Congregationalists who are uncomfortable when an academic talks about heaven, because they consider that primitive.
Black people in general have a high tolerance for militant or fringe expression just because it comes from another black person’s sense of racial grievance, even when they do not necessarily agree with it. Historically there has always been the feeling that freedom of speech had to be defended on the black side of town because of what black people were pressured into not saying elsewhere. The Abyssinian Baptist Church was one of the few churches in Harlem where Malcolm X was made welcome, and even today Abyssinian’s pastor, the Reverend Calvin O. Butts III, a Clinton supporter, quotes Malcolm X in his sermons. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama reflects that it was not the pragmatist who led the struggle for liberty. It was the unbending idealist who recognized that power would concede nothing without a fight:

I’m reminded that deliberation and the constitutional order may sometimes be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable—in other words, the absolutists—that have fought for a new order.

Religion had not been a big part of Obama’s upbringing and his mother had looked at organized religions with what he called her anthropologist’s sympathy and detachment, even though she was also “the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known.” James Baldwin had been a fervent boy preacher, who became a secular intellectual. Obama had a sort of reverse Baldwin experience, coming forward to be baptized once he was persuaded that religious commitment did not require that he forgo his critical thinking. “The Preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil. A leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss,’ an intriguer, an idealist,” Du Bois says in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), remembering his shock at the frenzy of the Negro revival in the backwoods South.

It is tempting to look at Obama as an inheritor of the integrationist legacy of King, and Wright as a legatee of Malcolm X’s black nationalism. The real conflict between Wright and Obama stems from their uses of King’s memory. Wright, at least in some of his statements, seems to see his ministry as a continuation of the radicalization King underwent after the profound disappointment of the white reaction to the Poor People’s campaign in Chicago and to the striking garbage workers in Memphis. But it was not in King’s politics to damn America himself, as much as he was concerned with the effect of racism on Americans. King maintained that the civil rights struggle was one of justice against injustice and he warned that it must not deteriorate into a racial struggle of black against white. Obama returns to the moment of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and wants to recapture the high moral ground of the summer of 1963, when many members of the white clergy turned away from the white nationalism of the conventional American church and marched with blacks in Washington and across the South.

The black church is central to the grassroots and even the secular civil rights movements, and secular leaders who had no interest in religion were nevertheless very much influenced by the black church’s emphasis on the redemptive power of suffering and what the American historian Wilson Jeremiah Moses has called the “social gospel of perfectionism that presumes change to be progressive, inevitable, and divinely inspired.”4 This is the legacy Obama claims through his mother, just as through his father he lays claim to another American tradition, the opening to people from different national and ethnic backgrounds. Once again, Obama’s biography contains a reversal of expectation: he gets his connection to black American history through his white mother and his links to Americans born of foreign parents through his black father.

On May 5, Obama was back in Indianapolis, at an evening rally of 21,000 on the War Memorial Plaza where, more than forty years earlier, my parents had taken my sisters and me to our first march for equal rights. The stern white spectators had outnumbered us. The civil rights era may have changed language about race, yet, as Ronald Dworkin has made clear, because of the Roberts Court, at no time has the threat to decades of legal precedent been greater. The Lincoln whom Obama admires in The Audacity of Hope is the politician who was not an abolitionist but, when faced with a decision, made the correct one, however reluctantly, and then used this reluctance to bring the Union with him, step by step. A just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again.

June 18, 2008

  1. 3

    On Father’s Day, Obama gave a stern speech about absent fathers and family values at the Apostolic Church of God, a huge Pentecostal church on Chicago’s South Side steeped in the strict traditions and powerful music of the black urban sanctified church. His appearance at a church that is more conservative than Trinity perhaps underlines his determination not to have any more trouble on that front.

  2. 4

    Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Creative Conflict in African American Thought: Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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