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Obama & the Black Church

My parents, old NAACP activists, live in front of CNN, and back in April I happened to be with them in Indianapolis the week before the Indiana primary, when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy returned to embarrass Senator Barack Obama’s campaign. To my mother, passionately pro-Obama, nothing justified what she saw as Wright’s weekend of self-promotion: his speech to the Detroit NAACP and his performance at the National Press Club. “He’s clowning for the white folks,” she said.

My father, ferociously pro-Clinton because he doesn’t believe that even a moderate black man can be elected president in such a racist society, said that Obama had been wrong to repudiate his pastor. He should have stood by him in his North Carolina press conference as he had in his Philadelphia speech when he refused to strip Wright of his historical context as a man who “contains within him the contradictions…of the [black] community.” Black people wouldn’t like it, because they always took their pastor’s side. My mother countered that, on the contrary, black congregations were forever dumping their pastors. I wondered how much of this kind of back and forth was going on in black homes across the country. My parents did agree, however, that because of the Wright story the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Indiana’s law requiring voters to have valid photo identification was not being debated enough.

To see Obama in Philadelphia, reasoning with the American public, was to be struck yet again by what a different atmosphere he would bring to the White House. He criticized the views of his former pastor that “offend white and black alike.” Wright had expressed a distorted view of America, one that “sees white racism as endemic,” and that “elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.”

Obama’s tone said that because the subject of race had come up in a sensational fashion, he would address it as calmly as possible. In his brief history of discrimination and segregation, he was concrete about the effects of joblessness and the shame of not being able to provide for one’s family. He also reminded the country of his white grandparents who brought him up and he spoke sympathetically of white Americans, especially the descendants of immigrants, who don’t feel “particularly privileged by their race,” and therefore resent legislation and policies deemed necessary “because of an injustice that they themselves never committed.”

He created a moment, stopping the campaign to have a conversation about race. Moreover, his speech put a halt to the series of campaign incidents— such as his failure to wear an American flag on his lapel—that seemed to call his patriotism into question. He expressed what is probably among blacks a commonly held point of view about race in America. That what he said seemed so amazing suggests how long it has been since such an interpretation of race commanded our full attention. We are much more used to hectoring criticism of such liberal positions. His Philadelphia speech enhanced his stature, which only made it all the more disconcerting that in the name of defending his church a black minister committed to social gospel seemed determined to ambush the first potentially successful campaign for president by a black person.

I come from preachers and my family hasn’t much sympathy for hollering in church. Yet they would be offended if a white person made fun of that black tradition of straining in the pulpit. When the Wright scandal first broke, some black commentators were quick to insist on the cathartic purposes of religious services in black culture, and how church is where black people can let go of the week’s frustrations. However, I couldn’t see where the attack on the black church was in the furor over the YouTube clips of Wright’s sermons. Snippets they may have been, looped again and again, but it was still Wright who was claiming that the HIV virus was a US government conspiracy.

Wright’s sermons, which Trinity United Church of Christ has posted on YouTube in fuller versions, make a more sober impression than do the provocative soundbites. To say that the attack on the World Trade Center was a reaction to US foreign policy and an occasion for national self-examination is not an opinion that divides along racial lines. But Wright’s prophecies of biblical retribution for what he sees as a long list of crimes committed by US administrations past and present, and his climactic cry of “No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America!,” called up for many white people the racial nightmare that has been a factor in presidential elections since Nixon’s Southern strategy.

Obama had presented himself as a reconciler of races, able to represent everyone. His patient work was threatened by what the Wright story was being turned into. By damning America, Wright, the son and grandson of preachers, raised the possibility that that black anger was hiding away in Obama’s inner circle, if not in Obama himself. My best friend from junior high school, devoted to Israel, said that because of Wright he was worried about Obama’s possible ties to Louis Farrakhan.

Moreover, how one responds to September 11 is for many whites a test of patriotism—and for blacks, too— but especially among the blue-collar voters that Obama was losing to Clinton. The damage done by Wright ran deep, and still works against Obama, in that the clip of Wright shouting “God damn America” is often shown on TV, and is identified as having been made just after September 11. This clip seems to have had by far the most negative impact. It is hard to exaggerate the lingering effect in America of the September 11 attacks, an effect that seems well summarized in Sheldon Wolin’s recent book Democracy Incorporated:

The mythology created around September 11 was predominantly Christian in its themes. The day was converted into the political equivalent of a holy day of crucifixion, of martyrdom, that fulfilled multiple functions: as the basis of a political theology…as a warning against political apostasy….1

For people who have absorbed such a view of the September 11 attacks, the video of Obama’s pastor calling on God to damn America was bound to be deeply troubling, particularly to the large numbers of white voters who think Obama and Wright have the same views. According to polls, 57 percent of the West Virginians who had heard of Wright thought Obama shared his views; and 56 percent of Americans say it is somewhat likely that Obama “shares some of Wright’s controversial views of the United States.”

What Obama most projects is intellectual honesty, a sense that he has thought things through, or is going to try to. I didn’t doubt his ability to win over the white working class if given the chance after I saw him and Mrs. Obama at a town-hall-style meeting of about forty people held on April 30 on Indianapolis’s south side. In a park named for James Garfield, the assassinated twentieth president, among the dogwood in blossom, Obama talked about the economy and his modest background and that of his wife. They’d got to where they were, he said, because they had had access to good education, and the question was would Americans continue to be able to do the same for their children. Mrs. Obama said that she and her husband were still close to the lives most Americans were living, and that she never felt she had had a choice when it came to deciding whether she should work or not.

The audience, including a decorated black soldier and his wife, had been selected, I heard, because they were working people who perhaps cared more about the price of gas—it had gone up overnight by fifteen cents— than they did about race politics. Obama had been sharply criticized during the Pennsylvania primary because, in a private meeting, he had made some candid remarks about white working-class despair. Among white workers, class resentment of articulate blacks goes back a long way. The charge of elitism sounded like he was being called uppity. James Baldwin once pointed out that whites are sometimes surprised to find that black people have been judging them all this time. And they don’t easily forgive one for daring to feel sorry for them.

Tall, dark-lipped, and handsome, Obama had reassured these voters in Indianapolis, maybe just by his presence and that of his powerfully attractive wife. (They had arrived at the meeting holding hands.) Some tried to tell him what his candidacy meant to them as Americans. He autographed books; he stood with his arms around them as they took photographs. Handpicked and predisposed to approve of him they may have been, but it was moving to see his effect on these white people. And suddenly he was taking great strides across the park, Secret Service agents flowing beside him, to where a small group of well-wishers had gathered in the road.

One young couple who described themselves as active in their church told me afterward that they had been to black church services and were not afraid of anything they’d heard Reverend Wright say, much as they objected to his negativity. What had most impressed them about the town hall meeting was that Obama had made them feel listened to. It was the first time they had put an election sign on their lawn. Someone had asked about Wright during the meeting and Obama admitted that Wright’s statements had been a disappointment, but he said he remained committed nevertheless to a campaign that was not about attacking anyone. Obama nearly pulled off an upset in Indiana (51 percent to 49 percent), in spite of the rural Republicans who may have heeded Rush Limbaugh’s call for “Operation Chaos” (i.e., for causing as much division in the Democratic camps as possible) and crossed over to vote for Clinton. And this was when the Wright scandal was at its hottest.

Bill Clinton could not have won in 1992 without the overwhelming support of blacks, but at the same time his campaign distanced itself from the black community, a strategy designed to win back Reagan Democrats.2 That New Democrat strategy isn’t available to Obama. Instead, he puts an end to the distinction between “the black candidate” and “the candidate who happens to be black.” His gamble with racial identity is that he is asking Reagan Democrats to accept that his acceptance of himself as a black guy, which includes his embrace of the civil rights legacy, is entirely right and proper, because America wouldn’t want as president anyone who didn’t know, and wasn’t proud of, who he was.

Democrats have not won an absolute majority of the white vote since 1964. Surveys have told us that whites find race divisive as an election issue, but for years race always ended up being a crucial factor. Web sites such as ExposeObama.com show that the Wright tapes will be around for the rest of the campaign and the blog of one Republican attorney, AdvanceIn diana.com, has reported an unconfirmed rumor that Karl Rove is holding a tape of Mrs. Obama talking about “whitey.” Though the networks keep showing on television the tape of Wright cursing America, as if they took pleasure in titillating white Americans with the threat of black rage, maybe the Wright controversy has already done much of the damage it was going to do. There are those whites who were never going to vote to put a black family in the West Wing any more than they would go on living on a street that got too integrated. In Philadelphia, Obama expressed the hope that maybe in this election, race wouldn’t become a divisive issue: “Not this time.”

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. 1

    Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 9. 

  2. 2

    See Robert Charles Smith, We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era (State University of New York Press, 1996). 

  3. 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. 

  4. 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).