16 March 2008

Is Barack Obama "Wright" for America?

Palm Sunday, or the Sunday of the Passion, and I should be blogging about Christianity. And sinner though I am, I just might get to it by way of writing about Barack Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

To many white people, unused to the more passionate rhetoric of many African-American preachers, Wright's words after 9/11, such as, "Some of America's chickens are coming home to roost," and his passionate condemnation of America's racism at home and in its foreign policy, such as "not God bless America, but God damn America," sound crudely, rabidly anti-American. To black audiences, it just isn't radical. It's part of the discourse by which one shows that one is reliably left-wing enough to be black. Or rather, politically black. Failing to assent to such rhetoric is why Shelby Steele, for example, who is darker than Barak Obama, is not really — meaning not politically — black.

So, looking to burnish his Christian credentials to mitigate his Islamic middle name, and to make the challenge of black Americans his own — Barack came of age well after America's racial racial struggles of the 1960s and 1970s — it was natural for Barack to gravitate to a predominately black church that practiced a social gospel, sponsoring and doing service to the community in which it was set. As to the preaching of his pastor, the consensus of the community was and is that his preaching is not particularly radical. It is not that African Americans are anti-American. It's just that African-Americans experience America differently than Americans whose ancestors came to this country voluntarily.

In my lifetime, this perspective was most famously and succinctly given voice by a Muslim lay person, Malcom X.

Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate. Being here in America doesn't make you an American. Being born here in America doesn't make you an American. — Malcom X, 1965

What was on that plate was freedom and opportunity, but to America's white heartland, this sort of rhetoric sounds ambivalent about America at best, and anti-American at worst. And they can't be expected to turn out to vote for someone whom they suspect might be reluctant to do what it takes to further the American agenda when the chips are down. That's what the heartland will wonder as they contemplate that Barack Obama was a member of Jeremiah Wright's church for 20 years, that he gave it over US $20,000, and that Jeremiah Wright was part of an advisory committee for Obama's campaign until last week.

Indeed, even to me, Barack Obama has some explaining to do. But all this should be old news. Who dug this up, and why is it coming out now? Let's see... it can't be the McCain campaign, because the timing is all wrong. The McCain campaign would want to save this for the general election, after the Democrats had already committed themselves to Obama. On the other hand, the timing is perfect for an act of desperation by the Clinton campaign, because Hillary is running a little behind Barak, and with just enough uncommitted delegates left to swing the Democratic presidential nomination to her, now would be the time to use this story to raise Democratic voters' concern that, if nominated, Barack may not be able to win the general election.

Many African-American voters will think, as I do, that this is a manipulation by the Hillary and Bill Clinton machine, to whom they gave crucial support for many years, and many will feel betrayed. In other words, it's hard to tell just who will be hurt more by this, Hillary or Barack. But I'll bet that the Clintons have counted up the number of black vs white Democratic voters in the remaining primaries.

But what spooks me about the timing is that this is the day we Christians remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, with a crowd cheering him and throwing palm fronds under the donkey's feet — making the equivalent of the modern-day "red carpet." Only a few days later they were shouting, "Give us Barabbas!" and leaving Jesus to the Romans.

I doubt that Barack Obama is un-American, even if he has become desensitized to rhetoric that is. Whether polls of likely Democratic primary voters will show them abandoning Obama this week, and whether his campaign can resurrect itself, remains to be seen.

Note Added: See also A Black Theology of Liberation, by James H. Cone. It will give you a better idea of where Wright has been coming from.


Bill Gnade said...

Interesting. I appreciate that you've noted the coincidence between the rise and (perhaps) fall of Mr. Obama and the events of Holy Week.

Yes, indeed this surely helps Mrs. Clinton. Others have noted the silence of the Clinton campaign since this all grew to full fury. Such silence is far too suggestive; I should think it even proves Clinton's complicity.

Be well.


Scooper said...

Thanks Bill. It certainly takes the heat of Geraldine Ferraro. Or was that a deliberate way to point up the race thing just before letting the Wright thing out of the bag. Nah. Nobody is that clever.

BTW, in German the word Gnade (pronounced Gnah'-duh) means Grace or Graciousness, as in God's Grace.

Bill Gnade said...


Maybe, just maybe, the Ferraro/Wright crisis is part of a quid pro quo; but it would be positively devilish if Ms. Ferraro was thrown out as a sacrificial lamb by her own team as a sort of cover. Too clever, indeed!

Yes, yes, Gnade< grace, mercy. Somewhere along the line, as my grandfather passed through Amsterdam on his way to Ellis Island, the pronunciation changed to Guh' nod' from Guh' nA' duh', with a long A (which is generally the German pronunciation, no?). Of course, I defer to others' expertise. But I have heard it both ways.

Anyhow, thanks for noticing.

Peace and mirth,


Scooper said...


Gnaedig (with a long a) is the adjective form in High German. Gnaede with a long a as a noun is probably Plattdeutsch and Dutch. There are several nearly mutually incomprehensible regional dialects of German.

Peace and mirth to you, too.