The East Coast media establishment—both “conservatives” and “liberals”—continue to ask the same question about Senator Barack Obama: why did he keep his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ, where the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was the pastor? The question is asked as though Obama is naïve and Wright is a madman, neither of which is true. But what I find rather more amusing, or perhaps alarming—at least from a religious perspective—is that most of the media personalities who ask this question appear to have never belonged to any kind of religious community themselves. And this is, to a large extent, why there is so much misunderstanding about the relationship between Obama and Wright.
Senator Obama attended Trinity United Church of Christ not simply because of Reverend Wright, but in order to belong to a religious community that offered both the promise of personal community and a transcendent vision—a vision of how people who profess a belief in God through Jesus Christ should live together in service to one another and to those around them. That vision of community came through the organizational, oratorical, and musical talents of the church’s senior pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
It was Wright’s vision to pull the black middle-class back into the orb of the church. Wright recognized in the mid-1970s a growing disaffection among the black middle-class toward the style of black Protestant churches, which were still heavily rooted in rural folkways and led by clergymen without much formal education. He correctly analyzed the problem, and when he took over the small congregation on the far Southside of Chicago, around 1975, he sought to address the growing black middle-class, who needed a sense of community in the midst of the many contradictory forces plaguing urban America. He understood that spiritual formation was the tonic necessary for the unique daily struggles that black Americans faced.
As more blacks achieved middle-class status, Wright set out to provide for his parishioners a spiritual house that would lead them to engage the poor, specifically the black poor, as well as to provide a place to be accepted outside the gaze of a hostile and racialized society—which the city of Chicago was when he was called as Trinity’s pastor, and indeed still is today. Obama joined the church, and stayed at Trinity for twenty years, for the same reason that thousands of other Chicagoans were drawn to it. Here was a community that offered acceptance and faith. Rather than seeing them as the exception, as well-educated black Christian believers, Trinity gave its members both acceptance and the comfort that being Christian was intellectually plausible as well as consistent with having black or brown skin. Trinity’s motto was: “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” This was an affirmation—being a black American and a Christian belonged together.
Senator Obama not only gained a place of worship by belonging to Trinity, he also found an ethnic community. Black Protestant church communities continue to be cultural spaces where what it means to be black in America is defined. It should come as little surprise to anyone who pays close attention to religious communities that ethnic and religious identities are often developed and defined in tandem. A careful survey of Irish or Mexican-American communities, for instance, will find a close link to Roman Catholic parishes. In other instances, Protestant communions such as German Mennonites or the Dutch-based Christian Reformed Church in North America play a vital role in shaping ethnic identities. Ethnic forms of Christianity have a way of informing communal self-identification—and ethnicity has a way of strongly shaping a church’s Christian theology.
Trinity in Chicago is yet another instance of this linkage between ethnicity and religious community. It is clear from Senator Obama’s autobiographical description of his life’s journey that he was looking for a spiritual home. Being mixed race in the United States is one of the most intensely racializing experiences. Yet as a matter of historical record, it is not all that unique in the history of black America—having mixed racial heritage is a part and parcel of what it has meant to be black in the United States. Both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington were of mixed “racial parentage,” and they tried to provide a reconciliatory bridge to white America, yet to little avail—the United States Supreme Court voted to uphold racial segregation and the South ran roughshod over the civil liberties of black voters throughout the region at the turn of the 20th Century.
Needless to say, times have changed. Nevertheless, Senator Obama needed to find a spiritual home outside the racializing gaze that permeated his life and the lives of so many mixed race children of black and white parents. He found that home in Trinity, both as a space of worship and as an ethnic space. It was a place where he was allowed openly to come to terms with his own unique voice as a man, a husband, a father, and a public official. This helps to explain why Trinity was so important in Obama’s life.
Even though Obama was a member of Trinity, it would be wrong to assume that he and Reverend Wright never had genuine differences. Religious communities, just like political ones, are filled with tensions and debates-about styles of worship, direction, social justice concerns and theology. As Obama mentioned in his important speech on race in America—given this March in Philadelphia—he and Wright were not of the same generation. Obama, socially, is a cosmopolitan, urbane and learned. As a matter of political tact, he recognized the need to draw black, brown, yellow, and white together across the racial divide.
Wright is more deeply rooted than Obama in the black bourgeois culture, black church history, and black freedom struggles, and he sees his first allegiance as a religious leader being to black Americans. As a result, these two black men have two different strategies for achieving rather similar goals—social justice, racial equity and human rights in America and abroad. At the National Press Club a couple of weeks ago, Wright charged that Obama was merely a politician, as though that was a negative. However, Wright—as a pastor in the black church tradition—is a politician too. Yet the kind of politics each must exercise is distinct. Obama, on the one hand, as a matter of practicality, must build a consensus of lawmakers and all Americans to advance more just social policies. He must appeal to a broad spectrum of people and interest groups in order to achieve his legislative goals. In running for the presidency, Obama looked to the nation-state at large, not simply to his ethnic religious community. In fact, with his coalition building among different groups across the country, Obama has reached back and drawn on the older model politics of the New Deal. Obama has done a better job of what Jesse Jackson tried to do in his “Rainbow Coalition” in 1984 and 1988. He has held together a coalition of blacks, whites, and some browns, to keep a lead in delegates-and perhaps to achieve the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Wright, on the other hand—as a major religious leader within the black community—exercises what the historian James Melvin Washington called the “symbolic political aspirations of black Christendom.” Wright’s politics are rooted in evangelical theology and the political revivalism that catalyzed the civil rights generation. “Revivals,” Washington wrote, “function as planned events that intentionally try to reclaim some idyllic moment of group cohesion for communities whose identities are under siege.” They use “liturgies forged in the crucible of the slave regime, segregation, depressed urban ghettoes, and rural shanties to fight assaults upon the psychic well-being of black people.”
Wright’s political revivalism is derived from a much larger Protestant principle. As Washington writes, quoting the theologian Paul Tillich, “the most important contribution of Protestantism to the world in the past, present, and future is the principle of prophetic protest against every power which claims divine character for itself—whether it be the church or state, party or leader.” This style of politics, especially when it comes from a progressive and fiery black clergyman, finds little resonance among the average white voter in America. Wright’s style reminds average white voters of black anger, and for many of them this is a sign of entitlement, rather than an assertion of legitimate criticism. As Washington noted in assessing Jesse Jackson’s first bid for the Democratic nomination in 1984, if the politics that drive black ministers do not “translate into a larger following beyond their own racial boundaries, they usually did not succeed.”
Unlike Obama’s campaign, Jesse Jackson’s campaign in 1984 and 1988—to which the former President Bill Clinton compared the Obama campaign in the South Carolina primary earlier this year—was never really intended to defeat his chief opponent, Walter Mondale. What Jackson successfully did was galvanize black voters to be a counterforce to President Ronald Reagan’s domestic policies, which in point of fact made all working-class people, no matter what color they were, poorer and in the long run more vulnerable to unregulated and avaricious economic policies. What Jackson recognized at the time, using old-fashioned black political revivalism as a tool, was that it was in black people’s interest to politically galvanize to have a voice in shaping the future policies of the Democratic Party, which by 1984 was quickly aligning itself with neo-liberal economics to simply win back the presidency and governorships. Jackson’s progressivism, however, was quickly dismissed, due to his political relationship to Louis Farrakhan and Farrakhan’s intemperate anti-Jewish rhetoric. In addition, Jackson did himself a great disservice in his infamous “Hymie town” remark about New York City.
Obama’s narrative, unlike Jackson’s, is tied neither to the history of the American South nor to the long and bitter antagonism between blacks and white working-class ethnics in the North. And Obama’s own personal trajectory initially freed him from being branded in the same manner as Jackson. When Bill Clinton compared Obama to Jackson in South Carolina, however, he arguably sought to dredge up white fear, just as it was dredged up in 1984 against Jackson. Clinton called Obama a “kid,” which for some was tantamount to referring to him as a “boy.” As former Clinton advisor Donna Brazile later said of Clinton’s remarks, “As an African-American, I find his words and his tone to be very depressing.” Yet it was Obama’s relationship to Trinity and to Wright that tied him most clearly and forcefully to the history of racial antagonism in the United States, and to the political tradition with which Jackson is associated.
Wright’s politics could be easily linked to Jackson’s—with the net effect being that Obama’s presidential bid was to be dismissed, the candidate sullied by his association with what some would consider negative black politics. But this politics is not negative—indeed, it represents the most progressive politics that America has had to offer. Each of these men—Jackson, Wright, and Obama—has called for fair play, and programs that help workers, children and the elderly. All of them want to renew our inner cities and rural areas. They have come out of a black tradition of progressive politics, which is informed by black Social Gospel theology. Many leading black clergy and political leaders informed by Christianity have followed in this grand tradition, a tradition that has emphasized that God cares for the whole of society. Proponents of the black tradition of the Social Gospel have been numerous, they have been a progressive force for good, and they existed long before Martin Luther King, Jr. became enshrined as a static hero of the left and the right in American memory. As an elected official, Obama stands in this tradition, too.
The real story about Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright is not Obama’s long membership at Trinity United Church of Christ. The real story is how two Christian men—who hold strong theological convictions, but who have different styles, political realities, and constituencies—have been forced to butt heads in the course of this contested primary, in their attempt to make America a more spiritually whole, just, and safe place to live for all.