Religion & American politics:

Obama, Wright, and Trinity

posted by Randal Jelks

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.

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11 Responses to “Obama, Wright, and Trinity”

  1. avatar John Eley says:

    Professor Jelks, are you not saying the same thing about the appeal of black Christianity to blacks, which you cast in a favorable light, that Senator Obama said in very critical way about the appeal of religion to working class Christians in PA? I for one do not see any difference in the appeal of religion across these two groups, given your post. If this is the case I would appreciate a critique of the Obama analysis on working class Christians. If this is not the case, please explain how the groups differ in this critical aspect of the relationship between life conditions and religion?

  2. avatar Randal Maurice Jelks says:

    Of course there are many things that are similar. First, two-thirds of black Americans are working class. However, there are differences. Black Christianity, at least the Social Gospel tradition, as I mentioned in my post, has been on the whole more progressive and positive in its orientation toward democratic social change than their white Christian counterparts. The long history of American slavery and segregation gave black Christians as a whole a more positive direction than white counterparts. Let me recommend to you Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. I would like you to compare that book to C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya’s, The Black Church in the African American Experience. I think you will see some the profound differences in social attitudes that black Christian have held. Lastly, I view some aspects of black Protestant Christianity as positive; there are other parts that are negative. The goal of this post was to discuss the positive aspects, which have largely been ignored by the dominant media, whose biases about religion in general are far too evident.

  3. avatar William Winslow says:

    This is an excellent analysis of the role of the black Protestant church. But even in the black church there are degrees of commitment to justice and equality, based in part on denominational affiliation. Many black evangelical churches fail to make a connection between the struggle for equality/justice for gays and women and the specifically black community. Wright happens to belong to a denomination, the United Church of Christ, which is comitted to justice and equality on many fronts.

    I am also disappointed that national black leadership has not come to the defense of Mr. Wright. Surely, leaders like Calvin Butts, James Forbes, Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and leaders of predominantly black denomination could have spoken on the record.

  4. avatar Randal Maurice Jelks says:

    I agree that black evangelicals have failed the smell test in terms of their commitment to social justice. I also agree that Jessie Jackson has coped out in standing up for Wright. Wright was always cool to Jackson in Chicago for good reason and so Jesse is cool to Wright. Wright never let Jesse use Trinity for a platform. The NYC black preachers Butts, Forbes, and Sharpton have been too much in the pocket of the Clintons politically, and maybe otherwise, for them to be independent and speak out. Andrew Young, who is UCC like Wright, but in typical fashion I might add, badly played his Clinton card with his less than judicious remarks about President Clinton having more black women than Senator Obama earlier this year. All-black denominations such as COGIC, the National Baptist Convention, and the AME are in such disarray in terms of its national leadership to be of any assistance to Wright. I know that Wright left the Baptist Church because it was not committed to social justice. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Thank you, Randal for highlighting both the historical connections of Mr. Obama’s campaign to Jesse Jackson’s and the utter ignorance, let alone self-servingness, of the mostly white media establishment who have no clue about the Black Church or the Church in general.

    I personally found Mr. Obama’s retreat from Rev. Wright more alarming than I ever found Rev. Wright’s comments. Having visited Chicago’s South Side (uncomfortably) before the replacement of the public housing, I just wish that the media would consider what it meant for Rev. Wright to have built a church that brought together the African American middle class that you address with others in that particular place.

  6. avatar Tanvier Lee says:

    As always, I enjoy your messages Dr. Jelks. I personally think this whole situation misrepresents both the black community, and the black church. I have been raised in a black church and have attended almost every Protestant denomination under the sun. The common thread which tied these denominations together was their role in the black community. I personally feel that what Rev. Wright said is not as far fetched as the media would like to portray. His comments about Natalie Halloway (a white teenager who went missing in Aruba) were on the money. Think about how much media attention was received on a young, white teenager who fraternized with multiple, male peers whom she did not know. Several years have passed and we are still talking about Natalie Halloway. I agree with Rev. Wright that if it was a woman of color, we would be so lucky to hear about it on “The Today Show.” Case in point, the young, black female in WVA. She was kidnapped, abused and sodomized by six white people for a week. There is no comparing the coverage and it saddens me because while Natalie H. put herself in the company of unknown company, this woman was taken from her own.

    Rev. Wright has a tone that is very old-school. It is direct, aggressive, and emotional. I believe that the messages which Rev. Wright has spoken are common discussions in the black church. The only difference is his presentation and animation towards the topics. Many of the critics of Wright do not attend a black church, nor have ever visited one. I feel that the topics of my mother’s generations [of injustice, institutional racism, and equality] are the same in modern day because they still occur. Whether a Pastor is charismatic like Joel Osteen, or fire & brimstone like John Hagee, the message remains the same. The execution is what raises eyebrows.

    What also strikes me about this media coverage is that it focuses on Obama, and not McCain or others who have had questionable mentors. John McCain voted against making Dr. King’s birthday a holiday in 1983 and has helped raise money for George Wallace’s son. McCain employs Richard Quinn, who has called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” and promotes the Ku Klux Klan. How many networks has that be played on?

    I will conclude by saying that Obama has done nothing but promote peace and equality. His campaign is people-oriented and does not bash anyone with “black power.” Just as a person raises awareness about issues that impact their community and their family, why do we prohibit Obama from doing the same? He was the first candidate to continuously address the still present victims of Hurricane Katrina. Because he is half black and half white, do we now require him to attend a black and white church?

  7. avatar Michael Brett says:

    Even as an Obama supporter, I find your commentary a wee bit too Pollyanish. Trinity Church granted the young organizer Obama the opportunity to acquaint himself with those individuals who had not only fought for civil rights, but also successfully elected a black mayor in racially divided city. Barack Obama is VERY ambitious. His goals played a major role in his choice of church. Spirituality is grand, but politicians will always put politics first and Barack is a politician. We are campaigning for him to be President, not Bishop.

    I also believe that you and your respondents sugarcoat the truth about South Chicago’s inner city churches. They all were bought off by Daley years ago. The greatest failure of both Jackson and Farrakhan (the two prominent black leaders of my generation) is that they did not in any way prevent the legacy of Harold Washington to be but a minor miracle in their own backyard. Barack is succeeding because his message is superceding civil rights. In a way, Barack is fast forwarding to the realization of Dr. King’s dreams. When Barack is elected, though, I will still live in a Chicago where poor blacks have been deserted by their leaders and have not much to show twenty years on from the death of Mayor Washington.

    Celebrate Barack Obama’s potential, but please do not forget that his Chicago longs for politics of real change as well.

  8. avatar Randal Maurice Jelks says:

    Thank you for your comments. I agree many of the old black churches were in the pocket of the Cook County Democratic Machine under Mayor Daley (I). Olivet Baptist Church headed by Joseph H. Jackson, the longstanding president of the National Convention was clearly in the Mayor’s debt. In sympathy with that generation of ministers who came to Chicago from Mississippi, Daley’s patronage was a far cry more hospitable than Mississippi’s white supremacists regime they faced. Even if I did not like what they did they were political realists and opportunists. They were in debt to the Mayor because they wanted prestige for themselves and jobs for their parishioners. They tried to do two things, no different than white evangelicals who have curried favor from Reagan to Bush. There were only a few who took the risk of offending the Mayor back then and not accepting his patronage. I can think of Clay Evans, Fellowship Baptist Church and few others. This is why Trinity Church was so important at the time Wright became the church’s pastor. Wright seized the moment and established a church different than his predecessors and showed a black progressive congregation could work. I am sure Senator Obama also seized the moment too and socialized and networked with the younger progressive crowd around Chi-town that Wright attracted. With that stated, you cannot possibly deny that Trinity fulfilled a spiritual need for many in the black middle-class—case in point Mrs. Obama, a long time native of Chicago. While I am cynical, I am not cynical enough to believe that Senator Obama’s spiritual journey is not real. If that were the case he should have left Trinity like Oprah. I do not see your comments off-setting what I have stated. Trinity proved to be a progressive force for black people in the city. It was liberating for a black Southside church to be progressive and not in the pockets of the city politicos and black people folked to it. I am not pollyanish sir. I know the city of Chicago’s politics.

  9. avatar Alexander Riley says:

    Thanks, Dr. Jelks, for writing one of the very few informed things I’ve found on the Internet on the Wright/Obama/Trinity situation. I’ll be sharing this link with students.

  10. avatar Curtis Evans says:

    Thanks for the excellent article and the response to critics. Very important points made. I’d love to talk with you more about some of these issues, Dr. Jelks. I am impressed with your knowledge of Chicago’s politics and religion. As a relative newcomer, I could benefit from your extensive knowledge, especially as I begin teaching this fall.

  11. avatar Randal Maurice Jelks says:

    Thank you for your kind words about the piece on Obama, Wright, and Trinity. I lived in Chicago throughout my high school years and part of my graduate training. Chicago politics was followed in my household with the same passion that one would follow the Cubs or the White Sox. Although Chicago is known as the “second city” I can think of no city that can give you any better training for 20th and 21st century American politics than Chitown. Living in Chicago was great training ground for me as a scholarly observer of American politics and religion. If I can be of any help to the two of you, let me know. All the best.

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