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A Deeper Look at Rev. Jeremiah Wright

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Barack Obama has condemned the controversial words of his pastor Jeremiah Wright and I think we should move on from that specific story. However, since Obama has made his character and judgment as much a qualification for the presidency as his experience, I think a deeper look at Rev. Wright and his former church is appropriate. The few snippets of sermons broadcast ad nauseam this week hardly tell the whole story.

There are a lot of good articles on Obama, his faith and his church. I suggest reading this Christian Science Monitor piece, this Chicago Tribune story and this piece from the New York Times. What we get is a picture of a church that very much fits into the liberal form of Christianity, one that is focused predominately on ending oppression both by challenging oppressive powers and by helping victims raise themselves up.

In addition to typical liberalism, Rev. Wright also preaches black liberation theology which views the stories of the Bible as metaphors for the struggles of African Americans. The theology believes:

African Americans must be liberated from multiple forms of bondage—social, political, economic, and religious. This liberation involves empowerment and “also demands the right of self-definition, self-affirmation, and self-determination.

As a young community organizer, Obama found inspiration in Rev. Wright’s message of using social work and political activism to liberate poor African Americans from their current state of despair. The message was so powerful that it propelled Obama onto a religious path and led to his eventual conversion from agnostic to Christian. The Wright sermon that Obama sites as a real turning point was titled “The Audacity to Hope.”

You can read the sermon in full here. A rough summary: the world is full of pain and despair but we must keep hoping in the face of it all. The sermon moved Obama to tears and if we’re going to use Rev. Wright’s words to frame our perceptions of Obama, those are the words we should first choose.

Rev. Wright is an undeniably fiery speaker who, in the long tradition of American preachers, proudly and often indiscriminately uses hyperbole to communicate his point. He is unabashed about mixing his faith with his politics and he is unafraid of being provocative to the point of being offensive. His view of the world is a dark one but it is balanced by a shining belief that people can win the fight against oppression. I can understand how a man like Obama can discount the controversial rhetoric and focus on the deeper message. I can also understand why others would condemn him for doing so.

Ultimately, I think Rev. Wright reveals what we already know about Obama: he’s a big, ole liberal with a streak of individualism. He sees the world in terms of oppressors and their victims, like most liberals, but has that Christian layer which sees the individual as ultimately in control. He’s also been steeped in the rhetoric of black liberation and the corresponding animosity towards whites – somehow he’s moved passed that and embraced a more unifying vision (or, as some will believe, he’s duplicitous and has a hidden black power agenda).

Ultimately, Obama’s conversion doesn’t seem to have changed his politics so much as it gave pre-existing politics a spiritual element. If you disagree with liberal ideology you’re likely to find Obama’s theology to be similarly unlikable. They come from different places but arrive at the same goals of social justice and communal prosperity. Rev. Wright delivers that message in a flamboyant style that has resulted in plenty of condemnable statements. But, if we’re going to judge Obama for his religion, it is better to take his faith on its whole rather than basing our perceptions on his pastor’s occasionally offensive diatribes.

Those of us who are not supporting Obama would do better just to focus on the man’s politics and avoid the temptation to get tangled in a religious debate.