Race and religious affiliation

mobamaI finally got around to reading Lauren Collins' profile of Michelle Obama in the March 10 New Yorker. It's sympathetic but no puff piece -- packed full of information that isn't necessarily flattering. Obama's stump speech includes the idea that we're a country that is "just downright mean," we are "guided by fear," we're a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents, and so on. But much to my surprise, the article deals with Obama's religious views head on:

The other Chicago connection that dogs the Obamas is Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., their pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ. Wright, who drives a Porsche and references Bernie Mac and Terry McMillan in his unorthodox sermons ("Take what God gave you and say, 'In your face, mediocrity, I'm a bad mamma jamma!'"), officiated at Michelle and Barack's wedding and baptized their two daughters. Barack took the title "The Audacity of Hope" from a sermon that Wright preached. In 2006, the Obamas gave $22,500 to the church.

Wright espouses a theology that seeks to reconcile African-American Christianity with, as he has written, "the raw data of our racist existence in this strange land." The historical accuracy of that claim is incontestable. But his message is more confrontational than may be palatable to some white voters. In his book "Africans Who Shaped Our Faith"--an extended refutation of the Western Christianity that gave rise to "the European Jesus . . . the blesser of the slave trade, the defender of racism and apartheid"--he says, "In this country, racism is as natural as motherhood, apple pie, and the fourth of July. Many black people have been deluded into thinking that our BMWs, Lexuses, Porsches, Benzes, titles, heavily mortgaged condos and living environments can influence people who are fundamentally immoral."

In portraying America as "a Eurocentric wasteland of lily-white lies and outright distortions," Wright promulgates a theory of congenital separatism that is deeply at odds with Obama's professed belief in the possibilities of unity and change. Last year, Trumpet Newsmagazine, which was launched by Trinity United and is run by Wright's daughter, gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to Louis Farrakhan, leading to accusations that Wright was anti-Semitic.

To some extent, this description and analysis of Wright's hostile preaching are standard. But the New Yorker permits Obama to respond:

"We don't want our church to receive the brunt of this notoriety," Obama told me. I asked her whether Wright's statements presented a problem for her or for Barack. "You know, your pastor is like your grandfather, right?" she said. "There are plenty of things he says that I don't agree with, that Barack doesn't agree with." When it comes to absolute doctrinal adherence, she said, "I don't know that there would be a church in this country that I would be involved in. So, you know, you make choices, and you sort of--you can't disown yourself from your family because they've got things wrong. You try to be a part of expanding the conversation."

Remember that recent Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey that showed that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations? Many reporters covered the story by leading with anecdotes about people who had switched denominations or religions. And that's where the news was, so that's a good idea. But even at the time I found myself wondering about the people who don't pick up and leave their denomination like so many of their fellow Americans.

I might not be Lutheran if my mother hadn't left the United Church of Christ, so I'm not saying that leaving a church body is a bad thing. But sometimes I'm shocked at how easily folks switch out denominations.

Anyway, chapter two of that survey showed that Protestants in historically black churches were much less likely to engage in denominational switching than those in other evangelical or mainline Protestant churches. I know that the United Church of Christ is not historically black, but I think that this piece of data does inform this discussion about race and religion. At the time, it seemed like a minor point in a mound of data. But in light of recent events, perhaps reporters might want to revisit the survey for more context and additional story ideas.

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