Your GetReligionistas do not, as a rule, offer much comment about editorials and op-ed page columns. However, we do, from time to time, point out columns and commentaries that add actual insight and information to ongoing news stories. Honest, in a few days, we hope to be past the firestorm about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. But, at the moment, some journalists are actually focusing on the content of a crucial religious issue linked the story -- which is the style and content of the black church. Thus, I would like to point to two essays that will be of interest to those reading and writing about the hottest story -- at the moment -- in American culture.
The problem is that Wright insists on being seen as something he's not: an archetypal representative of the African American church. In fact, he represents one twig of one branch of a very large tree. ...
The reality of the African American church, of course, is as diverse as the African American community. I grew up in the Methodist church with pastors -- often active on the front lines of the civil rights movement -- whose sermons were rarely exciting enough to elicit more than a muttered "Amen." They were excitement itself, however, compared with the dry lectures delivered by the priest at the Catholic church around the corner. And what I heard every Sunday was nothing at all like the Bible-thumping, hellfire-and-damnation perorations that filled my Baptist friends with the Holy Ghost -- and even less like the spellbinding, singsong, jump-and-shout sermonizing that raised the roofs of Pentecostal sanctuaries across town.
Wright claims to represent all these traditions and more, but he does not. He also claims universality for the political aspect of his ministry. It is true that the black church, writ large, has been an instrument of social and political change. But most black churches are far less political than Wright's -- and many concern themselves exclusively with salvation.
I point all this out not to say that one tradition is better than another; as Wright said, different doesn't mean deficient. But what Wright did was to try to frame the issue in such a way that to question him or anything he has ever said was to question the long, storied tradition of African American religion.
And all the people said, "Amen." Thus, it is logical to say that Barack Obama, when he made his profession of Christian faith, was joining a particular congregation within the wider black church tradition or traditions.
Over at The New Republic, Noam Scheiber has written a piece that probes the content of that decision by the young and rising politician. This leads us to a long, long quote from the book "Obama: From Promise to Power" by David Mendell:
Wright remains a maverick among Chicago's vast assortment of black preachers. He will question Scripture when he feels it forsakes common sense; he is an ardent foe of mandatory school prayer; and he is a staunch advocate for homosexual rights, which is almost unheard-of among African-American ministers. Gay and lesbian couples, with hands clasped, can be spotted in Trinity's pews each Sunday. Even if some blacks consider Wright's church serving only the bourgeois set, his ministry attracts a broad cross section of Chicago's black community. Obama first noticed the church because Wright had placed a "Free Africa" sign out front to protest continuing apartheid. The liberal, Columbia-educated Obama was attracted to Wright's cerebral and inclusive nature, as opposed to the more socially conservative and less educated ministers around Chicago. Wright developed into a counselor and mentor to Obama as Obama sought to understand the power of Christianity in the lives of black Americans, and as he grappled with the complex vagaries of Chicago's black political scene.
"Trying to hold a conversation with a guy like Barack, and him trying to hold a conversation with some ministers, it's like you are dating someone and she wants to talk to you about Rosie and what she saw on Oprah, and that's it," Wright explained. "But here I was, able to stay with him lockstep as we moved from topic to topic. ... He felt comfortable asking me questions that were postmodern, post-Enlightenment and that college-educated and graduate school-trained people wrestle with when it comes to the faith. We talked about race and politics. I was not threatened by those questions." ...
But more than that, Trinity's less doctrinal approach to the Bible intrigued and attracted Obama. "Faith to him is how he sees the human condition," Wright said. "Faith to him is not ... litmus test, mouth-spouting, quoting Scripture. It's what you do with your life, how you live your life. That's far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says women shouldn't wear pants or if you drink, you're going to hell. That's just not who Barack is."
Now there are all kinds of things going on in that passage, including the assumption that Obama truly found that there are no traditional, doctrinally conservative African-American priests or pastors in the Chicago area who hold graduate degrees from solid, even upper-tier seminaries and were opposed to apartheid. Also, please do not click "comment" in order to state what we all know -- which is that the hottest social issues in American church life are not drinking or the moral implications of women wearing pants.
The larger point, a key piece of the puzzle that reporters are failing to see, is that Obama clearly wanted to join a church. All of those "He's a secret Muslim" emails be damned, his own testimony underlines the sincerity of his spiritual search and commitment to a liberal brand of Christian faith.
But, if Mendell and Wright are right, Obama was also searching for a black church that would allow him to avoid or even reject the vast majority of the other black churches around him. He was looking for a black church that would actually -- on several crucial hot issues -- help him fight the larger black church or, as I am sure Obama would state it, help him lead a crusade to liberalize the conservative moral teachings of the larger black church. (Andrew Sullivan has been making this point for weeks, but it is hard to find a specific topic within his massive site.)
Is that true? That's a question that, sooner or later, someone is going to ask Obama and I would imagine that there are African-American conservatives who would love to have a chance to do so.