If anyone is hoping that the loud relationship between politics and personal faith is merely a freakish and temporal effect of George W. Bush's presidency, simply observing the candidates and reporters warm up this year should dispense with that fanciful wish. Today's edition of the Los Angeles Times brings news that Barack Obama was "registered by his family as a Muslim at both of the schools he attended" in Indonesia. Times reporter Paul Watson writes:
Having a personal background in both Christianity and Islam might seem useful for an aspiring U.S. president in an age when Islamic nations and radical groups are key national security and foreign policy issues. But a connection with Islam is untrod territory for presidential politics.
The Times article is enough for blogger Anya Kamenetz of The Huffington Post to hope that Obama becomes "Our First Muslim President." This raises the awkward question of whether being Muslim is, for Ms. Kamenetz, merely an ethnic identity that one never fully leaves behind. I much prefer taking Obama at his word: Twenty years ago, he walked the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago and became an adult convert to Christianity.
Obama's membership at Trinity already has generated its share of controversy, including his decision to ask that Trinity's pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright (pictured), back out of offering the invocation at Obama's announcement of his candidacy.
My friend Kim Lawton of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly reported on March 9:
In the past few weeks, conservative bloggers and pundits have begun raising concerns about Wright's Africentric theology and his liberal -- some say radical -- politics.
I think the journalistic scent already has spread beyond conservative bloggers and pundits. Consider the reporting of Ben Wallace-Wells in Rolling Stone, who in an article dated Feb. 7 brought back this sample of Wright's indisputably impassioned preaching style:
Wright takes the pulpit here one Sunday and solemnly, sonorously declares that he will recite ten essential facts about the United States. "Fact number one: We've got more black men in prison than there are in college," he intones. "Fact number two: Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!" There is thumping applause; Wright has a cadence and power that make Obama sound like John Kerry. Now the reverend begins to preach. "We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional KILLERS. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. . . . We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. . . . We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!" The crowd whoops and amens as Wright builds to his climax: "And. And. And! GAWD! Has GOT! To be SICK! OF THIS [EXPLETIVE]!"
Ryan Lizza of The New Republic describes some of what drew Obama, as a young community activist using the strategies of Saul Alinsky, to Wright's church:
From Wright and others, Obama learned that part of his problem as an organizer was that he was trying to build a confederation of churches but wasn't showing up in the pews on Sunday. When pastors asked him the inevitable questions about his own spiritual life, Obama would duck them uncomfortably. A Reverend Philips put the problem to him squarely when he learned that Obama didn't attend services. "It might help your mission if you had a church home," he told Obama. "It doesn't matter where, really. What you're asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophesy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you're getting yours from."
After many lectures like this, Obama decided to take a second look at Wright's church. Older pastors warned him that Trinity was for "Buppies" -- black urban professionals -- and didn't have enough street cred. But Wright was a former Muslim and black nationalist who had studied at Howard and Chicago, and Trinity's guiding principles -- what the church calls the "Black Value System" -- included a "Disavowal of the Pursuit of 'Middleclassness.'"
I know that much more reporting on Obama's church is inevitable. As Wright said to Kim Lawton in what sounded like a tone of experienced resignation, "You think it's ugly now. It's going to get worse. It's going to get much worse."
Evaluation, or criticism, of Jeremiah Wright's theology is not in itself ugliness. Wright is a gadfly, and that's bound to attract journalistic and political curiosity. Still, the decision about where to attend church always depends on the pastoral realities of a city, a denomination and a congregation.
Barack Obama made a conscious decision to become a Christian while attending Trinity United Church of Christ. For Christians and others who are inclined to vote for him anyway, that probably will be enough reason to allow Jeremiah Wright his political, social and theological hobby horses and not to assume that Obama predictably rides alongside him.