Striking the Wright balance

ObamaI watched Barack Obama's speech on race and religion yesterday morning. But I imagine that I was one of relatively few people to actually watch the speech in its entirety (see it here) or read the whole transcript. That means that it's been up to the media to summarize, translate and convey meaning about the speech to a larger audience. I watched the address on MSNBC and knew the media had been completely won over when, upon the final word of the speech, Joe Scarborough immediately praised it as glorious and inspiring. Everywhere I flipped, broadcasters and pundits were talking about the brilliant, historic speech. So I guess Obama has retained the broadcast media vote.

I thought the speech would deal more with religion, since it was the rhetoric of Obama's hostile pastor that caused this speech. The deft and nuanced speech was mostly about race. And the media coverage seems to get that point.

Still, the 37-minute speech did include discussion of religion and there has been media coverage of that, too. Nedra Pickler and Matt Apuzzo filed a report for the Associated Press that included this snippet:

[The speech] was prompted by the wider notice his former pastor's racial statements have been receiving in the past week or so.

[Obama] said he recognized his race has been a major issue in a campaign that has taken a "particularly divisive turn." Many people have been turning to the Internet to view statements by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who suggested in one sermon that the United States brought the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on itself and in another said blacks should damn America for continuing to mistreat them.

That last sentence kind of cracks me up. The major reason why people are turning to the Internet to view statements by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright are because the mainstream media keeps characterizing them in just this bland, anodyne, tepid manner. One almost wonders what the fuss has been over.

I have stated before that context is desperately needed when discussing Wright, but covering up the incendiary rhetoric just serves to drive viewers and readers further away. You can't keep the information -- which included some amazingly offensive insults about white Americans, conspiracy theories about the federal government targeting blacks with the AIDS virus, and some nontraditional exegesis about the race of Jesus and his oppressors -- away from people and it's not right to do so in any case. Incidentally, the Pickler/Apuzzo report misstates Wright's contention. He said blacks should sing "God Damn America" instead of "God Bless America," not that blacks themselves should somehow damn America.

Speaking of the need for context, I thought Associated Press reporter Eric Gorski did a great job of providing it for his look at the speech. Having said that, he also characterized Wright's views in the blandest way possible. But here's how Gorski began:

As shocking as they may be, the provocative sermons of Barack Obama's pastor come out of a tradition of using the black church to challenge its members and confront what preachers view as a racist society.

Yet while the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's racially tinged messages still resonate in some black churches, evidence also suggests his style is receding into the past as civil rights-era pastors retire. Sermons in other congregations now focus less on societal divisions and more on the connection between spirituality and a materially prosperous life.

Some media outlets seemed to take Wright's views completely out of context. But others kept on acting like what Wright said was as normal in black churches as women in hats and Gospel music. As if it's perfectly fine to say some of the hateful things that Wright said. I really appreciated Gorski coming to the defense of black churches by providing a bit of perspective on where things stand there.

I don't actually think it's acceptable to be racist under any circumstances, particularly when you are a Christian pastor. But I do think that some media coverage made Wright into a bit of a caricature. Gorski does a good job of balancing out the picture -- mentioning Obama's defense of the man and explaining how Wright built Trinity United Church of Christ into the denomination's largest congregation.

At the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ, the slogan "Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian'' has meant preaching about divestment during South Africa's apartheid era. It has also meant fighting poverty, homelessness and AIDS at home. The religious message has been anything but watered down, with Wright dissecting Bible passages line-by-line. . . .

"The whole generation that Rev. Wright represents is expressing what they call a righteous anger, the anger from the failed promises of America,'' said Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "The prophetic anger is toward expanding the democracy, expanding it so all citizens can walk through the door of opportunity.''

Often lost in the attention paid to Wright's fiery sermons is the typical conclusion, Hopkins said -- that despite all obstacles, you are a child of God and "can make a way out of no way.'' That phrase, common in the language of the black church, was used by Obama in his 4,700-word speech Tuesday.

That last paragraph, in particular, is what has been missing from so much of the coverage. But one of the things that bothers me with even Gorski's story is that he doesn't really talk to people who have any problem with Wright. Some of the things Wright said in his sermons didn't sound like they were advancing democracy at all. I'm sure there are many people who would like to address just that point.

Gorski speaks with a religion professor at Columbia who defends Wright and says white Americans just don't get race issues. And the omnipresent historian Martin Marty -- a Democrat from Chicago, no less -- is brought in to defend Wright, albeit it to balance out the discussion in a way that has been needed:

Wright does not focus his ire on white America alone, said Martin Marty, a retired professor of religious history who taught Wright at the University of Chicago.

"He is very hard on his own people,'' Marty said. "He criticizes them for their lack of fidelity in marriage, for black-on-black crime. He is not saying one part of America is right and one is wrong.''

Gorski rounds out the Wright love fest by talking to parishioners who love Wright. Only one person quoted is in any way critical, and only at the very end of the article:

Bishop Harry Jackson, a conservative evangelical who leads a multiracial congregation in Beltsville, Md., said Wright and his defenders are wrongly portraying his comments and Afrocentrism as common in black churches and acceptable to most black believers.

"The people who are listening to him are listening to rhetoric that reinforces their sense of alienation and rejection while, ironically, not giving them any hope and not giving them any remedies,'' Jackson said.

At least there was this solitary quote, showing that there actually exist people who have not been won over to Wright's rhetoric. It also points to the obvious place reporters should look for balance in their portrayal of Wright.

It is good to explain the anger that Wright feels and it is good to place Wright's preaching in the context of political struggles. But there are religious issues at play, here, too. How do other Christians feel about Wright's message in particular and black liberation theology in general? We've gotten a lot of defenses of Wright from a religious perspective -- and a lot of attacks of Wright from a political perspective. But it might be nice to have a bit more balanced conversation from a religious perspective.

Photo via Daniella Zalcman on Flickr.

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