Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Context Makes All the Difference

Because of my mental health break from blogging, I have yet to comment on the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.  Marty on the Homefront has the full context of the snippets played out of context of his sermons here.  I have been furious about this. I would never have said, “God damn America,” (or any place else), but the prophet Jeremiah (Wright’s namesake) said much the same thing about Israel/Judah. As Frank Schaeffer pointed out, his father, Francis A. Schaeffer, who helped to launch the Religious Right in the late ’70s, repeatedly called for armed revolution against the U.S. by Christians if the government refused to outlaw abortion–but no conservative Republican politician was ever demonized for friendship with Schaeffer. In fact, at his funeral, Ronald Reagan and other prominent conservatives were in attendance. John McCain’s endorsements by Hagee, who has called for Palestinian genocide and demonized both Jews and Catholics (but is uncritically supportive of the Israeli govt.), or by the late Jerry Falwell (who blamed 9/11 on feminists and gays and liberals–everyone but the terrorists), or Pat Robertson (who regularly urges the assassination of foreign leaders with whom he disagrees) have not been much questioned. (In fact, the press have long sugar coated the real John McCain, but that’s a subject for another time).

The demonizing of Rev. Wright, and Obama by extension, strikes me as racist. I DON’T mean that black ministers are not subject to criticism, nor that Wright’s remarks weren’t rightly repudiated by Obama.  As I said above, I would never ask God to damn anyone or any place. But I have heard Wright preach at the 2003 meeting of the Alliance of Baptists, which celebrated our ecumenical ties with the Disciples of Christ and with the United Church of Christ (Wright’s denomination and Obama’s). I know the good his church does. I know that a man who was once a U.S. Marine has more patriotism than any of these chickenhawks who demonize him.  I also know that, while I have preached far fewer sermons and written far less than Rev. Wright, one could easily take minute snippets out of my stuff and make me sound like an idiot or worse.  (Someone once overheard me quoting someone with whom I disagreed and claimed I was making physical threats on the president!) I could do the same with almost any public speaker–but it wouldn’t be either right or honest and it wouldn’t help in any public discussion of major issues.

What strikes me as racist about this is that no one even inquires who the pastors are of white candidates, no matter what they say.  Ronald Reagan seldom even went to church.  The only time we knew who Bob Dole’s pastor was came when the press leaked that both the Clintons and Doles went to Foundry United Methodist Church in D.C. (during the time that Rev. Dr. Philip J. Wogaman, whom I know slightly, was pastor). Shortly after that the Doles moved their membership, but no one asked where. We knew nothing about Bill Clinton’s Baptist congregation in Arkansas until they refused to kick him out during the Lewinsky scandal.  Do we know Hillary Clinton’s current pastor? McCain we know can’t decide whether he is Episcopalian or Southern Baptist.  So, the extreme focus on Obama’s pastor by mostly white reporters and politicians, most of whom have never been in a black church and don’t know anything about African-American Christianity, strikes me as having, at least, racist overtones.

I have been twice a member of a black Baptist congregation and I know that members expect the pastor to be bold and confrontational–but don’t expect to follow his every word.  I remember when visiting a black church in which the pastor described the “war on young black boys” in the ’90s that the members came up to me afterword to make CERTAIN that I knew their pastor was not demonizing all whites–but I knew that already. (In fact, nothing was said that day with which I particularly disagreed.)  I also know that Black sermons take you to the depths of pain and anger before giving you the hope and joy of the Good News. But the ignorant media never showed that these snippets from Wright were NOT the conclusion of his sermons.

Nothing approaching real journalism was attempted. When confronted with the free ride given to McCain despite his endorsements by controversial rightwing preachers, reporters said they might cover that if those sermons were playing on Youtube! So, today’s reporters are too lazy to investigate, but have have YouTube users do it for them. No wonder we are in such sad shape!

(Hey, if we can’t smear Obama as a closet Muslim, let’s smear his pastor and make them both sound anti-white and anti-American.)

Obama may or may not become the next U.S. president. Either way, he will recover.  I grieve because Rev. Wright, a brother in Christ, may not recover his reputation as a sincere servant of God.  The false witness borne against him is a great and lasting sin.  Conservatives would be outraged if “the liberal media” quoted race-baiting statements from Rev. Jerry Falwell in the days when he still supported segregation, without ever mentioning his later repentance on this issue. But I have heard ZERO conservatives standing up for Rev. Wright. (Even Mike Huckabee, who DID say that Obama should not be held accountable for Wright’s statements unless he agreed with them, did not make any attempt to stand up for Wright. And, as a former preacher, Huckabee knows that no preacher wants to have his or her whole preaching career judged by fragments of one or two sermons. We all have sermons we regret. ) What context can be given for that omission, I wonder?

P.S. Frank Schaeffer also rightly notes that Clinton is wrong about Obama being “out of touch” with religious America. As Schaeffer notes, candidate responses to controversies can be dismissed, so we learn more by what they say BEFORE it was an issue. Schaeffer quotes from Obama’s remarks in 2006 at a Sojourners event, an evangelical event.  The full speech is on the Obama campaign website and has been since it went up. But the speech itself was given nearly a year before Obama began campaigning for president. His accounts of his conversion all pre-date this, too.

I am not sure Schaeffer is right to dismiss Clinton’s own faith as genuine, and I don’t know about McCain’s faith (he seems to hold the nation itself as his god, but I could be wrong), but I agree that Obama is certainly most “in touch” with Christian America. I never thought I would agree as much with one of the founders of the Religious Right, a self-declared 55 year old father of a Marine, who is gun owning, flag waving, military loving lifelong conservative.  But as Schaeffer says, if Obama can reach him, he can reach anyone in America.


April 19, 2008 - Posted by | politics, progressive faith, race, scandal


  1. Thank you for this. You articulated your ideas well. I tried to explain to some other white Americans why I didn’t think these sermons were ‘racist’ having also worshipped in a black congregation (albeit African-Caribbean and African). Trying to explain felt the same way it did when I was a teenager in the early 1970s trying to convince my male-headship denomination that, as a female, I was not inherently irresponsible and frivolous. I think you did a good job. I also expect that some will take extreme exception.

    Comment by PamBG | April 20, 2008

  2. Michael – Welcome back. Your blog is a breath of fresh air. I hope that you were able to make the most of your time off. Is there any way we can know what the subject of your books are?

    On Wright – This is a lame and disrespectful last attempt for conservatives to ensure that Obama does not win the nomination or general election. No doubt it will come up again.

    Comment by Jeremy | April 20, 2008

  3. Michael,

    Thanks for the belated comments on the Wright affair. Yes, I think you’re right, there is a racist element here. In fact, there is much of that in the current ant-Barack efforts. Calling him an elitist is being perceived by the Black community, correctly I think, that he’s “uppity.” The patriotism issue is similar. Notice that nothing is ever made of Hillary’s lack of a flag on her lapel. Apparently it doesn’t go well with her yellow suit. In fact, George and Charlie didn’t have one either. So, why is this an issue only for Obama?

    Of course much of this stems from Hannity’s 24/7 attempt to attack Obama.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | April 20, 2008

  4. I’m not sure whether or not Hillary Clinton is still a member (or ever was a member) at Foundry UMC, but the current pastor praised Jeremiah Wright here.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 21, 2008

  5. Jonathan, I don’t know if she was a member or not, but the
    Clintons attended Foundry UMC during their White House days. And, get this, Rev. Jeremiah Wright was one of those who were invited to the White House to counsel the Clintons during the Lewinsky drama! Yeah! Obama knows this and refuses to use it against her–refuses to slime her the way she does him.

    I hope the people of PA do the right thing tomorrow, but, if not, he’s still win the nomination.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 21, 2008

  6. Michael,

    This morning on Bob Edwards’ show he was talking with Michael Eric Dyson. Edwards’ summary regarding Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama was that Obama’s message represented the positive change that has taken place in the 40 years since MLK, Jr. and that Wright’s message represented that which had not yet changed in those 40 years. Dyson affirmed that observation. It gave me a better perspective on Wright and Obama as well.


    Comment by T Leuze | April 22, 2008

  7. I think that’s generally true, but slightly too simplistic. The love/nonviolence message of MLK, Jr. was never as popular with Northern African-Americans as with Southern ones, especially toward the end of the ’60s. Wright came to Trinity UCC in the wake of King’s assassination and forged a congregation (in a mostly white denomination) that would combine the positive dimensions of King’s message with an appeal to younger folks that were more attracted to Black Nationalism. He worked with Black Liberation Theology. It worked–but few whites have ever understood either Black Nationalism or liberation theology (e.g., one pundit ignorantly called James Cone a “purveyor of hate.”).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 22, 2008

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