The recent formal departure of Senator Barack Obama from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago will no doubt resurface a debate over Obama’s relation to Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Obama’s letter of resignation, sent to the new Trinity senior pastor (Otis Moss, III), mentions the “distractions” of Wright’s sermons, among other examples, as one of the factors that caused the Obama family to exit from their home church of 20 years. Obama mentioned a similar reasoning in his following press conference.
Who could have predicted such volatility over race, faith, and justice in a campaign for the highest office in the land? The unprecedented introduction of race, religion, the black church, and black liberation theology into the presidential contest offers us an occasion to reflect on the role of the preacher, the politician, traditional race relations, and multicultural America. Obama and Wright exhibit this contrast.
Barack Obama is white and black and immigrant and multicultural. His mother and his grandparents hail from a white, heartland America and semi-rural America. Growing up with a white mother and white grandparents, Obama caught a glimpse of how many white citizens expect society and government to respond to their needs. Socialization processes in the U.S. (i.e., media, education, movies, power positions, etc.) produce white citizens who imagine whatever options they wish to choose in life. Not only can one envision different options, one can also decide to implement and, thus, realize those dreams. Despite his grandmother mentioning her fears of inner city black people, Obama grew up in a predominantly white environment that nurtured a view of government and American citizens as working together so each citizen could realize their desires. This perspective invites a career as a politician.
Obama is also black. He recalls discussions of racial slights in his home. He writes about other personal incidents in his two best selling books. And Obama recalls how he read accounts of racial discrimination against black people. Though not in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s movement, Obama was aware of its challenges, goals, and setbacks.
Obama also emerges from an immigrant sensibility. His father was from Kenya and immigrated to the U.S. to get a prestigious education. Barack Obama, Sr. did not come to America to find the American dream—get married, have children, and seek permanent residence and naturalized citizenship. Rather, he saw the U.S. as a place to obtain the best resources and then return back to his own home in Kenya. Senior Obama’s consciousness and history were not rooted in the black American story. Rather, his heart and priority were at home in Kenya.
In addition to being multiracial (that is, genetically and perceptively), Obama is also multicultural. He grew up in Hawaii: the state that shows the beauty and possibility of what all of the U.S. can become. While recognizing the justice issues of Hawaii’s nationhood status is an ongoing struggle, Hawaii exhibits a different sensibility about human community. Obama matured in this environment of Native Hawaiians, Japanese Hawaiians, and Chinese Hawaiians. Other groups live on the Island, such as Pacific Islanders, whites, and blacks. To be in Hawaii is to be in an environment of many people, foods, and languages. Hawaii connotes tolerance and global communities settling among Native Hawaiians. Similarly, during early childhood, Obama spent four years at a Roman Catholic school while in Indonesia.
In contrast, Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. hails from inner city Philadelphia and from a black family that traces parts of its roots back to Virginia and the slavery era. And Wright is a third generation black preacher.
Wright’s world was intensely racialized by the awareness of Africa’s contributions to humanity, his slavery history, northern racial discrimination, and the segregation he encountered when he went south for his B.A. degree. At the same time, he grew up in a loving household and city where blacks told folk tales, recounted the heroics of enslaved blacks, swayed with jazz rhythms, doo wop, and R&B, and played the dozens on ghetto street corners. Wright knew about other great black achievements such as the Harlem Renaissance, A. Phillip Randolph’s threat against FDR if the president didn’t integrate the armed services, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Wright speaks about his biologically “white” racial embodiment when he describes how some southern white slave master raped an enslaved black woman and, out of this violent white-black intimacy, came Wright’s own “white blood.” This, however, does not erase the positive and formative experiences he had with Philadelphia whites and Jews.
Wright came to Chicago and there dedicated his ministry to the extremely racially segregated South Side. Chicago is “classic” black America with its family history links to the Christian slave trade on the African west coast, U.S. slavery, segregation, and the almost herculean efforts that blacks see themselves exerting to overcome the odds against them. Here, black folk celebrate, worship in, and enjoy the cultural safety of other black people. Still, this black America remembers the stories of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment that the U.S. government carried out on black men’s bodies.
Wright emerged out of a specific lineage of black preaching. His father was a big name Baptist preacher in Philadelphia and he, too, was a son of a Baptist preacher. Thus Jeremiah Wright, Jr. symbolizes three generations of the prophetic wing of the black church, one where Christianity is empty rhetoric if not linked to social justice and occasional prophetic denunciation of the powerful. Similarly, Wright actualizes a form of black religious speech that combines the fullness of the body with the intellect. Indeed, black preaching is a verbal and bodily ritual of performance.
Wright and Obama—the preacher and the politician, race and multiculturalism—have different parental, geographic, historical, and personal experiences. Yet both agree on the Bible as being partial to the poor. Both agree on church function as organizing justice.
Wright is deeply connected to a segregated black community and the importance of its voice and its ability to obtain resources for living. From that particularity, he bridges into conversation and coalition with all of America. In contrast, Obama begins with a vision for all of America. From that perspective, blacks are simply one strand among many in a larger narrative about whites and blacks (as well as yellows, browns, and reds) being their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
The preacher’s prophetic vocation and the politician’s universal inclination could have held together in one church building. Race and multiculturalism were wedded in one Christian institution. But with the intense media scrutiny of Trinity, an experiment of these two differences unified in faith service to the poor could not remain in close proximity in a presidential election year. And so the politician resigned his membership so both he and the church would no longer be distracted. In the long term health of the nation, however, America needs both of these perspectives at the table of civic engagement.