2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Irene Moore
Black Commentator.com

 

Did Obama's speech help him or hurt him?

In my opinion it helped him at the expense of throwing his pastor under the bus, feeding into the media's portrayal of Rev. Wright as a demagogue, and exonerating himself of any culpability of being associated with Wright that makes Obama look like the good guy and Wright the bad one.

Let me explain why...

If religion did not play such an important role in a presidential candidate's bid for the White House, this conversation would not be happening. But given the collapsing of church and state since Bush came into office, the lines of private and personal barely exist. And with the collapsing of these two spheres, how and where and why a presidential candidate worships or not, unfortunately, speaks to his or her electability - which brings us to my recent piece about Obama. (see * below for that text)

There is a particular strand of black theology that Rev. Wright preaches. Both Obama and Wright got caught up in a pernicious game of race-baiting instigated, no doubt, by the right-wing media. And the game has drawn both Obama and Rev. Wright in where neither of them wins. If one is perceived to have won it, it's done at the destruction and denigration and denouncement of the other.

Obama's speech on race was brilliant not only in his elocution of it, but also in the difficult topic he had to address. He spoke about race from a much wider lens than we hear in our everyday discourse. And he's one of the few people of color who gets it that white people, too, are pained by our country's legacy of racism. However, where he fell short in his speech is that he did it at the expense of feeding into the media's portrayal of Rev. Wright as a demagogue. And while he denounced Rev. Wright's statements, with attempts to contextualize their origins, he played into the race-baiting nonetheless, at the expense of exonerating himself of any culpability of being associated with Wright and that make Obama look like the good guy and Wright the bad one.

While it is true that Obama may have missed some of Wright's sermons, it is impossible for him to have missed them all. And even if he did, when he joined the church and was baptized and married in it, Obama attended classes that explained the church's mission, its theology, and its set black values.

Black Theology is a liberation theology in that it looks at black suffering from the lens of the Exodus narrative where Moses leads the Israelites out of Egyptian oppression. Black Theology also looks at the prophets in the Bible and their jeremiads about injustice. One jeremiad many of us know is the Amos text we heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. utter when he said, "Let justice roll down like a mighty stream." And with biblical prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, they all speak about God's wrath, God cursing or damning a people or a nation as we see in the Exodus narrative, where God cursed Egypt with several plagues. Wright's homilies follow the tradition of the biblical prophets that were woefully misunderstood. But I am not saying that all that is Black Theology is good. It's myopia around gender issues and LGBTQ civil rights is just some of the reasons why I am not a proponent of it, which is why my recent essay is below and why my book How the Black Church Endangers the African American LGBTQ Community will soon be out.

Rev. Wright is problematic on the above mentioned issues, which is why I lifted up the voices of two of his LGBTQ parishioners in this piece. However, in this media frenzy to discredit Obama's electability, Wright has been the sacrificial lamb for our country's needed public discourse on race while excusing Obama of his active involvement with Trinity, until he ran for office. And like any politician - black or white - they know in order to win the black Christian vote, you go to the black church.

In explaining his relation with Wright to the media, Obama described him as a crazed uncle we all have in our family. And in his address, Obama stated that he "can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother." However, I beg to differ. There is a distinct difference between the biological family you are born into and the church family with whom you choose to worship.

And so too is there a distinct difference between telling the truth to the American public and telling us a lie.

Where Obama got caught is that he didn't think his involvement with a supposedly Afrocentric church would weigh in so heavily on his electability. And because it does, he has moved forward at the expense of throwing Wright under the bus.

* If Obama Can Throw His Pastor Under the Bus, What Will He Do to Us?

When the religious narrative you tell about your life to the American public is revealed to be vastly different than the one you actually lived, you have more than a credibility problem - you have a dilemma, as Obama is finding out.

And the dilemma is not just that Obama’s religious narrative is fictitious, but so too is the media spin on his pastor.

While the moral high ground to address the public’s shock with Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s condemnations on America’s foreign and domestic polices appeared to be Obama’s address on race, Obama actually ran aground with many African American Christians by anchoring the public’s outrage and his fear of losing the presidential bid on the back of one of this nation’s most revered African American ministers.

“He’s used Jeremiah, and Trinity is his strongest base. He handled the media abysmally, and the uncle reference was demeaning. Many of us said we saw it coming,” a member from Trinity told me in anonymity to not have the press come after him.

Rev. Wright was the man who brought Obama to Christ, presided over his nuptials, baptized him and his daughters, and was the inspiration for his bestseller, “The Audacity of Hope.” And while Obama has now denounced Rev. Wrights’ incendiary remarks, after twenty years of hearing them, suspicion nonetheless still surfaces about his professed faith as a Christian. 

Although religion came to Obama late in life, and he was reared in a non-religious household, his religious convictions, - “he say?” - were formed during his 20s at Trinity, while a community organizer working with local churches on the South Side of Chicago.

As a central, powerful and revered institution within the African-American community, the Black Church captivated Obama’s attention. He says he came to understand "the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change.” However, how much Obama really covets the power of the Black Church for his own political aggrandizement, rather than for its religion, now raise questions in the minds of many black Christians, since his address.

While MSNBC talk-show host, Tucker Carlson, was the first to publicly suggest Obama's faith is "suddenly conspicuous," suggesting that Obama has only recently begun addressing his religious background as part of "a very calculated plan on the part of the Democratic Party to win" religious voters in the 2008 presidential race, the suspicion is now looming even larger.

 

If Obama, however, is indeed using religion to win votes, he unfortunately placed himself in a difficult quagmire – not only with LGBTQ and liberal voters, but also by still being a member of Trinity. Why? Because he worships in a conservative black church within a liberal denomination. And Trinity is provisionally opened to the idea of same sex marriage. 

In July 2005, the UCC General Synod overwhelmingly passed a Resolution of Marriage Equality. But in August 2005, Wright spoke against the Synod’s position, causing many LGBTQ parishioners to leave.

“Please tell me what is going on here? Why does it appear we are under attack? Maybe I am reacting, but this seems to be even from the folks we admire in the church that black same-gender loving issues are not important. We are still seen as gay and white,” stated a gay member of Trinity.

In the church’s magazine “The Trumpet” Rev. Wright’s article, “Maybe I Missed Something!”, shows how LGBTQ issues are not a priority in his present-day, prophetic social gospel, intended to ameliorate the social conditions of all God’s African-American children. 

“While our denomination grappled with how to address that human problem, the denomination also, at that Synod, voted to ordain a homosexual. Guess which item made the newspapers? Maybe I missed something!”

And in his closing tirades on the issues, Wright stated this: “Are 44 million Americans with no health care insurance less important than ‘gay marriage?’ Why aren’t Black Christians in an uproar about that? Maybe I am missing something!”

 

When the article came out in light of the United Church of Christ’s stance on ordaining and marrying LGBTQ people, it was disheartening for many to know that Pastor Wright broke rank with his liberal denomination to stand in solidarity with a more conservative Black Church position.

“Folks were very hurt by his remarks he made in the Trumpet article. I wanted to know where he really stood with us on same-gender loving issues. The chair of the same-gender family wrote him if the church will address black heterosexism and black homophobia. He said we have done that over the thirty years and that his sermons should speak for his support on these issues. In his articles he said he was not putting same-gender loving person's down. Just showing how society only appears to be focused on those issues and not the issues that impact Black issues. I reminded him I am a black female out lesbian. I do not choose to be one or the other which is all of my being,” stated a lesbian member of Trinity

I wonder now how much Obama views on gay civil rights are shaped by Trinity? Or, if not, does he use those Christian views to avoid giving us our full civil right?

Or perhaps Obama is playing us as much as he has played his pastor?!

So it is also not surprising when Obama appeared on CNN’s “Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer, Obama stood where his pastor does on the issue. 

“Well, I think that marriage has a religious connotation in this society, in our culture, that makes it very difficult to disentangle from the civil aspects of marriage. And as a consequence, it would be extraordinarily difficult and a distraction to try to build a consensus around marriage for gays and lesbians. What we can do is form civil union that provide all the civil rights that marriage entails to same-sex couples. And that is something that I have consistently been in favor of. And I think that the vast majority of Americans don’t want to see gay and lesbian couples discriminated against when it comes to hospital visitation and so on.”

Many African American Christians are now suspecting Obama of using the "race card" to win their votes, at the expense of pitting their interests against gays.

For example, when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama campaigned at the Salem Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side. It's the 22,000-member black mega-church of Rev. James Meeks, who has called homosexuality an evil sickness. Outside the hallowed walls of church,the Rev. James Meeks is State Senator James Meeks.

Obama knew to pander to his base.

When news first got out about Wright's Afrocentric theology and Sunday sermons that disparagingly speak ill of whites and Israel, Obama began immediately to distance himself. Yet these same sermons were not a problem for Obama when they were spiritually nurturing him into becoming a public figure. Now Obama will no longer continue to speak and write about the special relationship with his pastor, because it has run afoul of his ambitions.

In explaining his relations to the media about Wright, Obama described him as a crazed uncle we all have in our family. And in his address Obama stated that he “can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.” 

However, I beg to differ.

There is a distinct difference between the biological family you are born into and the church family you choose to worship with. 

And so too is there a distinct difference between telling the truth to the American public and telling us a lie.

If Obama can throw his pastor under the bus, what will he do to LGBTQ voters on his way to the White House?

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, the Rev. Irene Monroe is a religion columnist, theologian, and public speaker. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow. Reverend Monroe’s Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow 365 Days a Year - Meditations on Bible Prayers will be out in June, 2008. As an African American feminist theologian, she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Her website is irenemonroe.com. Click here to contact the Rev. Monroe.

 

 

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