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The Fuss Over Obama’s Church

Wednesday, 4 April 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Perhaps you heard the fuss? For the record, making Jeremiah Wright and the community of persons he [and his pastoral staff] pastors is absurd! There’s no need for that. In fact, there’s no need in stupid journalism [i.e. Eric the journalist] who is comparing this community of struggling and excited faithful persons to that of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. So, this community [a United Church of Christ] welcomes the black experience and privileges the black experience. Recalling the history of colonialism and the hegemony of whiteness that Christianity embodies and furthermore practices, we need more churches and safe places that invites a different experience in terms of color and culture! 

Perhaps you’ve heard about his investments. His unpaid parking tickets. His struggle to quit smoking.

No doubt about it—Illinois U-S Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has him under the microscope.

One part of Obama’s life under high magnification is his Chicago church.

Locally the church is considered mainstream, but recently it’s been called “cultish,” “separatist”—it’s even been compared to the Branch Davidians.

Chicago Public Radio’s Ben Calhoun reports on what’s really going on here.

* * *

Senator Barack Obama’s long been open about his religious faith.

The title of his second book came from a sermon his pastor gave.

He’s been one of several Democrats saying religious issues should not be claimed just by Republicans and the political right.

Obama’s made his religious faith part of his image.

Obama: The book of Micah, Chapter 6, Verse 8 it is written, what doeth the lord require of thee?/They’re both men of God/All praise and honor to God for bringing us together here today

Obama joined Trinity United Church of Christ in his 20’s—a self-described spiritual awakening.

Trinity’s an 8-thousand member congregation on Chicago’s south-side—with a mega-church style building on 95th street.

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright is the pastor, and Obama calls Wright his spiritual mentor.

In the past, religious faith has been an asset for Obama.

But under the sometimes-thorough, sometimes-cantankerous media attention of the presidential race, things have gotten complicated.

HANNITY: So as the election season kicks into high gear,

The story really got going last month.

Hannity and Colmes, the conservative-cop, liberal-cop talk show on Fox News picked up the story on February 28th.

The topic was Jeremiah Wright and Trinity Church…

HANNITY: …that’s the one Senator Obama calls home…

…and the guest was conservative columnist Erik Rush.

About a week earlier, Rush wrote a column criticizing the ideas of black-empowerment that the church fuses with Christianity.

Rush took the church’s stated values… removed the word “black” and inserted “white.”

So, in his column, “black community” read as “white community.”

RUSH: Suddenly I was looking at this really scary doctrine.

Host Sean Hannity started the show by doing the same thing… and then he and Rush went on to characterize Trinity United.

HANNITY: Afro-centric

They used a wide range of terms.

HANNITY: Separatist and in some cases even drawing comparisons to a cult.

Rush’s take was the most sensational.

RUSH: Do they consider themselves Americans? Do they consider themselves Christians? Are they worshiping Christ, are they worshiping African things black?

Rush said he had never been to Trinity—that he wrote his column by looking at the church’s webpage.

Then he referred to the Christian church as a coven.

The next day, the story continued on Hannity and Colmes.

HANNITY: Joining us now, for a response to these claims, from Trinity United is the Reverend, Doctor Jeremiah Wright.

Wright argued the church’s ideology was being taken out of context…

But the show offered little resolution, especially for people who can only listen to one person at a time.


The controversy continued to spiral.

About a week later, the New York Times ran a story about how Wright was cut from Obama’s February presidential campaign announcement.

The campaign claimed it was trying to protect the church.

But the Times reported that Obama told Wright it was because the campaign now saw the church as a liability.

The paper repeated the labels other media had applied.

But the subtext of the article was that Obama had strained his relationship with his pastor.

In the weeks since then, the campaign, Trinity, and Wright have clamped down on communication with the media.

The only new response came in a statement Wright recorded for his congregation.

WRIGHT: Finally, most importantly, I need to say this to you.

Wright was out of town the weekend after the New York Times story ran.

So he recorded his version of the facts for the Sunday worship services.

WRIGHT: I got duped. I got duped, that’s my mistake. I got tricked by a lying reporter from the New York Times.

Wright said his interview with the Times was about his long-standing relationship with Obama and Obama’s deep appreciation for religious faith.

WRIGHT: He’s a man of principal, he’s a husband, he’s a father, he’s a Christian.

A small part of the Times interview, Wright says ten minutes, was about his getting cut from Obama’s campaign announcement.

WRIGHT: Guess what the sister girlfriend did. She took the ten minutes. Threw the 2 hour and ten minutes down the toilet and made a New York Times editorial on Barack disinviting his pastor. The press is not to be trusted. The press will look you right in the face, tell you a lie and then print what they want to. She left off the whole piece about us talking for an hour and ten minutes and his saying yes I made a mistake, I should not have listened to the bad advice I was given.

Wright insists his relationship with Obama hasn’t buckled.

WRIGHT: Ain’t no problem with us.

But even if there’s no problem, the door’s been opened to questions about Obama’s relationship with Wright, about Wright’s politics, and Trinity’s ideology.

HARRIS LACEWELL: The idea of it being radical or separatist is just bizarre.

Melissa Harris Lacewell’s a professor of politics and African American Studies at Princeton.

She’s followed Obama career and she was also a regular at Trinity for years.

Harris Lacewell says for a black Christian church, Trinity is completely mainstream.

HARRIS LACEWELL: You know people sort of driving in to 95th Street in their Lexus and Volvo, and then driving out again… really not radical folks. People who own three and four bedroom homes with a half acre of yard around it. Hardly the sort of thing that leads to armed insurrection.

She says the church might be more politically active than other churches.

HARRIS LACEWELL: But in a very mainstream way—through things like voting, and opening stores and restaurants—all pretty normative middle class values.

But Harris Lacewell says the way this whole story has unfolded in the media isn’t just about a church, or an ideology, or even just Obama.

She says it’s about fundamental gaps in American life.

HARRIS LACEWELL: What has remained highly segregated for the majority of Americans has been our worship experiences.

She says black Christianity has been challenged by different questions than white Christianity.

HARRIS LACEWELL: How can we explain Jim Crow? How can we explain lynching?

And because of all this, Harris Lacewell says black and white religious traditions have evolved differently.

She says in the coverage of Obama and his church what we’re seeing are those religious traditions colliding.

Harris Lacewell says, unfortunately, the tendency is for bigger issues like that to get left out because they’re messier.

HARRIS LACEWELL: Democracy is not meant to be polite. It’s meant to be hard. And I think that these sets of narrow ways that we continue to talk about race and religion—and our desire not to talk about them and sort of muff them down and shove them in the corner and say they’re not polite—they really speak to a kind of illness, or lack of health and robustness of our democracy. We’ve got to be able to have the conversations. We can’t be afraid of them.

Harris Lacewell says that means conversations about how much white America and black America understand each other and the differences between white and black Christianity.

About how those divisions can shape our politics.

She says that’s what’s really at stake here—and those are the conversations worth having.

I’m Ben Calhoun – Chicago Public Radio

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