In May, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright appeared resurrected from the ashes of the 2008 campaign. There was an uproar after The New York Times broke the story that a super PAC had proposed commercials associating President Obama with controversial comments made by his former pastor. Mitt Romney asked for the ads not to run, Karl Rove pronounced the plan stupid, and the advertising campaign’s funder, Joe Ricketts, publicly rejected the plan. The proposed ads were pulled (for now) from the air. And yet, the themes of the ads will not disappear; they have remained a staple of conservative talk radio and television nearly every day since the previous election, and millions of voters remain convinced that the president is really not an “American.” Moreover, the term “black liberation theology” gets put in “scare quotes” in articles (as in the aforementioned Times piece). Jeremiah Wright himself may not become the bogeyman star of this election, but the issues raised by his legacy will remain very much with us.
During the 2008 campaign, religion and race made Barack Obama a candidate unlike any previous one. His name was more Islamic than Christian; his phenotype was darker than prior presidents; and his pastor in Chicago sparked a firestorm with the words “God damn America,” which almost cost Obama the nomination. The media bombshell exploded in March at the height of the primary elections. Obama’s minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became a household name, as snippets from his sermons went viral, and talk-show hosts ranging all over the political spectrum tried to interpret throughout the twenty-four-hour news cycle what Wright had said. Endlessly replayed, Wright could be heard from his pulpit shouting: “God damn America” for treating Native Americans and black Americans so badly; “God damn America” for its unrighteous “war on terror” and its torturing ways; and “God damn America” for supporting Israel and its mistreatment of Palestinians. Wright justified his political positions by turning to the Bible and invoking ideas from liberation theology: “Jesus was a poor black man,” Wright intoned, “who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich white people.”
For Wright’s large and nearly all-black congregation in Chicago, there was nothing outlandish about his politics or theology. Those familiar with the tradition of black religious anger, including nineteenth-century classics such as David Walker’s Appeal and Henry McNeal Turner’s “God Is a Negro,” and twentieth-century indictments such as Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, found little of surprise in the sermon. As a military veteran and a longtime pastor of a church in a historically white denomination, Wright’s career hardly seemed radical.
For many other Americans, though, his words were bewildering and infuriating. They were not used to hearing the words “God,” “damn,” and “America” strung together from a United Church of Christ pastor or a former Marine like Wright. The claim that Jesus was black and that his killers were white was, to them, downright bizarre. Newspaper reporters and television stations cast about for the genesis of such ideas.
In this maelstrom, black liberation theology rose from its place in academic circles and particular black communities to become a nationwide political discussion. News media outlets hummed with commentary. One blogger bristled that Wright was a “race-monger” who had appointed himself “campaign manager for Jesus.” An online newspaper featured Bishop E. W. Jackson, a black pastor in Virginia, for his opposition to Wright. Jackson believed Wright was “deeply and profoundly spiritually confused” and that his black liberation theology was “heretical.” Even outspoken liberals had a difficult time explaining the substance of Wright’s message. Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central‘s nightly comedy spoof The Daily Show, who often references his own Judaism, turned to therapeutic eating. As he listened to the media spectacle of Wright’s wrongs, Stewart had no words. He could only grab a tub of ice cream and let the sugary sweetness dull the pain.
There was also the now familiar, if historically inaccurate, story of the origins of liberation theology, that it was birthed in the 1960s, an understanding which remains a standard staple of commentary on the subject. This myth re-emerged last month when American media outlets set out to once again explain the preaching of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Through his words, reporters found the theological works of James Cone, the most famous writer of the 1960s and 1970s to tie Jesus to African American experiences.
This origins myth, which was in part generated by Cone and his colleagues, placed too much of a burden on his work. It also hid much. The myth obscured the centuries-long struggle of marginalized peoples to present Jesus beyond whiteness; it separated black theology from Native American and Mexican American encounters with Christ; it diminished the important role black women, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and white authors, writers, and artists played in undermining assumptions of Christ’s whiteness. Perhaps most importantly, it could not account for nearly two hundred years of black jeremiads decrying the very same endemic problems with race in America that Wright’s addresses highlighted. From black newspapers and journals of the nineteenth century, to Harlem Renaissance poets of the 1920s, to folk artists and “race historians” of the first half of the twentieth century, a deep-rooted critique of white America’s complicity with sin has run through black religious discourse.
But also running through this history is a deep legacy of optimism that America could live up to the better angels of its nature. This is the point Obama made in response to Wright: that America could change, and has changed. It was also why Wright’s most replayed sermons could come across as an anachronism of the 1960s.
Still, it was not an easy decision for Obama to distance himself from his former minister. The church was a place of great meaning for Obama, as he had noted in his book The Audacity of Hope, the title of which was taken from one of Wright’s sermons. In his memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote about the stories he heard in Wright’s church, that were the product of the blood, sweat, and tears of the African American experience. Trinity Church of Christ “seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.” But when Wright damned the United States or denounced whites as villains, Obama dissented. In his landmark speech on race, Obama said Wright’s comments “were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity.”
So far, the script is similar in 2012, but playing out differently. Since plans for the commercials replaying Wright’s scary sermon and connecting Obama to that tradition of radicalism fell flat, it appears as though Wright will be a taboo topic for mainstream campaign tactics. Still, separated from Wright himself, the broader theme of “liberation theology” is bound to be an issue, as are insinuations about Obama’s patriotism and Americanism. For those suspicious of Obama’s religious background, it likely will not matter that the president has developed a cadre of socially conservative religious advisors, some of whom already have expressed “disappointment” with Obama’s newly evolved position on gay marriage. The meme that Obama is somehow not really an American, that he is a “socialist,” and that he seeks to grow government and restrain liberty, all resonate powerfully with conservative religious distrust of liberal theology and politics. And Obama’s past religious influences clearly included those steeped in an African American history of liberation. Through that backdoor entry, figures such as Wright seem bound to come back again.
Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama articulated two major themes of the black American religious experience—the righteous jeremiad and the gospel of hope. Citing the long history of racial oppression in this country, Wright concluded that God would damn America. But Obama reached a different conclusion. He offered hope that America would live up to its promise of equal opportunity and equality. In his inaugural address in January of 2009, he told the nation that because of their experience during slavery and segregation, black Americans were positioned to help others understand that the “old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
Even if the Wright ads will not be reprised, that’s still an audacious hope. At this difficult moment, poised between the promise of his 2008 campaign and the reality of economic turmoil and persistently high unemployment rates, Obama finds himself in a position familiar in the history of black Christianity. Perhaps most ironically, the true descendants of the tradition of black liberation theology, notably Cornel West, have become some of the president’s harshest critics, even as conservative pundits continue connecting Obama to the “un-American” and “socialist” Left. It remains to be seen whether out of the mountain of despair may arise a stone of hope, or whether that is simply beyond the capacity of a hopelessly divided political system—and a religious world similarly divided along ideological lines.
Paul Harvey is Professor of History and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado. Edward J. Blum is Professor of History at San Diego State University. They are the co-authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.