Thursday, June 05, 2008

Obama and his Former Church

Steven Waldman of has an excellent post in today's Wall Street Journal about Obama's challenging relationship with Trinity United Church of Christ and its former pastor, Jeremiah Wright:

There’s a tremendous irony in all this for Sen. Obama. Mr. Wright scared voters in Kentucky, West Virginia and elsewhere into thinking Sen. Obama was a strident, anti-white radical who would misunderstand, or harm, white families. (In West Virginia, 51% of voters believed he shares the views of Mr. Wright.)

This misses the one fact about Barack Obama that is both stunningly obvious and yet still profoundly ignored: Sen. Obama is a black man raised by a white family. His African father was absent; he was reared by a white mom, white grandmother and white grandfather. When Sen. Obama looked across the breakfast table in the morning, he saw the same skin colors that the Clinton voters in Kentucky do.

Sen. Obama’s choice of church was tied up in his lifelong quest to balance the reality of his white family and his black skin. In “Dreams from My Father,” he writes, “Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle,” recalling his early journeys away from home. “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.”

This was not a binary choice between “acting white” or “acting black.” Each community he had a foot in had substrata, and for him, integrating the different communities became a crucial goal – almost as if to make himself whole he wanted an environment that integrated diverse personalities and ideologies.

Sen. Obama notes that Chicago’s black churches provided “an example of segregation’s hidden blessings, the way it forced the lawyer and the doctor to live and worship right next to the maid and the laborer. Like a great pumping heart, the church had circulated goods, information, values, and ideas back and forth and back again, between rich and poor, learned and unlearned, sinner and saved.”

He quietly opposed but deeply understood the views of the black nationalists in his community. “A steady attack on the white race, the constant recitation of black people’s brutal experience in this country, served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair…..It contradicted the morality my mother had taught me, a morality of subtle distinctions – between individuals of goodwill and those who wished me ill.”

Sen. Obama’s claims to the contrary not withstanding, he was quite aware of Mr. Wright’s appeal to, and encouragement of, this separationist view – he quotes a sermon in which Mr. Wright declares “white folks’ greed runs a world in need.” But Sen. Obama was less concerned with the substance of it than the preacher’s ability to bridge many communities. Describing his first encounter with Mr. Wright, he writes: “It was this capacious talent of his—this ability to hold together, if not reconcile, the conflicting strains of black experience—upon which Trinity’s success had ultimately been built.”

I suspect that part of Sen. Obama’s reluctance to separate from the views he clearly disagreed with was a simple cost-benefit calculation: the destructiveness of the ideology was outweighed by the value of Mr. Wright’s ability to pull together the “conflicting strains of black experience.”

In that sense, neither Obama-the-candidate nor his critics have fully articulated the real reason Sen. Obama stayed with the church as long as he did. It was not because he’s a secret Black Panther (he’s not), and if anything he gravitated to Trinity because of his own fears that he was too white. It’s also not because he was shocked – shocked! – to learn of the church’s radicalism (he wasn’t). It’s that Sen. Obama treasures unity above other values, and marveled at Trinity’s capacity to tie together disparate, often hostile groups into a single community.

What has changed is that Sen. Obama is now focused on a different, larger community. Whereas Mr. Wright was a unifying figure in one community, he and Trinity Church are powerfully divisive in the much larger community.

1 comment:

liberalchurchlady said...

Yes, I think this anaylsis hits the nail on the head.

It was a politically expedient move for Sen. Obama to "withdraw" from his church. But why then? He'd weathered the worst of that storm by the time he compromised his personal religious affiliation.

I hope President Obama doesn't compromise with difficult policy decisions that he knows to be correct in the name of political expediency.

In our recent past, among other things, we got into a war when our political leaders did the "expedient thing".

It was precisely Obama's refusal to leave his church that gave me some hope he wouldn't be someone who would compromise too much away to create change. I'm more nervous about this possibility this week than I was last week.

However, I still support the presumptive Democratic nominee.