The Common Good

Views of Obama's pastor reflect black U.S. tradition

Source: Reuters
Date: March 20, 2008

Many U.S. voters have been shocked by the sentiments expressed by the pastor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama but they should not be surprised, say faith leaders with experience of black American churches.

Anger at discrimination, real or perceived, and strong memories of racial injustice is a common thread running through black American discourse and is reflected in religious life, they said.

Obama denounced the comments of his pastor Jeremiah Wright and articulated a broad vision of race in America on Tuesday in a speech that aimed to quell a controversy that threatened to engulf his bid for the Democratic nomination for president.

Clips from sermons by Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, have been repeated on television and widely viewed on the Internet and show Wright's vehement denunciations of U.S. policy and history over race.

In one sermon he uses the phrase: "God damn America," anathema to many in an intensely patriotic nation. The impact of his words is magnified by his raised voice and the grainy quality of much of the video.

Obama, an Illinois senator, attended Wright's church for two decades. His association with the pastor poses a problem because it casts doubt on his judgment, raises questions about his patriotism and undermines his reputation for honesty, according to commentators.

It also strikes at one of his core themes, allowing voters to ask how Obama could be a candidate of racial healing and unity when for two decades he was deeply involved with a preacher whose views appear to contradict that message.

But frustration over race coupled with a desire to correct injustice fuels sermons in many black churches, said progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis, who is white, in an interview.

"There is a great deal of ... anger in the black community and in black churches and the elephant in the room here is that most white Americans would be very uncomfortable in most black churches on Sunday morning," said Wallis, who founded the Sojourners community and magazine.

PROPHETIC TRADITION

Obama would be the first black president if he wins the Democratic nomination and beats presumptive Republican nominee John McCain in the election in November to succeed President George W. Bush.

Obama had a white American mother and a black Kenyan father. It is one irony of the controversy over Wright that unity over race was one of the strongest elements of Obama's campaign, said Wallis, who said he was politically neutral.

"It would be the most tragic thing if the black leader most able to help America turn the page on race would be dragged down by a show of anger in the black community," Wallis said.

Wright spoke from a black church tradition spanning several denominations and also some mosques, which emphasizes a fight against injustice in preaching and draws inspiration from Old Testament prophets like Hosea, scholars and pastors said.

The Rev. Martin Luther King stood in that tradition and many of his speeches made people uncomfortable, they noted, though some of Wright's comments appeared to directly echo statements made by civil rights leader Malcolm X.

"What he is essentially doing is affirming a people who have historically been humiliated," said Aaron Parker, pastor of the Zion Hill Baptist Church, an African-American church in Atlanta.

One recent example of the tradition was a sermon by civil rights leader and preacher Joseph Lowery at the funeral of King's widow, Coretta Scott King, in 2006.

With Bush standing behind him, Lowery compared the president's pursuit of war in Iraq with what he said was an inadequate policy on race and poverty in the United States.

"We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we know that there are weapons misdirection right down here," Lowery said. He was later criticized for being disrespectful.

Estimates of how many black churches use this style of preaching vary but it might represent 25 percent, said Harry Jackson, pastor of the 3,000-member Hope Christian Church, a multiracial but mainly black church in Washington, D.C.

Many blacks would tolerate the views expressed by Wright even if they did not agree with them, said Jackson, co-author of a book about personal faith and public policy.

But many black Christians who had chosen churches that eschewed the kind of language used by Wright would be shocked that Obama had stayed in the church so long and would question his judgment, said Jackson, who is neutral in the election.

"A lot of people are going to feel misled. It's problematic and it's not easy to explain. It looks very hypocritical," he said.

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