Obama's Pastor and the Traditional Religious Left

Apologists for Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright have tried to portray him as a traditional voice for the black church in America. But the Chicago minister, who belongs to the nearly all white United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination, is far more recognizably the voice of the traditional white Religious Left than he is for the historically more conservative black church.

Wright's calls for America's damnation and his suggestion that our country deserved 9-11 are fairly traditional fare within the Religious Left, especially among the mostly white elites of his 1.1 million member denomination. His liberal stance on homosexuality, which is conventional within the UCC, is also anathema to historically black churches. Wright's searing critiques of American foreign policy are far more common to the nearly all white Mainline Protestant denominations, of which the UCC is the furthest left, than to the historically black denominations. Not surprisingly, the UCC's officers have rushed to defend Rev. Wright.

"Many of us would prefer to avoid the stark and startling language Pastor Wright used in these clips," acknowledged UCC President John Thomas in a special March 17 statement. "But what was his real crime? He is condemned for using a mild 'obscenity' in reference to the United States. This week we mark the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, a war conceived in deception and prosecuted in foolish arrogance. Nearly four thousand cherished Americans have been killed, countless more wounded, and tens of thousands of Iraqis slaughtered. Where is the real obscenity here?"

According to Thomas, "Pastor Wright's judgment may be starker and more sweeping than many of us are prepared to accept. But is the soul of our nation served any better by the polite prayers and gentle admonitions that have gone without a real hearing for these five years while the dying and destruction continues?" In typical fashion for UCC officials, Thomas rambled on about the supposedly widening "gap between the obscenely wealthy and the obscenely poor," neighbors "relegated to minimal health care," and "bailouts" for "unscrupulous lenders." Thomas wondered: "Is Pastor Wright to be ridiculed and condemned for refusing to play the court prophet, blessing land and sovereign while pledging allegiance to our preoccupation with wealth and our fascination with weapons?"

Evidently not content with his one statement, Thomas also issued another salvo against Wright's critics through a March 14 UCC news release. "Trinity United Church of Christ is a great gift to our wider church family and to its own community in Chicago," Thomas gushed. "At a time when it is being subjected to caricature and attack in the media, it is critical that all of us express our gratitude and support to this remarkable congregation, to Jeremiah A. Wright for his leadership over 36 years, and to Pastor Otis Moss III, as he assumes leadership at Trinity."

Thomas complained through his denominational news service that he was distressed by media reports that "present such a caricature of a congregation that been such a great blessing." Naturally, the UCC president mostly declined to comment directly on Wright's more inflammatory declarations. Instead, he vaguely complained about the attackers.

"These attacks, many of them motivated by their own partisan agenda, cannot go unchallenged," Thomas insisted. "It's time for all of us to say 'No' to these attacks and to declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends."

Thomas visited Wright's 6,000 member congregation as recently on March 2 and reported having been "profoundly impressed" by it all. "While the worship is always inspiring, the welcome extravagant and the preaching biblically based and prophetically challenging, I have been especially moved by the way Trinity ministers to its young people, nurturing them to claim their Christian faith, to celebrate their African-American heritage, and to pursue higher education to prepare themselves for leadership in church and society," Thomas enthused.

Such enthusiasm by Thomas is understandable, not only given Wright's far-left politics, but also his congregation's generosity towards their denomination. The UCC news service report boasted that Trinity Church, which is the UCC's largest congregation, has given $3.7 million to the denomination from 2003 to 2007. The shrinking and struggling UCC, which has lost nearly half its membership over the last 50 years, must be grateful towards Wright for his vitality amid the UCC's overall grim demographic prognosis.

Also praising Rev. Wright's ministry was the pastor of the UCC's second largest congregation, the Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel of the predominantly black 5,300-member Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Georgia. "There have been two major sins in the Black church that many Black churches will not address - homophobia is one and sexism is another," Samuel explained to the UCC news service, "And Jeremiah Wright has been one of the articulate, courageous voices that has not been afraid to address these critical issues. If he can do that and still maintain his close connectivity to the Black community, and stay grounded in the Black ethos, that's what has inspired me."

Likewise coming to Rev. Wright's defense was "Red Letter Christian" activist Diana Butler Bass on Jim Wallis Sojourners website. "As MSNBC, CNN, and FOX endlessly play the tape of Rev. Wright's 'radical' sermons today, I do not hear the words of a 'dangerous' preacher (at least any more dangerous than any preacher who takes the Gospel seriously!)," Bass opined. "No, I hear the long tradition that Jeremiah Wright has inherited from his ancestors. I hear prophetic critique. I hear Frederick Douglass. And, mostly, I hear the Gospel slant—I hear it from an angle that is not natural to me. It is good to hear that slant."

From her enlightened perspective, Bass concluded: "That is not, of course, comfortable for white people. Nor is it easily understood in sound bites. It does not easily fit in a contemporary political campaign. But it is a deep spiritual river in American faith and culture, a river that—as I had to learn—flows from the throne of God."

Does Wright's radicalized form of Christianity, dating back to his 1984 visit to Libyan madman dictator Muammar Qaddafi in the company of Nation of Islam honcho Louis Farrakhan, truly flow from the "throne of God," as Bass discerned? In typical Sojourners fashion, she tried to ascribe Wright's provocative views to the black church prophetic tradition. But that tradition inveighed against actual injustices, amid authentic human suffering, while remaining rooted in orthodox Christianity.

Wright's problematic causes are primarily the fads of the mostly white Religious Left, which likes to believe it speaks for oppressed people. But these elites more commonly speak from cushy endowed professorates and tall steeple pulpits, not from a genuine experience of solidarity with the suffering. Typical Religious Left elites actually only dabble in a faux radicalism that, at best, liberates nobody, when not actually apologizing for genuine tyrants. Rev. Wright is no Frederick Douglas, and his UCC defenders resemble even less the sturdy New England Puritans who first founded their movement.


Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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