The Church of Obama
How He Recast the Language of Black Liberation Theology into a Winning Creed for Middle-of-the-Road White Voters
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At the University of Chicago Law School, famous for its faculty of conservative jurists, like Antonin Scalia, now a Supreme Court justice, Barack Obama, senior lecturer in constitutional law, is still listed as being on leave of absence. Six miles from the university, down Interstate 84, on Chicago's far south side, in the nondescript, low-rent, mostly low-rise neighborhood of Brainerd, is the Trinity United Church of Christ, which Obama attends and where his pastor, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., apostle of black liberation theology, delivers magnificently cranky sermons on how the "African diaspora" struggles under the yoke of the "white supremacists" who run the "American empire." Obama's membership of both institutions, the radical black church and the conservative law school, is a measure of the chasm that this latest candidate of hopes and dreams, uplift and national reconciliation, is trying to span. It's also a measure of his political and intellectual agility that the senior lecturer in law has managed to recast the language of black liberation theology into an acceptable—even, conceivably, a winning—creed for middle-of-the road white voters.
Obama is cagey, in a lawyerly way, about the supernatural claims of religion. Recounting a conversation about death that he had with one of his two young daughters, he wrote, "I wondered whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn't sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang." So I think we can take it that he doesn't believe—or at least doesn't exactly believe—in the afterlife or the creation. His conversion to Pastor Wright's brand of Christianity was "a choice and not an epiphany," born of his admiration for "communities of faith" and the shape and purpose they give to the lives of their congregants. "Americans want a narrative arc to their lives. They are looking to relieve a chronic loneliness," along with the reassurance that "they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness." As for himself, and his enlistment at Trinity United, "Without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone." It's typical of Obama that such a cautiously footnoted profession of faith rings sympathetically to both the atheist and the true believer.
To become a virtual congregant at Trinity United (via www.tucc.org) is to enter a sleight-of-hand world of metaphor, in which the manifold trials of the Children of Israel at the hands of emperors and kings are transformed by Jeremiah Wright into the self-same sufferings of African Americans today. As Obama, describing his own moment of conversion in Wright's church, when, as a community organizer in Chicago, he was still a virtual stranger to black culture, put it: "At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories of survival, and freedom, and hope—became our story, my story." (Whatever private comfort Obama found in his membership of the church, it helped to give him both credibility and a political base inside the black community, which even now harbors the suspicion that he is "too white.")
In a Christmas sermon on the theme of "Good News in Bad Times," the Reverend Wright marvelously fuses Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar Augustus, and George W. Bush into a single being, and the American occupation of Iraq, the Babylonian occupation of Jerusalem, and the Roman occupation of Galilee into one event. Under a universal tyranny of "corporate greed and rampant racism," AIDS flourishes ("it runs through our community like castor oil"), so do gang-bangs, murders, injustices of every kind. Slavery is here and now, and fifth columnists, traitors to their own kind, are all about us—like the black Republican Alan Keyes and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. On the issue of affirmative action, recently visited by the court, "Uncle Remus—I mean Justice Thomas—nodded his Babylonian head in agreement before pulling off his Babylonian robe and going back home to climb into bed beside his Babylonian wife." (Thomas's wife is white.) Bad times. "But right now ain't always," and "Great joy is coming in the morning." Wright abruptly shifts gear, from a giddy tour of 2,500 years of oppression and tribulation, to the good news, bringing his congregation to near-rapture as he launches on a rapid-fire, high-decibel riff on the salvation to come:
The good news that's coming is for all people! Not white people—all people. Not black people—all people. Not rich people—all people. Not poor people—all people. I know you'll hate this... not straight people—all people! Not gay people—all people. Not American people—all people. ...God's good news isn't just for Americans, it's for all people. Say "all people"! Jesus came for Iraqis and Afghanis. Jesus was sent for Iranians and Ukrainians. All people! Jesus is God's gift to the brothers in jail and the sisters in jeopardy. All people! The Lord left his royal courts on high to come for all those that you love, yes, but he also came for all those folk that you can't stand. All people!
It's a piece of rhetorical wizardry, this conjuring of hope from the grounds of despair, the oldest trick in the preacher's book, but Wright carries it off with exhilarating command, and one sees immediately how much Obama has learned from him.
The title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope is an explicit salute to a sermon by Wright called "The Audacity to Hope," and his speeches are peppered with Wrightisms, like his repeated claim that "There are more young black men in prison than there are in college," but his debt to the preacher goes much deeper. While Wright works his magic on enormous congregations, with the basic message of liberation theology, that we are everywhere in chains, but assured of deliverance by the living Christ, Obama, when on form, can entrance largely white audiences with the same essential story, told in secular terms and stripped of its references to specifically black experience. When Wright says "white racists," Obama says "corporate lobbyists"; when Wright speaks of blacks, Obama says "hard-working Americans," or "Americans without health care"; when Wright talks in folksy Ebonics, of "hos" and "mojo," Obama talks in refined Ivy League. But the essential design of the piece follows the same pattern as a Wright sermon, in its nicely timed transition from present injustice and oppression to the great joy coming in the morning.
The speech that brought Obama into the national limelight, his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, is a fascinating exercise in translation, in which he tailors the rhetoric of Trinity United to fit the needs of America at large. First, the bad times: the Constitution abused, the nation despised around the world, joblessness, homelessness, crippling medical bills, a failing education system, veterans returning home with missing limbs, young people sunk in "violence and despair." Then, the good news: "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America—there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America—there's the United States of America...." The voice of Jeremiah Wright haunts both the sentiment and the metrical phrasing of the speech as Obama comes to a climax with his unveiling of "the politics of hope":
I'm not talking about blind optimism here... I'm talking about something more substantial... The hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores... The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope! In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.
God gets the obligatory mention, and Obama smuggles in a near quotation from Hebrews 11:1, but the true divinity here is America itself, a mystical entity that holds out the same promise of miraculous liberation as Jesus does in Wright's sermon.
That address, received with rapt applause at the convention, remains the template for Obama's grand set pieces on the stump, where his adaptation of "Good News in Bad Times" continues to play to packed houses. When he has the stage to himself, and turns his audience into a congregation, he can be an inspiring preacher, but he shrinks when lined up alongside his fellow candidates in televised debates, where he's often looked more like an embattled PhD student defending his thesis in an oral exam. He's far better taking questions in town meetings, where he listens gravely, thinks out loud, and comes up with answers that are at once complex and lucid, sometimes a shade too professorial, but always seemingly unrehearsed, and lit with occasional shafts of irony.
Barack Obama's transparent intellect, his grasp of legislative detail, the fine points of his health-care plan as against Hillary Clinton's, or his views on early childhood education, are not what draw the big crowds to his events (and if crowds were votes, he'd win the nomination in a landslide). Rather, it's the promise of the "narrative arc" that Obama credited churches with bringing to the lives of American blacks. People want The Sermon, not Obama's well-turned thoughts on foreign or economic policy. What the crowds crave from this scrupulous agnostic is his proven capacity to deliver the ecstatic consolation of old-time religion—a vision of America that transcends differences of race, class, and party, and restores harmony to a land riven under the oppressive rule of a government alien to its founding principles.
Watching the tail ends of these events on C-SPAN, one often sees people drifting away with boredom and disappointment on their faces: They came for the evangelist, and got the competent politician. It's a problem for his campaign that there are several Obamas now running. There's the charismatic preacher, loved by all (or nearly all). There's Obama the adroit and well-briefed policy wonk. There's the lean, black-suited, somewhat aloof figure, so engrossed in his reflections that he seems to be talking as much to himself as to his audience, a moody Hamlet brooding on the state of Denmark. There's also the man who can look far younger than his age (he's 46), like a boy with sticking-out ears, the Obama whom Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, labeled "the child prodigy." For this last Obama, one suffers—especially in debates—as one suffers for one's own offspring on the night of the school play, desperately crossing one's fingers that she won't screw up in her star part. Sometimes Obama bombs.
You never know which of these personae will be on show at any one event, which is probably why Michelle Obama, now barnstorming the country for her husband, has rather over-egged the pudding in her attempt to ground him in everyday domestic reality. From Michelle, we've learned that Obama snores, has "stinky" morning breath, is incapable of returning the butter to the fridge, and is "just a man"—an assurance hardly required of any other candidate, but necessary in Obama's case because the line between demigods and demagogues in American politics is dangerously fine, and Obama, on a religiose roll, can seem, like snake oil, more than a little too good to be true.
What seems entirely genuine in his candidacy came out unexpectedly in a recent televised debate, when the moderator asked Obama why, since he claimed to represent "change," so many of his advisers were drawn from Bill Clinton's two administrations. Good question. Hillary Clinton immediately interjected, "Oh, I want to hear that!" and gave vent to her forced jackal laugh, which was echoing in the rafters of the hall when Obama replied, "Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well." The audience laughter that met this return of service nearly drowned Obama's next remark, which went unreported, but was, "I want to gather up talent from everywhere."
The point where Obama's lofty secular theology and his skills as a practical politician meet and merge is in the likely face of an Obama administration. If Hillary Clinton were to win both the nomination and the general election, it's depressingly probable that her cabinet would look a lot like Margaret Thatcher's team of sworn loyalists, purged of dissenting "wets." Were Obama to become president, one could fairly look forward to the third branch of government becoming more ecumenical than it's been in living memory, an administration of all the talents, drawn from the ranks of political opponents as well as party allies. Jeremiah Wright says that Jesus comes for the folk you love, yes, and the folk you can't stand. Obama, in 2004, put the same thought another way:
The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.
In Obama's sacralized version of the "United States of America," folk sit down with folk they thought they couldn't stand, whether Republicans with Democrats or Americans with Iranians and Syrians. He's managed to articulate this so persuasively that poll after poll shows his support mounting among registered Republicans (the few Republicans I know personally have rejected their own candidates in favor of Obama), despite the fact that all his declared policies—like those he championed, to impressive effect, in the Illinois State Senate—are far to the left of those of the present Republican party. In a speech in Iowa on December 27, he announced that he was out to "heal a nation and repair the world." It says a lot about the grievously damaged state of America now that even lifelong Republicans hunger to take Obama—on his good days—seriously.