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More On When Obama Met Jeremiah Wright

From David Mendell’s 2007 fawning biography, Obama, From Promise To Power, pp 75-77:

A SECOND MAN PLAYED A VITAL ROLE IN OBAMA’S CHICAGO experience—Reverend Wright. Obama noted the influential role that the church played in the lives of the African Americans he was organizing. “So I figured I better attend some services myself and see what it was all about,” he said. It was Wright’s church and his charismatic preaching that most closely spoke to Obama’s budding spiritual nature. In seeking a permanent American identity, Obama discovered that, in a religious land, his agnosticism relegated him to a place of isolation. “I came to realize that without a particular commitment to a particular community of faith,” he wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope, “I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways that she was ultimately alone.”

Wright was among the most liberal of African-American preachers—he could be all fire and no brimstone. When Obama knocked on Trinity’s door, Wright was in his mid-forties and in the midst of growing his Trinity congregation to its present membership of nearly eight thousand. Burly and light-skinned, Wright is the son of a Baptist minister in Philadelphia. His intellectual sermons sometimes more resemble leftwing political rants than religious preaching. Startling for a preacher, he can be both profane and provocative. Despite advancing a multicultural agenda, like Obama, Wright’s church is rooted in Afro-centrism. Wright himself often dons colorful African dashikis and is not shy about laying historical and modern-day blame on whites for much of the social and economic woes in the African-American community. His sermons frequently denounce Republican politics, and he has called people who voted for George W. Bush “stupid.” Trinity United is considered among some Chicago blacks to be the church of elites, attracting celebrities like the rapper Common and TV talk mogul Oprah Winfrey to its congregation.

In some ways, Obama and Wright seem a mismatch because of their distinctively different styles. But in other ways, they seem like a perfect fit—an attraction of opposites. In contrast to Obama’s cautious style, Wright is bombastic, rebellious and, in his own estimation, unafraid to speak truth to power. Wright earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sacred music from Howard University and initially pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago Divinity School before interrupting his studies to minister full-time. His intellectualism and black militancy put him at odds with some Baptist ministers around Chicago, with whom he often sparred publicly, and he finally accepted a position at Trinity. The church’s motto was “Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.” Wright unquestionably took that motto to heart.

Wright remains a maverick among Chicago’s vast assortment of black preachers. He will question Scripture when he feels it forsakes common sense; he is an ardent foe of mandatory school prayer; and he is a staunch advocate for homosexual rights, which is almost unheard of among African-American ministers. Gay and lesbian couples, with hands clasped, can be spotted in Trinity’s pews each Sunday. Even if some blacks consider Wright’s church serving only the bourgeois set, his ministry attracts a broad cross section of Chicago’s black community.

Obama first noticed the church because Wright had placed a “Free Africa” sign out front to protest continuing apartheid. The liberal, Columbia-educated Obama was attracted to Wright’s cerebral and inclusive nature, as opposed to the more socially conservative and less educated ministers around Chicago. Wright developed into a counselor and mentor to Obama as Obama sought to understand the power of Christianity in the lives of black Americans, and as he grappled with the complex vagaries of Chicago’s black political scene.

“Trying to hold a conversation with a guy like Barack, and him trying to hold a conversation with some ministers, it’s like you are dating someone and she wants to talk to you about Rosie and what she saw on Oprah, and that’s it,” Wright explained. “But here I was, able to stay with him lockstep as we moved from topic to topic. . . . He felt comfortable asking me questions that were postmodern, post-Enlightenment and that college-educated and graduate school–trained people wrestle with when it comes to the faith. We talked about race and politics. I was not threatened by those questions.”

Wright also played an assisting role in another part of Obama’s evolution—from a questioner of religion to a practicing Christian. Along his Senate campaign trail, Obama would never fail to carry his Christian Bible. He would place it right beside him, in the small compartment in the passenger side door of the SUV, so he could refer to it often. When I first questioned Obama about his religious faith and ever-present Bible in October 2004, he seemed just a bit hesitant to answer. He was also uncharacteristically short in his responses. Obama, without fail, would mention his church and his Christian faith when he was campaigning in black churches and more socially conservative downstate Illinois communities. But in speaking to a reporter, it seemed that he had something to say about religion and politics, although he had yet to turn that inclination into a coherent message. He told me that he referred to his Bible a “couple times a week.” “It’s a great book and contains a lot of wisdom,” he said simply. When I pried further, he said he was drawn to Christianity because its main tenet of altruism and selflessness coincided with his own philosophies. “Working with churches and with people of faith, I think, made me recognize that many of the impulses that I had carried with me and were propelling me forward were the same impulses that express themselves through the church,” he said.

But more than that, Trinity’s less doctrinal approach to the Bible intrigued and attracted Obama. “Faith to him is how he sees the human condition,” Wright said. “Faith to him is not . . . litmus test, mouth-spouting, quoting Scripture. It’s what you do with your life, how you live your life. That’s far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says women shouldn’t wear pants or if you drink, you’re going to hell. That’s just not who Barack is.” …

Well, there is no denying that Trinity’s approach to the Bible is “less doctrinal.”

But why should it have “intrigued and attracted Obama”?

This article was posted by Steve on Monday, March 17th, 2008. Comments are currently closed.

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