Friday, April 11, 2008

Musings on Rev Wright and Religion

Now that the Reverend Wright controversy has cooled for the time being it is good time to look behind the curtain and see what the could be going on back there. For twenty years Barack Obama has been a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ. He got “saved” there, married there and had his daughters baptized there. Not having the resources or the time to drill down in to Afrocentric Liberation Theology, we are forced to leave the Christology and Theology to better more informed people. To talk sensibly about such things one would best have a DD or at least a master’s thesis stuffed in their back pocket.


What most people have is some short You Tube clips and maybe a DVD that they purchased from the website of Trinity UCC. They might have perused the website or not. There only contact might have been a 30 second or shorter sound bite of the good Reverend spouting off in some way or other. It is next to impossible to get the feel of a church from an 8 second sound bite. The most Holy Pope in Rome can tell you how badly things can go when a small part of a homily gets taken out of context.
Benedict XVI got into big, big trouble when he quoted a very dead Byzantine emperor’s thoughts on all things Muslim. The Pope was offering a very dry academic lecture on some obscure point of Catholic dogma when in came the quote and out went all reason. Benedict was forced to do penance by some very strict but fair Mullahs and almost all was forgiven until our not so good German put his slippered foot in his mouth again.

It is thus no surprise then that Reverend Wright also got into trouble when his particular notions of Christology met with the unwashed masses. The very notion of a black church is an invitation to misunderstanding. Let’s deal with the real world; black churches are the accident of history and society. If Americans had actually been brothers in Christ, doing unto others etc. the whole history of the “Middle Passage” would never have happened. There would be no such thing as the “Black Church” only Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa. What happened was that Mammon trumped Christ for the umpteenth time in human history. Slavery made money for everyone up and down the line. Only the Africans failed to gain.

To justify turning their fellow humans into property Americans North and South fell back on their Christianizing duty. Odd thing was that once the slaves did become Christians they did not gain their freedom. The new religion did offer solace though. Not only was there Christ teachings about the meek inheriting the earth, there was also the story of Exodus to look forward to give comfort. Africans took the Christian message of salvation and adapted it to their needs and their situation.
Even after liberation, the church was still central to black life. Out of habit and out of necessity the black church became the organizing frame for the community. Jim Crow only strengthened this. Unlike the main-line churches, the black church had to be all things to all people. The black church had to take on much of the social-service functions abandoned by larger (white) society. Not until the New Deal and the Great Society did the larger nation even attempt to take on the social responsibilities of the ghetto. Blacks were for the most part left to provide their own social uplift via the church.

Flash forward to Barack Obama’s contact with a small part of the black church. We have the story from his own hand. In the pages of “The Audacity of Hope” we are introduced into Barack’s coming to Jesus moment. It is no great revelation (pun intended) that The Audacity of Hope is much of a political document as it is autobiography. Where the political pandering leaves off in the book and where true self-revelation begins is anyone’s guess.

Most of us can’t even figure out the true depths of our own soul, never mind gauge someone else. Spirituality is ultimately a very personal endeavor. Even in Christianity the ways of finding God are varied and multiform. What is the common thread between a desert-dwelling hermit of the Eastern Orthodox tradition silently praying and fasting in his small cell and a Pentecostal shouting and whooping with thousands of others in a huge urban church? What do Benedictines share with those who speak in tongues? We have the devoutly poor Franciscan Friars and the million dollar televangelists praying to the same itinerant Rabbi from Galilee. Christianity is so broad and wide it can easily fit in just about anyone with the need to identify their selves as such. Barack identifies as Christian, he has absorbed at least the outer trappings of the black Church, as for his real beliefs- that is for him alone to truly know.

We are much better off looking at the fruits of Barack’s faith then trying to gauge his inner life. He is married, has two children and a long record of public service. His politics are anti-ideological, centrist, and compromising. Barack’s politics are the very antithesis of Wrights fire-breathing passions. His Church is vehemently pro-Palestinian, his Politics are dead-centrist, accepted wisdom Pro-Israeli. His church is reaches out to LGTBs, His Politics, at least in South Carolina were gay-bashing. The only bomb-throwing that Obama has done is from the free-throw line. Simply stated Obama has compartmentalized his church life from his every day life. This is not at all unusual for a great majority of Americans. The big difference is the quantity and quality of the disconnect, not its existence.

Once upon a time these musing on Religion were less important. We once had a great civic religion that was vaguely monotheistic and rather flabby. Mostly it was part-and-parcel with our anti-Communism. The foreign policy elites were able to flip the isolationist to the side of the good fight by raising the bogyman of “Godless” Communism. God and Patriotism became conflated in way not seen since the civil war.

There was a counter strike in the heyday of the sixties. The Warren Court reconfigured the church-state divide. In doing so, they enraged Southerners already hopping mad over the attempt to dismantle Jim Crow. The result was the Regan Revolution and the rise of right-wing evangelists. The Bible beaters took over the Republican Party.

Democrats even now are desperately trying to prove they too had the old time religion. It is a pointless endeavor. The Republicans will always out-God Democrats, it is no contest. Democrats have to give reemphasis on the New Deal religion, and remind the voters of “moral values” of being our brother’s keeper. Democrats need to point out that personal choice is just that, personal. Less talk about freedom OF religion is needed; more talk is needed about freedom FROM religion.

Neither Barack nor Hillary is going to be very good on this point. Both are in their own ways very religious people. Both are very Christian. Both are going to pander in their own ways to “values voters.” Barack has to prove he is not a crypto-Muslim; he has to shout his love of the baby Jesus to the hill. Hillary has also got to make some noises here too; she has to prove she is in good with God too. This is not an easy thing to do for a non-demonstrative Methodist gal to do. We would be on the whole better off though if we stopped looking at personal belief and concentrated on public action. Of course the Republicans won’t stand for such a shift. Without the robe of Jesus to cover them, the Republicans are quite naked.
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