Obama’s preacher

wright.jpg By Nick Li

Barack Obama’s religiosity has always been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it makes liberal atheists like me think that maybe he will be more electable to Americans who like their politicians to fear/love God and wear their Christianity on their sleeve. The Democrats have always been seen as "weak" on religion and since America is such a religious country, maybe an overtly religious Christian man who also adopts some of the speaking styles of a preacher and preaches a message of unity can help win some of the "red" states. On the other hand, it has always made me a little wary. Maybe this is just pandering or tactical or a political strategy to get elected; or maybe this is a canidate who really cares deeply about his faith. That would worry me except that Obama has been pretty explicit about his support for abortion, gays, and stem cells, the three issues that lie at the intersection of religion and politics in America. But recently the cable news outlets have been going crazy attacking Barack Obama’s preacher Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The reverend has indeed made some controversial comments. What follows is a sample I culled from the internet. On Natalee Holloway: "Black women are being raped daily in Africa. One white girl from Alabama gets drunk at a graduation trip to Aruba, goes off and gives it up while in a foreign country and that stays in the news for months." On 9/11: "White America got their wake-up call after 9-11. White America and the Western world came to realize people of color had not gone away, faded in the woodwork, or just disappeared as the Great White West kept on its merry way of ignoring black concerns." In another statement he referred to “America’s chickens are coming home to roost" though I cannot find the context for this statement. On Zionism as "white racism": "The Israelis have illegally occupied Palestinian territories for over 40 years now. Divestment has now hit the table again as a strategy to wake the business community and wake up Americans concerning the injustice and the racism under which the Palestinians have lived because of Zionism." On the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror: "I use his [Marvin Gaye’s] words today on the third Sunday of a New Year to keep before you the painful truth of who we are and where it is we are in this racist United States of America! What’s goin’ on??The reality, however, is that the entire war in Iraq and the larger "war on terror" have been based on lies, half-truths and distortions to serve the agenda of the United States imperialism. Where is the public outcry? Where is the outrage? What’s goin’ on?" On whether Black Americans should sing God Bless America: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people" On his connection with Farrakhan: When [Obama’s] enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli to visit Colonel Gadaffi with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell." On Hillary Cllinton: "[the US] is a country controlled by rich white men… Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a culture controlled by rich white men [the Romans, who were Italian/European/White]… Hillary never had to worry about being pulled over in her car… Hillary ain’t never been called a nigger" Part of one of his sermons can be found here. Another one of his controversial writings was the War in Iraq IQ test. This document comes from February 2003, a month before the invasion. It contains provocative questions like "Which country do you think poses the greatest threat to global peace: Iraq or the U.S.?" along with a mountian of evidence that, in fact, the answer is probably the latter (though the answer is left blank for the readers to decide). The scary thing is, I think I agree with almost everything the Reverend says in these, the "controversial" statements that have gotten so much mention in the media and been derided as "racist," "black separatist," and "hateful of America." Is it racist to state the obvious, that America is a country controlled by rich white people? That black people might be angry and resentful about their place in this country, and might blame the people who not only held them in slavery for hundreds of years, and then segregation, and then created a War on Drugs and prison industrial complex and proceeded to enact economic policies that worsened the distribution of income (in favor of aforementioned rich white people)? That Israel had, and continues to have, some affinity and parallels with the Apartheid regime in South Africa? That even if American actions abroad could never justify the atrocity of 9/11, they could in part explain it? I only wish we had made President Bush take this IQ test back in February 2003… Obama has distanced himself from his pastor: "The violence of 9/11 was inexcusable and without justification," he said in a recent interview. He was not at Trinity the day Mr. Wright delivered his remarks shortly after the attacks, Mr. Obama said, but "it sounds like he was trying to be provocative." "Reverend Wright is a child of the 60s, and he often expresses himself in that language of concern with institutional racism and the struggles the African-American community has gone through," Mr. Obama said. "He analyzes public events in the context of race. I tend to look at them through the context of social justice and inequality." Obama, ever the diplomat and uniter, realizes that the language of social justice and inequality has a broader appeal than the language of racism. This is also pleasing in left-wing intellectual circles that have always preffered the language of class rather than race, even though in an American context they are difficult to separate. Of course, in America you can be accused of "class warfare" for that too – even the language of inequality has to be tempered in a country where opposing an Estate tax on millionaires finds support amongst small farmers and business owners who somehow think it will apply to them (that is, after all, the American dream). Which may explain why Obama has tended to rely on even vaguer rhetoric about hope and change, only occasionally sneaking in a speech or a few sentences about how, in effect, he is going to take some power away from the rich white people who control America.

[UPDATE: I managed to find one statement of Reverend Wright that I profoundly disagree with. Apparently he stated that the US government “lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” This is an unfortunate comment that belongs with the conspiracy theories about the US government planning and carrying out the attacks of 9/11. While it is fair to argue that the government hasn’t done enough to fight HIV, and that this may be due in part to the fact that its main victims have historically been gays in the US or Africans, this statement should be rightly condemned.]

4 thoughts on “Obama’s preacher

  1. Hi Nick and Otto

    Nice answers! Before I address your comments, a brief apology, My first response was an attempt to take a broader view of what is going on but I was not very clear. Sorry! I was trying to say that over time, the real struggle here is less about whether a fixed group (white, male) controls at a given moment. It is about the reasons people from any group might reasonably expect to rise to the top of a multi-ethnic society. What is exciting about Obama is not so much that his father was black. It is that — so far — he has insisted on a different (and more reasonable in my view) standard for political debate. Thus, a number of people from a variety of groups have gotten over whether he is from their ?tribe” because they trust he stands for something better than tribal loyalty. They re-affirm an American myth that people can get along even if they are not all from the same tribe. I do think that Europe is still more ?tribal” in this respect (hence my rather odd reference to a Turk running for Chancellor of Germany). Once again ?mea culpa!” The squabble about Rev. Wright shows how delicate this process can be.

  2. In my view, the problem is that “Obama’s preacher” is not stating facts in a factual manner (like you do), but he is referring to them in religious sermons/writings in a religious setting. I find that very troubling. There is no reason to link those “facts” with religion, even if they are correct. And I don’t think they are correct. In fact, for all “facts” presented to us in the quotations listed above I dare say that reality is much more complex than is suggested there. Then again: I don’t know that much about it, and I just hope that this issue will not affect Obama’s chances of becoming the next President.

  3. To answer your questions,
    (3)not sure what you mean by this.

    I guess I would draw a distinction between what I believe to be true (Europe and the US are controlled by rich white people) and what kind of rhetoric I believe is effective in building a governing coalition (versus inciting riots). I agree with Obama and many liberal academics that we should use the language of class instead of race – we should complain about rich people having too much power in general, even though nobody believes that Jay-Z or Michael Jordan really control the levers of power in Washington. In America, you can get criticized for using this language too – “class warfare” – though it is considered less offensive that playing the “race card.”
    If redistributing wealth downwards by taxing the rich makes me a hate monger, so be it.

    Even though I recognize your point that racial or ethnic talk can be dangerous, I admittedly apply a double standard to historically disadvantaged minorities. I tend to cut them some more slack when it comes to accusations of racism. This is partly the case because when majority/powerful groups start using identity politics it can lead to genocide, ethnic cleansing and greater destruction. When minority leaders exploit it, it can have results that some consider undesirable – separatist and independence movements for example – but there is a bit more of a gray area there. Of course we have the LA riots, but even though some black preachers bear responsibility for that, I tend to cut them more slack than I would ethno-nationalists from the white European majority in Europe or the US. There may be no good strategic or philosophical reason for it – that’s just how I feel.

  4. Hi Nick – nice post. It will be interesting to see how much traction this has as a political issue. I think it the effects will be limited. But your comment at the end does trouble me. Is the US controlled by rich white people? Indeed are most European countries controlled by rich white people? If an ethnic Turk were running for high office in Germany would you make the same comment about Germany?

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