Obama Finds Pulpit in Center of Racial Divide

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, March 22, 2008

When Sen. Barack Obama faced the cameras Tuesday in Philadelphia, he was caught between his roles as politician and parishioner, forced to condemn his pastor's words as he tried to advance his own campaign for president.

Experts on the black church say the comments of Obama's former Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have put Obama (D-Ill.) in an awkward and uncomfortable position. At the same time, however, they have given him a chance to discuss race with white Americans, including something about the black church.

"The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning," Obama said in his speech at the National Constitution Center.

Though his speech was dedicated more to race than religion, Obama took pains to explain the ethos of some black churches. Church is where congregants may speak openly about racial tensions that often cannot be addressed elsewhere, and where songs and sermons reflect much of what is felt and heard in black communities.

"Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor," Obama said. "The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America."

Some of Wright's words, Obama said, reflect an anger and bitterness still felt within Wright's battle-scarred generation. Such feelings should be addressed and understood, not wished away, Obama said, in an effort to heal and transcend racial divides.

"I think he took it as far as he can by contextualizing Jeremiah Wright's comments on a history of American racism," said Rev. Marvin McMickle, a Cleveland pastor and professor of homiletics at Ashland University in Ohio.

But McMickle, author of "Where Have all the Prophets Gone?", a book endorsed by Wright, said Obama can only go so far with that message. It should be black ministers, not politicians, who explain black preaching to largely white America.

"It's not just black people talking, and it's not just black people listening," said McMickle, a pledged delegate for Obama. "Black preaching has a third component . . . which is . . . addressing the gospel to the history of the black experience in ways that the white preacher could not do it, and a white congregation does not need to have it being done."

Peter Paris, professor emeritus of Christian social ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, worried that Obama's condemnation of some of Wright's words could hurt him in some black churches.

"So many black churches understand the role of prophetic speech alongside of pastoral speech, and I don't think that Obama helped . . . communicate that strongly enough," Paris said. "I hope that he doesn't find black churches moving away from him in that respect."

Paris said Wright's comments about past slavery and modern-day segregated schools are not "distorted," as Obama suggested.

"Jeremiah Wright is seen as a major prophetic voice in the black community, and there are many people who adore him," said Paris, an Obama supporter and a divinity school classmate with Wright in the 1960s.

Even before Obama spoke Tuesday, some white observers who know his Chicago church said the context of Wright's words might be lost on some Americans.

"We might like to think that racism is a thing of the past," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ. "But on the gritty streets of Chicago's South Side where Trinity has planted itself, race continues to play favorites in failing urban school systems, unresponsive health-care systems, crumbling infrastructure and meager economic development."

Jim Wallis, a white evangelical activist, issued a letter Tuesday to faith leaders that defended the black church's "prophetic truth-telling" role, and said some whites might be in denial about the anger felt by many black Americans.

"In 2008, to still not comprehend or seek to understand the reality of black frustration and anger, is to be in a state of white denial, which, very sadly, is where many white Americans are," said Wallis, founder of Washington-based Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company