Will the Christian Left Criticize or Justify Obama's Divorce from Wright?


Senator Barack Obama filed divorce papers against Reverend Jeremiah Wright on the grounds of irreconcilable differences one day after his pastor of 20 years appeared at the National Press Club, even though Wright's substance and style had not really changed.

What had changed was that the national press had become critical of the former pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, obsessing about him after the softball interview by PBS' Bill Moyers and glowing comments by CNN's Roland Martin following Wright's Sunday speech at the NAACP dinner in Detroit.

Some who had once defended Wright's Afro-centric theology as normative prophetic preaching turned on him. Bashing Wright became acceptable on cable TV news programs. Scorching and unrelenting criticism played a decisive role in forcing Obama to claim he never knew him.

More interesting than how the politicos and pundits debate the Illinois senator's decision to severe ties with the Chicago preacher and its impact on the presidential race is what will be the reaction of the so-called Christian Left who supported Obama by justifying Wright's liberation theology. Will they too pile on against Wright? Will they defend him? Or will they rationalize Obama's action on the grounds of political necessity?

Recall how some Christian Left leaders viewed Wright right up to the divorce.

Writing on Monday, April 28, Diana Butler Bass praised the three hours of programming related to Wright on PBS and CNN as "sophisticated and thoughtful programming."

"[F]or those who really listened to Rev. Wright, he moved from being a political liability in the current presidential campaign to demonstrating why he is one of the nation's most compelling spokespersons of the African-American community and of progressive Christianity," wrote Bass, senior fellow at the Cathedral College of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Over a month earlier, she criticized MSNBC, CNN and FOX for their "endlessly play the tape of Rev. Wright's 'radical' sermons."

She wrote: "I do not hear the words of a 'dangerous' preacher (at least any more dangerous than any preacher who takes the Gospel seriously!) No, I hear the long tradition that Jeremiah Wright has inherited from his ancestors. I hear prophetic critique…. And, mostly, I hear the Gospel slant--I hear it from an angle that is not natural to me. It is good to hear that slant."

Chicago divinity school professor Martin Marty said that he felt "instantly at home" when he visited Wright's church.

Noting a few disagreements with Wright, Marty said, "I've been too impressed by the way Wright preaches the Christian Gospel to break with him. Those who were part of his ministry for years … are not going to turn their backs on their pastor and prophet."

John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, charged that the intent of those playing video clips of Wright's strong words was "to wound a presidential candidate. In the process a congregation that does exceptional ministry and a pastor who has given his life to shape those ministries is caricatured and demonized."

Thomas concluded: "[W]hat this nation needs is not so much polite piety as the rough and radical word of the prophet calling us to repentance. And, as we struggle with that ancient calling, I pray we will be shrewd enough to name the hypocrisy of those who decry the mixing of religion and politics in order to serve their own political ends."

Before the viral videos of Wright appeared in March, Sojourner's Jim Wallis urged readers not to disparage Obama's preacher. He defended Wright: "Trinity Church is one of the most prominent and respected churches in Chicago and the nation, and its pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is one of the leading revival preachers in the black church."

On April 22, editors of The Christian Century wrote, "Obama has tried to put some distance between himself and Wright, yet he has not completely divorced himself from him--for good reason. Obama came to faith through Wright's ministry. Wright married the Obamas and baptized their two daughters. More important, Wright has carried out one of the most successful ministries, white or black, of any congregation anywhere in the country."

Protestantism's once flagship liberal magazine concluded that "many Americans are not interested in understanding the prophetic preaching of a black minister."

Having praised the preacher as a way to support the politician, the Christian Left faces a conundrum now that the politician has rejected the preacher. How do Christian leaders react to a politician after he has switchbacked on their position?

The way the Christian Left responds to Obama's divorce will give us a good clue about whether left-leaning Christian leaders will keep a prophetic distance from power, should Obama win the presidency. Current criticism of a presidential candidate may result in the loss of future access to the Oval Office. Advocacy may ensure open doors but a compromised prophetic critique.

The scrawny Christian Left and the beefy Christian Right are dissimilar. Nonetheless, liberal Christians should remember what happened to the Christian Right when it hitched its wagon to President Bush. It lost the needed moral distance from political power. The Christian Right became nothing more than a court prophet unable to criticize the president, connecting with the White House in regular conference calls, cheering on cue the war in Iraq and criticizing those who pressed the White House to address climate change.

One would think that those most committed to social justice would not repeat the mistakes of the Christian Right, if it were not for the flawed nature of humanity so easily tempted by power.

Robert Parham is executive editor of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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