Obama’s pastor, and McCain’s “advisors” pulled back the Veil on the Holy of Holies last week, exposing a brutal truth for those who live within the secular narrative. It is this: religious people believe things that seem strange to outsiders. Those religious folks also believe things that are specifically informed by their subjective experiences, which is why a black man of a particular age serving a very mainstream Church of Christ congregation on Chicago’s south side might punctuate a terrific sermon with the bombastic curse “God Damn America,” and why a white mega-pastor with no denomination to hem him might rail against the demonic forces of secular humanism or itch publicly for renewed Crusades.
We now know the name Jeremiah Wright because of a campaign phenomenon called “opposition research,” where servants of politicians build dossiers on their masters’ enemies, and because the Clinton campaign knows white people get nervous when black people yell. Talk radio, Fox outlets, and even the mainstream press are shocked, shocked, that any serious person could hold Wright’s views, and have tried, like all hell (and I suspect from horse-race fatigue) to spice the news cycle by imputing Wright’s arguments to his most famous parishioner. In addition to doing the bidding of an undead Terminatrix, they’re also staging a carnival of ignorance. There are several reasons for this amusing phenomenon.
Hypereducated and underthoughtful white people–whom, you might have noticed, tend to show up on your television a lot–are generally ignorant of American religion. Many have spent their upper-middle class, devotion-free existences shuttling from suburban McMansion to private prep school to great university to posh media post. They tend to think their experience is shared, if only by aspiration, by everyone else.
Think, if you will, of the Beverly Hills 90210 conceit of the Walshes, a family of nouveau riche Minnesotans who cashed in and abandoned the heartland to live in Beverly Hills; clearly, such places are where anyone with a lick of sense wants to be. The religious expressions of millions upon millions of Americans are not factors in the equation. They don’t exist.
That general ignorance introduces a particular ignorance of distinct sub-religions. Imagine: a young Jewish editor in a multinational publishing house, living and working in Manhattan, fresh from Swarthmore, trying to make sense of the hundreds of confusing offshoots of Protestantism, and how they govern the lives of their adherents. The signals reaching her brain do not likely contain much information about these phenomena, nor should we expect them to reach her, or those similarly situated–except when the policy-discussion touches religion, and they’re moderating.
For example, in the mid-90’s, the major media (pre-Fox, listing leftward) was aghast at the Promise Keepers movement. The news-template went something along the lines of “reactionary religion,” or “an anti-feminist backlash,” or some other nauseating trope. But the notions the Promise Keepers propounded had never, ever, left the modes of many devout Protestant families; that many in our media thought them new illustrates a tremendous disconnect.
More difficult yet is American Christianity in its distinctly black variety, which confuses even white American Christians. The churches, and their outlooks, are, like much of the American racial dynamic, artifacts of slavery. The man on the horse, with the whip and rifle, had his church and God. Below him, backs bent, fingertips numb, the oppressed sang to the same God. The scriptures, so malleable, said one thing to the slaveholder, and another to the slave. What comfortable person can read Exodus with the same eyes as one who is, in fact, enslaved? What slave–or thinking human–could parse logic that justifies slavery because Noah’s purportedly black son got wasted and put the moves on his pop?
The black American church, growing in ironic opposition to its historically racist, white counterpart, is central to its community in a way the white church is not. It is the social and economic hub of many black communities. It is the nursemaid of much of popular culture, black and white. It is one of the rare places where the arts of rhetoric–alliteration, parallelism, synecdoche, all the usual suspects–are still practiced well, without irony. The black church is, in many ways, the conscience of America. We can thank it for the Civil Rights movement, and presently, for the abrupt head-check that is Barack Obama. The black church is one of the only places, in a culture soggy with bumper-sticker patriotism, where one can hear the American Dream indicted for its shortcomings, where white America, as well as misbehaving black America, gets called on their bullshit.
Most white media folks have little experience with this fact of Christian life, aside from Eddie Murphy send-ups and the scene in The Blues Brothers where James Brown imparts the blessings of the Divine upon Jake and Elwood. Rev. Wright surprised them, because America as it is would surprise them, if they saw it. I have already written on media myopia and white American evangelicals and their beliefs here; the only thing I wish to add is that since the writing under the link was published, Rod Parsley and his pal Kenneth Blackwell may have handed Ohio to Bush, and he has become John McCain’s “spiritual advisor.”
This is a fact: neither the media, nor Obama’s tone-deaf, last-generation opponents, have ears to hear. They are doomed to surprise. As shocked as they are to hear the vocabulary of American Christianity’s angry righteousness, they will probably be wholly unable to decipher the high, white notes of a call to rouse America’s promise.
It is a mathematical certainty that Obama will be the Democratic nominee, and the Clinton machine clearly meant to terminally wound Obama’s candidacy with the Wright sermon; I suspect this is posturing for 2012, the last year a possible Clinton candidacy would be viable. But the move has backfired. Yes, Obama’s speech, already a classic, was, like John F. Kennedy’s Catholic speech, a political necessity. Yet, that did not keep it from also turning the issues, manufactured (scary black anti-Americans) and organic (the sad state of race relations in America), on their heads.
Obama was expected to “distance” and “denounce,” which are code-words for calming the easily rattled when their taboos have been violated; instead, he embraced his effusive, human clergyman. He acknowledged those who do not understand the game-rules of semi-public religious space that needed to be soothed, and explained that he, a presidential candidate, did not actually hope that God damns America. He left room for discussion with those so wounded by our systems that they would like to see such damning. Good thing, too, because as the papier maché edifice of Republican America collapses around us, it might do us some good to chat with those who have vigorous misgivings about the last few decades, or, as is the case with the black clergy, the last few centuries.
Have the chickens come home to roost? Oh, how the Empire hates that phrase! It’s an oracle calling an end to the twentieth century, with its isms and ists and coups and disappeareds and corporate fascism. It invokes the rural barnyard, Chicken George’s fighting cocks, it invokes Malcolm X, it invokes the sad admission that our chickens, metaphorically, “got out the yard” to begin with. What beautiful rhetoric, no? Seven words, and a universe of connotation: the power. Perhaps that is what those with their fists on power’s levers truly fear, rather than the trite but effective character of the Perennially Angry Black Man. They fear the Word, Which is what all Christians, black and white, ultimately worship. It is ultimately beyond their control, despite their best, Orwellian efforts. The backlash against Wright, and its flacking of Obama, is really about crushing what the black American church represents: the Word’s sharp point turned, at-large, on the recurring bastards who claim Its letter, or hide behind Its pieties, but who have never felt Its Spirit.
The genius of Obama’s speech lies in its penultimate paragraphs, and is earned by the speech’s body; he lays out his multi-racial, international pedigree, staking claim to the experience of mankind–not a nation-state slice of it, not a subcultural nation-state slice of it, but to, literally, a world’s worth of perspective. He puts a foot in Kenya, where the first human foot sank its print, and another foot amidst Chicago’s multi-colored millions. Then he speaks truth.
“For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
[A]t this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.”
This braid–of white frustration and denial, and of righteous black anger and claims to exceptional, sometimes vicarious suffering–is unique in that it doesn’t claim to invite us to harmony. It’s too early, and perhaps ultimately too hopeful for that. It invites us plainly, however, to honesty; to speak the words in public, no matter how hard to say or hear, that we say in private, or in the safe-space of racially homogenous environments. For many years, we have permitted only our comedians to speak truth so boldly, and when they did, we ducked behind laughter, or applause, and thanked them for saying what we wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Now, a man who might be our next president has tasked the nation with giving itself the biggest come-to-Jesus meeting in history.
Make no mistake. The chickens will come home to roost.
Reverend Wright, and his declining generation of black clergy, saw the chickens’ return–in assassinations, economic difficulties, war–as the harbinger of a retributive apocalypse. They wanted that, perhaps, as recompense for the collective sins of a nation that wrote Slavery into its Constitution, and only wrote it out after near a million white boys died. I can’t judge them; if I wore their skin I’d probably be a more forceful in explaining my position to white folks.
But there’s an alternative here. The chickens needn’t bring the End, but a beginning: for every hundred preachers who fixate on the plagues and horrors of the apocalypse; there’s one who reads to Revelation’s end, and takes the New Heaven and New Earth as his, or her, focus. Who knows how far America has to go if it makes a more perfect Union its destination? Who knows what struggles lie between here, and there? None do, but there is a new generation of Americans who are willing to undertake the journey, and speeches like Obama’s remind us that for the Word to be made flesh, it must first be spoken.
It is time we ceased being shocked by the vestiges of religion in public life. If we cannot know the particulars of faith–and for many of us it would be impossible, or even distasteful–we can certainly allow notice of the great, cathartic and communal benefits of confession and reconciliation. St. Paul explained hope was the assurance of things unseen; now, in that unseen lies the great empty of potential worlds, to which hope lends form. Obama’s text invites us to painful honesty, a plain reckoning, and the embrace of a new, redemptive narrative. Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” is nothing less than a national invitation to “black church,” where each Sunday hope and despair face-off, and more often than not hope is the victor.
Genesis 9:20-27: And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.