Barack Obama is deeply indebted to Rev. Jeremiah Wright for two crucial elements of presidential campaign: The first is Obama's Christian faith and the second is his work with black Americans on the South Side of Chicago.
On March, Obama claimed that the video clips of Rev. Wright playing nonstop on television news "expressed a distorted view of the nation" and were "divisive". He was not only seriously chastising his pastor in public (a violation of Black Church Code), but disrespecting the conceptual schema of the prophetic wing of the black Christian church. Obama knew very well that prophetic black preachers had a particular rhetorical way of organizing the black experience in America for their parishioners. He also knew that the clips were merely seconds of sermons. That taken out of context the clips would be difficult to understand, especially if one was operating outside the conceptual boundaries of black prophetic Christian thought.
Yet, he made the politically expedient decision—to distance himself from Rev. Wright and allow Rev. Wright's thirty years of superb laboring in the vineyard to be reduced to the work of a charlatan. Obama sold his pastor down the river.
It is important to remember that without his Christianity and his South Side service to black people—both directly due to guidance, commitment and expertise of Rev. Wright—Obama may never have been elected a senator, and would not be in position to be the next president. Over and over again, we have heard Obama use these aspects of his life to gain political supporters.
He trumpets his Christianity—which is indebted to prophetic black liberation theology where faith demands fighting for political justice—along the campaign trail and leverages it in order to connect with American voters. But Sen. Obama was not born into a Christian home. By his own admission he became a Christian because of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In fact, he claims it was Rev. Wright's sermon called "the Audacity of Hope" that brought him to Christ. Obama also borrowed the title of that same sermon for the title of his second book and as a way of framing his campaign.
Becoming a member at Trinity United Church of Christ did not only allow Sen. Obama to have a place to worship, it gave him a place to study the oratorical genius of Rev. Wright—an impact visible in his speaking style. It also allowed him access to the rhythm and tone of organic black life, something Sen. Obama had always related to only as an outsider. In essence, Rev. Wright provided Obama with the two aspects that make him most appealing to voters—his work organizing in the South Side of Chicago and his Christian faith.
For him to then call Rev. Wright "divisive" and accuse him of distorting the story of America, was, in a way, calling out the tradition that that informs Rev. Wright's words.
Any conscientious observer of race and politics in the U.S. understands that any black person who wants white support has to strike a delicate balance. Most of us do it daily at work. Likewise, we all understand that any black person running for national office has to be non-threatening (i.e. not too black) in order to get the support of white voters. The question is always how far one will go to prove to white people that they have nothing to fear.
Rev. Wright was a test for Obama. Rev. Wright forced Sen. Obama to make a call—does he throw a dear friend, mentor and pastor — and thereby the tradition that informed that man — under the bus in order to keep white support and stay alive in his presidential bid, or does he try to explain the unassimilated, free, courageous black man as a sound, bold, articulate prophetic teacher who speaks directly to the needs and desires of a despised people?
Sen. Obama made his answer clear. I hope we all heard it.
Andre C. Willis is an assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale Divinity School.