Obama's spiritual mentor: The Swamp
The Swamp
Posted January 17, 2008 11:32 AM
The Swamp

by Michael Hill

CHICAGO--The packed house at Trinity United - some 3,000 in all - had been in the pews for almost two hours, energized by a 200-voice choir and a rousing dance performance Sunday, when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright stepped up to speak.

Wright is well-known in Chicago and in the black church world for taking over a small United Church of Christ congregation in 1972 and turning it into an 8,000-member powerhouse. More recently, his name has become familiar as the longtime spiritual mentor of Barack Obama, who joined the church in 1988 - a move Obama says was important to shaping his identity as an African-American.

The connection has thrown a spotlight on some of Wright's more controversial remarks in a church that advertises itself as "unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian" - at times espousing a black liberation theology that can sound as exclusionary as Obama's message is inclusionary. He has also equated Zionism with racism.

On Sunday morning - amid intensified crossfire between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama over the use of race in the Democratic presidential campaign - Wright was preaching from the Gospel of John, using his powerful style to link the story of the loaves and fishes to a contemporary political message.

Man should not put limits on what God can do, but that's what people always do, he told the crowd. Just as God made five loaves and two fishes feed thousands, God has provided liberators for blacks in the past - from Nat Turner to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and now Barack Obama. But, Wright said, there were always reasons not to follow them.

Some argue that blacks should vote for Clinton "because her husband was good to us," he continued.

"That's not true," he thundered. "He did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky."

Many in the crowd were on their feet, applauding - amazed, amused and moved by the fiery rhetoric of their preacher, who is about to retire.

It is just such rhetoric that has made Wright's remarks an occasional staple on conservative talk shows. They often make the rounds in anti-Obama e-mail.

On occasion, the Illinois senator has distanced himself from Wright. In the past, the campaign has issued statements saying that Obama does not agree with all of Wright's comments. An invitation to Wright to give the invocation at Obama's announcement of his presidential candidacy last year was rescinded at the last moment, reportedly to keep the spotlight on Obama and not on Wright.

Just yesterday, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen noted that a magazine associated with Trinity United once named Louis Farrakhan as its person of the year, praising the Nation of Islam leader. Cohen called on Obama to denounce such praise of Farrakhan, known for statements deemed anti-Semitic.

In a statement released by his campaign last night, Obama responded to questions about Wright's comments on Sunday.

"As I've told Reverend Wright, personal attacks such as this have no place in this campaign or our politics, whether they're offered from a platform at a rally or the pulpit of a church," he said. "I don't think of the pastor of my church in political terms.

"Like a member of my own family, there are things he says at times with which I deeply disagree," he said. "But as he prepares to retire, that doesn't detract from my affection for Reverend Wright or appreciation for the good works he has done."

As in the past, Obama did not completely denounce Wright. The candidate's 1995 book Dreams From My Father depicts Obama's decision to join Trinity United as a fundamental step in affirming his identity as an African-American. Obama's mother was white, he was raised in large part by her parents and he spent much of his youth in Indonesia with his mother's second husband. He only met his father, a Kenyan, once.

Obama took the title of his more recent book, The Audacity of Hope, from the first sermon he heard preached by Wright, whom Obama met while working in Chicago as a community organizer.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote of his reaction on hearing that sermon in 1988: "In that single note - hope! - I heard something else: At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and the Pharaoh, the Christians in the Lion's Den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church on this bright day seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world."

Dwight Hopkins, a professor in the divinity school at the University of Chicago who is a member of Trinity United, was not surprised by Wright's comments about the Clinton administration on Sunday.

Bill Clinton, he said, may have been from the South and appointed blacks to his Cabinet and opened an office later in Harlem, "but if you really look at the policies he backed, many were worse for blacks than those of the pre-civil rights days."

Hopkins pointed to Clinton's welfare reform policies and the criticism of activist Randall Robinson of Clinton policies toward black Caribbean countries such as Haiti.

"That's what [Wright] was talking about," Hopkins said.

If Wright's rhetoric costs Obama some votes, others believe that would be more than offset by voters moved by Obama's ability to bring religion back into the liberal political message.

Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, notes that Obama is getting the support of many black preachers who flirted with the Republican Party during the Bush administration, finding its position on cultural issues such as gay marriage and abortion appealing.

"Jeremiah Wright is one of the most influential and well-known black preachers in America," Walters said. "His church is in the center of black culture. It is not some cult. It is not something out of the way. It is a quintessential black church."

Hopkins says those who condemn Wright's message as anti-white do not understand it. For one, he notes that this is the largest congregation, and the largest contributor, in the United Church of Christ, a white church.

"And what he says is not against anybody, it is against the internal evils within the black community itself, the need to deal with those and confront them with strong values," Hopkins said.

"The idea that one would come to Trinity and see symbols or rituals that are anti-white America or hear a Wright sermon against white people is very curious to me," he said. "It's impossible to hold 8,000 people together talking against white people.

"I just tell people if they want to come to Trinity, bring their dancing shoes," he said of the music-filled services that can last three hours.

On Sunday, Wright seemed incensed over a column by avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens that had run the day before in the Chicago Sun-Times. Hitchens decried Obama for giving "his allegiance to a crackpot church with a decidedly ethnic character."

Several times Wright singled out "white reporters" for criticism. He talked of blacks being held down by attitudes of white supremacy, criticizing blacks who obediently follow whatever path whites tell them to. But the scores of whites in the pews were warmly welcomed by the black congregation.

And Wright also spoke of breaking down the barriers that had separated people by class, gender and race. He ended with a blessing on all of God's people, black, white, yellow, red and brown.

Wright, who is about to retire, took over Trinity United in 1972. It was an odd black congregation, since the United Church of Christ is a mainly white denomination, predominantly in New England, that traces its ancestry back to the Puritans. Over the years, it developed a liberal reputation based in part on the independence of its individual churches.

"They call it Wrightville," Hopkins said of the neighborhood around Trinity United, "though he doesn't like that."

That's because the church is active in so many areas - from Boy Scouts to financial advice to running a school in the hardscrabble area of low-rise projects and small storefront businesses bisected by a train track.

"He has built one of the most substantial institutions in the city of Chicago and in the country and predicated it on service to the community," Walters said. "I can think of some mega-churches that are not that involved in the community. But Trinity United is."

Before his sermon, Wright had identified a member of the congregation who was running for judge, saying that she was going to have a tough time because the Democratic machine had endorsed another candidate.

"I would like to say more," he said of that race. "But I'd better not."

It was about the only time in the service that he held his tongue.


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Again...religious beliefs are fine. If Obama were to say he wishes to take back America for Jesus, I would be against it as I am with Huck.

How DARE he mention anything about religion whatsoever! Obama must disown this man immediately!

Where's the brick wall, electrified fence, and moat full of sharks between church and state mandated by the constitution?

Someone get Richard Dawkins on this! Freedom of religion really means freedom from religion! Americans must be from religion! Religion is ruining our country! Evangelical voters are as evil as Bush! No where must religion be mentioned, talked about or even thought about by anyone seeking office.

Amazing how all the people on the Huckabee threads seems to clam up when it comes to Jesse, Al, and Obama's favorite minister, eh?

Pass the popcorn jethro...it's getting interesting!


Nice try Typicalswampdemocrat. Read my post. When you want to change our constitution to follow Gods standards, thats where I draw the line. Believe all you want. That doesn't bother me. What kind of clam was it?

Women tend to support Hillary because she is a woman and they empathize with the struggles of women in this country. While that is a valid and noble sentiment, it should be realized that women, mainly White women, were very much complicit in the subjugation of their own gender, Blacks, and everybody else in America. Granted that White males have dominated America since it's beginning, their help mates were always women. Thus White women were dominated by and controlled by their husbands, their brothers, their fathers, their uncles, and all the men in their lives. As grand dames in the feudal societies of the South, daughters of revolutionaries, industrialists, overseers, foremen, and all the men who controlled every fiber of America, White women have been the benefactoresses of all power and wealth, except they did not have the political power. That is what Hillary Clinton represents and she knows it. Hillary encapsulates the essence of the plantation madamn who quietly and stoically tolerated her husbands indulgences, waiting for her turn to take over.

Her relationship with Black people is very similar to the relationship between Lora Meredith, and Annie Johnson in the 1959 movie "Imitation of Life" and Bea Pullman and Delilah johnson, the 1934 version of the same movie. 25 years separate the two movies, but the theme is the same. A White woman succeeds on the strength of a devoted Black woman. They are the best of friends, but the Black woman remains in the position of a servant. These movies were not just examples of art imitating life, they very clearly point out the symbiotic relationship that the Clintons have held with Black people. Their being able to relate to Black people is a deep and abiding political convenience.

Whenever Black people want to symbolically and substantively break from the shackles of the symbiotic relationship they are met with scorn, derision, and cries of reverse racism. This Church is an example, as is the Nation of Islam which advocates Black self determination, and the attempts of the Black Panther party in the 60's which largely advocated the same thing.

Thus Black people are torn between their support for the lords of the plantation, the establishment, and a young Senator who believes that we can get beyond all of that.

Standing at a fork in the road, Bob Frost said "two paths diverged in the woods and I took the one least traveled by." Black and White people are standing at that junction trying to decide which path to take - one path is the establishment path which perpetuates the same old movie, and the one least traveled, which rewrites a new script based on the idea that we can do better together and right a ship that is listing in the water.

I like that comment regarding Bill Clinton and Monica Lewisky. Basically, the Clintons will use and dump the black americans at their own course. We all know that...tell it like it is brother.

Oh, come on.

There's a vast difference between believing in God and believing God is telling you to bomb Iraq.

Look at the posting times between your post and mine, Bill R.? Do you honestly think your post was up when I wrote that?

That post was written to all the angry religion posters who show up on the Huckabee threads, not you. Believe it or not, it's not all about you, buddy, although thanks for confirming.

Did this guy really just type this?

"it should be realized that women, mainly White women, were very much complicit in the subjugation of their own gender,"

Posted by: GW | January 17, 2008 11:56 AM

I sure hope some woman who's familiar with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and anyone in the suffrage movement gives this guy an earful.

Can you imagine the outcry if a Republican candidate for president belonged to a church that proclaimed itself, in 2008, "unashamedly White"?

But don't worry, Barack H. Your media buddies will give you a pass on this.

Does Obama's so-called [Christian] church allow white people to attend their services?
My church invites blacks to attend, infact I saw a black family attending mass last Sunday.


Posted by: Typicalswampdemocrat | January 17, 2008 12:14 PM

I guess I felt when I read this, that you were another one attacking me because of my view on religion and politics. I thought you were saying that no one picks on the democrats beliefs. I'm not sure why you assume I think it's all about me, I'm just used to being attacked fo my views.

Yes Paulo, Trinity United even has some white members.

Since you mention mass, I assume you're Catholic. Please don't confuse Wright with the Pope. No one considers Wright to be infallible, no one feels they have to do everything he says. I personally have never been a member of a church in which I agreed with the minister on everything. I don't expect I ever will.

Wright speaks for himself. As with everyone, we learn from thinking about and discussing various ideas and concepts. Some we keep, some we discard. That's what being a rational, thinking person means.

My church invites blacks to attend, infact I saw a black family attending mass last Sunday.


Posted by: Paulo | January 17, 2008 1:04 PM

How did it make you feel Paulo? Did you move your wallet to your front pocket? Did you avoid eye contact?

Are catholics the only religion that have mass? I'm Lutheran, so I know we don't, but I'm not sure they have a chokehold on the use of the word "mass."


That's the church's website.

There's a white guy! Where'd HE come from...

Actually Annie, Rev. Wright's church is this one.


That's it, just keep excusing Obama. It's not his fault that the leadership at the church he attends consider Farrakhan "great." Not at all. Obama doesn't personally hold those views, so again it matters not the company he keeps. Sorry. Forgot the rules of how the double standard works.

Oh, and bill r., don't worry about being attacked. I read a lot of your comments. You dish it out just as well as you receive it. And you have a lot of people on this board who defend you. Don't sweat it.

How come the writer of the article didnt mention the fact that Obamas churh is 100% against what they call middle classness. Gee I wonder, oh yeah I forgot they back Obama andwould never do anything to depict him in a negative way. Plain and simple he belongs to an anti-white church.

Does it concern anyone about the Rev's association with Louis Farrakhan?

I thought I read a parallel in Obama's church and black muslim beliefs. It is very disturbing to think a christian church would support Farakhan, a racist black muslim. It is exremely alarming Farakhan could have a friend as president; and equally alarming the media is allowing Obama a pass as to his membership and affiliation in this church. If a white candidate even attended just one service in an equally racist white church, his political career would be over.

Say what you will, Birds of a feather flock together.

Was Obama baptised in this church? Has he been baptised at any church? Or, would being baptised make him an apostate of islam and subject to death in 7 of the 47 majority muslam countries. And further more why is he supporting sheria law in Kenya?

It seems like every minority group in America will tell you that only whites are racists. What a crock. Obama is only pandering to the white establishment because it suits him now. The scary part is that if you compare all the canididates GOP & Dems, not a single one would make a distinguished leader. It's time for the third party to flex their muscle...Independants!

Paraaaaaaaaaize cheeeeezus!!!!

Stupid people doing stupid things, saying stupid things, believing stupid things...welcome to America.

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