Do you remember Jeremiah Wright? He used to be the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, on the South Side of Chicago. One of his former congregants, for 20 years, was Barack Obama.
In the early days of Obama’s first presidential campaign, Pastor Wright was moderately pitched to the public. Because Obama was black, he didn’t so much have campaign surrogates as character witnesses. Wright and the church he shepherded were offered up as proof that the Harvard-educated lawyer and his Princeton- and Harvard-educated wife weren’t clandestine agents of agnosticism, that Obama had left the wrong kind of doubt behind. Because many thought of Obama as rootless, a man with family spread across continents, bloodlines, and race, Wright’s presence confirmed his ties to a city and to God. As church-speak goes, Obama belonged to Pastor Wright.
On March 18, 2008, the cords snapped. The night a majority of Americans heard Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech — an oratorical event that rang blindingly novel in 2008 and sounds farcical if you listen to it in 2016 — it was clear Obama had stopped listening to Wright.
Earlier that month, grainy video of a few of Wright’s sermons had been published by ABC News, the longest being “God Damn America!” “Not ‘God bless America!,’” Wright preached in 2003, patting sweat off his neck. “God damn America. That’s in the Bible. For killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human.” In other sermons, he called the country “The United States of White America” and “The U.S. of KKK-A.” Wright’s associations with the Nation of Islam and his ideas about government’s role in “creating” HIV/AIDS kindled outrage, but nothing threatened Obama’s campaign like Wright’s condemnation of the name “America” and his telescoping on her sins. This was the man whose words Obama had used to name his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, and, until a few weeks before, who had been set to bless the formal commencement of Obama’s campaign. It wouldn’t be enough to just repudiate him; with “A More Perfect Union,” Obama elegantly sacrificed Wright and all that his theology stood for. “[The comments] weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice,” Obama said. “Instead they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic.” That night, Obama all but guaranteed the nomination, if not the office. He also laid the bedrock for the amenable myth motivating his presidency, which black historians and critics have worked to discredit: that America attained post-racialism, and anyone who didn’t believe so was holding the country back.
The young politician, who paused and modulated tone like his longtime pastor, reduced Wright to a rhetorical bogeyman in the service of fusing America back together again. Wright retired soon after; they never reconciled. The pastor emeritus raucously haunted the first couple of years of Obama’s presidency, making incendiary and anti-Semitic comments about government rule. He’s in his mid-seventies now.
It was one of the most effective public emasculations modern political theater had hosted. (Until we saw Trump evacuate even his supporters of patriotic dignity.) All the tragedy of a young man renouncing a father figure, all the triumph of a charismatic warden shielding the fragile causes he sought to inherit — this was patriotism, obviously, and Christianity, not so obviously. Part of what expedited Wright’s dismissal from serious, public life was how strikingly un-Christian his words sounded. Where in the Bible did God damn America?
Alternately, where in the Scripture had God blessed her? This question and its opposite are what animate black theology, which Wright preached at TUCC, at one point the largest nondenominational Christian congregation in Chicago. It’s a shame Obama’s rescue dissolved Wright so ruthlessly, because I think black theological texts are the best sources for understanding Christianity-as-ethnicity.
In the late ’60s, a fringe group of theologians associated with the black power movement separated from the mainstream black church, physically and philosophically. The black theology project, as sketched by founders like James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts, rigorously tested the malleability of Scripture, putting it against the horrors of racism. They argued that the Jesus of Christianity had been corrupted through colonialism and white supremacy, and that the true image of God reflected the plight of the oppressed. In America, this meant poor black people. Black theology rendered the gospel black and populist.
Black theology wasn’t embraced by the mainstream black church, and it was considered seditious, possibly heretical by white theologians. Secularists thought it was an incomplete rehash of Marxism. In the ’70s, one man, William R. Jones, took the radicalism of black theology to a faith impasse. Jones’s book Is God a White Racist? suggested a negative approach to theology, an analysis of God as if he were man. “Until the alleged negative elements are appropriately reconciled with the alleged benevolence of God,” Jones wrote, “His goodness remains an open question.” There is an endlessly useful concept within, which Jones calls “divine racism.” The idea is that the benevolence or the wrath of God corresponds to ethnic lines in America. And in turn, an ethnic God practices tribalism. “Ethnic suffering does not strike quickly and then leave after a short and terrible siege,” he wrote. “Instead, it extends over long historical eras.”
This theology understands something about the nature of faith: It’s more useful as an accelerant than as a balm. Since the election, Obama has fully committed to his role as pacifier-in-chief. The president’s dispatches unsubtly coo at the public that is still in his care. He seems diplomatic, and profoundly ineffectual. Obama used to grab the lectern with all the force of American exceptionalism.
The Wright moment nags at me, eight years later. What if Obama hadn’t dressed the wound so well? He might have lost. The language of post-racialism, which arrives to the white imagination as the language of white obsolescence, might have been that much more impoverished. We’ll never know. Today, by secular or religious standard, Wright sounds prescient, ecstatic, informed — even for the mainstream. When commentators were ripping him apart for his sermons, the Klan had seemed passé; this month, the group is securing permits to parade. They are no longer speaking in code. With flamboyance, an ethno-religious movement is currently surfacing, alongside its secular white supremacist counterpart. What the black theologians meant by ethnic suffering reverberates, perverted, in a group of people across all class lines that believes, bombastically, that this is their White Reconstruction. That’s the double bind of white ethnic suffering: Whether the people triumph or fail, they can always make the case that they are the chosen ones. Trump has made space for it; he has no theology himself. He emasculates his flock by telling them they have no power; his promise to restore it sends the blood rushing again. The first demonstrably agnostic, possibly atheist president-elect expresses excitement in reforming the country in his own image, and his followers feel that an adaptation of Christianity is exalted. In Is God a White Racist?, Jones suggests that we actually call it “Whitianity.” Trumpism will prove his case.