Monday, March 31, 2008

Black Church Politics

New York, March 31—Standing before his congregation on Easter Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Stiers thanked the choir; he admired the bright flowers that adorned the pulpit; and he told the story of the resurrection, speaking slowly and deliberately, his voice filling the warm air within Riverside Church.

Then he started talking politics.

“How do we live after last Wednesday, a day that marked the fifth anniversary of that terrible, costly war that never should have been waged?” he asked. Stiers then spoke of Jeremiah Wright, the much-maligned pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ and friend of presidential hopeful Barack Obama. It was wrong, he said, for the American media to reduce “a loving pastor” to 60-second video clips. Stiers then turned his attention to Obama.

“He stood before the nation, he addressed the issues, and he showed a path out of the darkness,” he said of the Illinois Senator.

Speaking for only five minutes, Stiers, who is white, addressed the political firestorm surrounding Wright’s sermons and reinforced a point largely missed by the television news stations lambasting the Chicago pastor: for many Americans, blacks in particular, politics and church have always been one and the same.

“Church has always been that one place were blacks could go and feel like they were in control,” said Sarah Cunningham. At 82 years of age, She watched the number of black churchgoers at Riverside rise as both the church and Morningside Heights—a neighborhood near Columbia University on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—were swept up in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Cunningham, who is white, has seen five senior ministers in charge of Riverside. The last permanent one, the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, was the first and only black man to hold the position.

“Black churches have always talked as much about politics as religions,” Cunningham said. A retired writer for religious publications, she said she first came to understand this overlap of politics and preaching as a child in rural Tennessee, where whites and blacks attended separate churches. After moving to New York, she watched Riverside’s congregation grow more diverse as the civil rights movement led to a broad shift towards integration. During Rev. Forbes’s tenure, the congregation was roughly 60 percent black, though now it is more evenly balanced, she said.

Stiers and Cunningham’s comments centered on the controversial sermons made by Wright, sermons which threaten to impugn Obama just as he looks to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. On March 18, Obama gave a speech in which he condemned many of Wright’s views.

“We’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike,” Obama said in his speech.

But Obama also sought to frame Wright’s fiery sermons within the context of the black church, a place unfamiliar to a majority of Americans where the hardships of life as a minority sometimes give way to anger and politics. “Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger,” Obama said. “The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”

By linking Wright’s sermons to the lingering of serious inequalities in the U.S., Obama’s speech went beyond the debate over whether or not video clips of Wright on news programs and the Internet have been taken out of context, deliberately framed to misrepresent the underlying message. But by condemning Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America,” Obama refused to condone either Wright’s indignation or his linking the war in Iraq to racism in the U.S.

Obama’s carefully qualified relationship with Wright has, therefore, revealed the Senator’s unwillingness to cast himself in the mold of the black preacher-turned-politician. Obama may attend Wright’s sermons, but he does not share his political views or his rhetorical style. Obama may, as Wright himself said in one of his sermons, know “what it’s like to live in a country controlled by rich white people,” but as a presidential candidate, he has yet to fully embrace the sharp-edged oratorical style of Jessie Jackson, Malcolm X or even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Wright, King spoke at Riverside on a number of occasions. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech, in which he called the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He also linked U.S. militarism abroad to the abuse of civil rights for minorities at home, and argued that the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” Though he argued in the speech that his opposition to the war in Vietnam stemmed from the same non-violent principles as his crusade for civil rights, King was roundly criticized for enmeshing moral opposition to segregation with foreign policy.

It is, ironically enough, Wright, not Obama, the leading anti-war candidate, who most closely echoes the style and content of King’s anti-war speeches. In a speech shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Wright worried that the U.S. would respond to the attacks by lashing out at the world. The U.S. was, he argued, caught up in “the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred.”

In his weekly sermons, Wright has been a fierce critic of the war in Iraq. In a speech entitled “War on Iraq IQ Test,” he asked: “Which country do you think poses the greatest threat to global peace: Iraq or the U.S.?” and quoted King’s statement that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”