Now that America has seen clips of Jeremiah Wright–Barack Obama’s former pastor and longtime mentor–yelling “God damn America” and referring to the United States as the “U.S. of KKK A,” there are obvious questions on everyone’s mind. There is, for instance, the complicated biographical question of why Obama aligned himself with Wright in the first place. But there is also the more basic political question of why the presidential candidate didn’t disown Wright sooner. After all, whatever personal affection Obama felt for the man who brought him into the Christian fold, he had to realize that Wright was a ticking time bomb for his campaign–someone whom average voters would regard with justifiable horror once they got wind of his views on politics and race. So why didn’t Obama push him away long ago?
Actually, he did–sort of. Recall what happened in early 2007. Initially, Obama had invited Wright to deliver the benediction at the event where he would formally launch his candidacy; but, at the last minute, Obama rescinded the invitation. In doing so, it seems likely that Obama understood his political problem and was trying to send his pastor-mentor a polite but firm message: Stay away from the spotlight and, please, for the love of God, try not to cause any controversy, lest you sink my chances of winning.
Most people would have taken the hint. But not Jeremiah Wright. Less than a month later, he was on Fox News bickering with Sean Hannity about “black liberation theology” and admonishing the famously obnoxious TV host, “Let me suggest that you do some reading before you come and talk to me about my field. ” Five days later, he was in The New York Times complaining about Obama’s decision to block him from speaking and volunteering that, “[w]hen his enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli [to visit Muammar Qaddafi] with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell.” And he wasn’t done yet. Days after that, Wright uncorked an open letter to the Times that accused reporter Jodi Kantor of misrepresenting her interview with him. The screed rambled for more than a thousand words before culminating in this: “There is no repentance on the part of The New York Times. There is no integrity when it comes to The Times. You should do well with that paper, Jodi. You looked me straight in my face and told me a lie!”
Why wouldn’t Wright take the hint that Obama seemed to be offering and quietly slink into the background, at least until November 2008? Two months ago (long before his most inflammatory sermons had surfaced), I visited Wright’s church on a Sunday morning. And what I witnessed that day makes the answer quite clear.
To put it mildly, Jeremiah Wright is a man who is comfortable in the spotlight. Over the past 36 years, he has built Trinity Church, on Chicago’s South Side, into a wildly successful institution comprising 8,000 members. The church sponsors two senior centers, an addiction-recovery program, two daycare sites, student mentoring, prisoner visitation, yoga in the mornings, and “singles sermons” on Friday evenings. But, come Sunday morning, all the attention is on one man. On the day I visit–the morning after Obama’s landslide victory in South Carolina–three cameras in the main sanctuary are trained on Wright, dressed in one of his trademark dashikis, as he flaps and struts through the Gospel of John, wherein Jesus thwarts his enemies not with force, but with words. The syncopated speaking style politicos have come to expect from Obama has the audience of thousands transfixed. Wright’s gravelly tenor hums through the Trinity loudspeakers, and the worshippers are on their feet, murmuring amens. Even choir members can be seen scribbling in their bulletins during the sermon, on the blank, lined pages reserved for such note-taking. (The fine print below? “Sermons copyrighted by Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.”) A scant 30 minutes after the sermon’s conclusion, I was able to purchase a copy of Wright’s message on DVD in the church bookstore.
Dwight Hopkins, a church member and professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, told the Baltimore Sun that some refer to the blocks surrounding Trinity as “Wrightville.” Hopkins added that Wright “doesn’t like” the nickname, but, that Sunday, I was struck by how much of the sermon was about–well, him. During the address, he let fly with a verbal fusillade aimed directly at his detractors: “I don’t care what nobody in the 4-H club says. Y’all know what the 4-H club is?” The church roared, and he explained: “That’s Hannity, Hillary, Hobbes, and Haters.” Later, while discussing his opposition to South African apartheid, Wright seemed to take another shot at his enemies: “I was talked about then, and I’m still talked about now,” he thundered. “But I’m not going to stop being me because of what somebody says about me. [Jesus] set me free to be me and he set me free to forgive stupidity.” And here he gets in one more jab: “So I forgive you, 4-H club; I forgive you, confused journalists; I forgive you, nervous negroes–I forgive you.”
Having lived for so long at the center of a world he built, Wright may simply not be used to restraining himself. (Indeed, during the past year, even as he had to know that Obama’s high profile could bring the press to his pews, he continued to evangelize against the government.) But it isn’t just that Wright is self-centered, although that seems to be the case; it is also that his worldview doesn’t recognize firm boundaries between religion and politics, or really between religion and anything. When Wright finally carried out his long-planned retirement at the end of February (no doubt much to Obama’s relief), his church held a two-week-long celebration honoring him as a “Theologian/ Teacher,” “Ethnomusicologist,” and “African World Visionary.” Don’t laugh; for Wright, such distinctions are necessarily fluid. The sermon I attended freely mixed faith and politics–at one point, Wright intoned, “I got to tell somebody what the Lord has done for my people. I’m gonna use my mouth! Listen to me and listen carefully: Neither Hillary, Hannity, nor Hobbes ever had a grandparent in slavery or on a slave ship beneath the decks, never had a grandparent in a slave dungeon on the coast of West Africa as a prisoner. That’s my people’s story, and if you think I’m gonna stop telling it, you got another damn thing coming!” No wonder he can’t resist sparring with Sean Hannity and The New York Times.
Over the past week, as the controversy surrounding his anti-American rhetoric has grown, Wright has remained uncharacteristically silent. Does this mean that the pastor has finally taken Obama’s hints and resolved to shun the spotlight? Somehow, I doubt it. Like other people who believe the world revolves around them, Jeremiah Wright never seems to stay quiet for long.