Obama and Race From an Evangelical Point of View

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” Barack Obama

There’s an old saying in the theater — leave them wanting more. Last week, Barack Obama left me wanting more in his speech to Pennsylvania and the nation on race. We thought we were going to get an explanation as to why Barack Obama sat in the pews of the church of Jeremiah Wright over the last two decades while Wright preached his own brand of Black Liberation Theology.

I am one of those: a born-again evangelical Christian. I am writing this on Easter Sunday, which is for me the holiest day of the year and epitomizes why Black Liberation Theology, or should I say Jeremiah Wright’s brand of it, is wrong. Jesus Christ pointed out the problems of the world and didn’t look for government to be the answer. His greatest “commandment” was to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A relationship with Him is all about a personal, direct relationship that transforms you from the inside out. In addition, even at the time of the most pain and suffering of Jesus, he thought of others and their salvation. That, my friends, is the ultimate “cross to bear” of His people here on Earth.

There’s a little book out there called, “Freedom,” by Michael Thurmond. Mike is the Labor Commissioner of Georgia and the book is about the history of blacks in Georgia before the Civil War. Mike is black and has been elected to the State House in a majority white district and has been elected and re-elected statewide by a majority white electorate as a Democrat in a state that is becoming more Republican every election cycle. One of the things that he looks at in “Freedom,” is the role that religion plays in the black story.

Christian faith has liberated blacks in this country and around the world. The largest number of new Christians is in Africa and that continent is slowly being transformed for the better in the areas where Christianity is strongest. I say all this to affirm that Jeremiah Wright’s form of theology is the minority within the black church experience.

It would have been nice if Obama had gotten up last week and said, “I joined this church because I didn’t really know what the black church experience was like and this was the biggest church in town and if I — as a Harvard educated lawyer — was going to have credibility in this community, I had to ‘get down with the struggle’ or not be elected to anything.” He didn’t say that. He left some doors open and, to make it worse, he compared the relationship he has with Jeremiah Wright with the relationship he has with his white grandmother. The average American didn’t get that.

The message of black theology is that the African American struggle for liberation is ongoing and consistent with the Gospel. Everything preached from the pulpit must be consistent with the goals of liberation. And it maintains that this is necessary even today and that African Americans must be liberated from multiple forms of bondage — social, political, economic and religious. This liberation involves empowerment and seeks the right of self-definition, self-affirmation and self-determination.

The founders of contemporary black liberation theology wanted to align themselves with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after his death (though there was some attempt to include him in life). But this movement was in the beginning a pulling away from the non-violent and inclusive nature of the message of Dr. Martin Luther King. Some in King’s inner circle believed he was losing some of the unity of the movement at the time of his death. This is still a subject that is very difficult to talk about for many living at that time and most won’t go on the record to discuss it. However, last week in Obama’s speech, the pain was perceptible on both sides.

It was for lack of a better phrase, “an OJ moment,” but not altogether in a racial way. If you are an Obama supporter, you probably believed the speech to be a home run to be remembered right up there with the “I Have A Dream” speech by MLK. If you were undecided or opposed to Obama, you thought it was lacking.

As an evangelical, I would have liked to have heard less about race and more about Obama’s relationship with his church, what he believes and what he supports through the church. With the Mitt Romney speech as a guide from few months ago, we know more about what Mitt Romney’s faith is than we do about Barack Obama. If Obama wins the nomination, this will not be the end of this story.