Approximately two decades ago, while he was working as an activist in Chicago, Obama came to the Trinity Church in order to hear its pastor Jeremiah Wright. Obama was not particularly religious; in fact, when pastors asked which church he attended, he typically hemmed and hawed. But, in The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes, “I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change.” Trinity, Obama had heard, was that kind of church. Obama’s interest was sharply boosted when he saw a sign spiked into the grass outside the church building: FREE SOUTH AFRICA. In the Reverend Wright, Obama encountered a man who frequently wore a dashiki or other African garb. A charismatic figure who was also an intellectual, Wright was capable of moving between the First World and the Third World, and of blending literary and political references with his biblical themes.
The sermon Obama heard that first day was called “The Audacity of Hope.” It was a cosmopolitan address: Wright spoke of hardship in America, but he also spoke of Sharpeville, South Africa, and Hiroshima. Wright said, “The world … seems on the brink of destruction. Famine ravages millions of inhabitants in one hemisphere, while feasting and gluttony are enjoyed by inhabitants of another hemisphere.” Obama reproduces the following passage as one that especially struck him. “It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year, where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere.… That’s the world!” The anti-colonial themes are obvious here: North versus South; rich, white Europeans versus the poor, dark-skinned people of Africa and the Caribbean. These were the themes of Obama’s life, and he was drawn in from the start.
Since Wright’s name surfaced during the presidential campaign, there has been much speculation about why Obama picked Trinity as his home church. After all, there were plenty of others to choose from, including several large churches that would also have served as a strong political base for Obama, and others that were closer to the South Side of Chicago where Obama lived. Many conservative critics of Obama pointed to Wright’s controversial statements—such as his chant of “God damn America!” or his insistence that the U.S. government was deliberately spreading AIDS in the black community—and insisted that Obama must have agreed with them. Obama himself said he never heard those statements, and his liberal supporters suggested that perhaps he didn’t quite know what Wright was all about.
|Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel|
None of this makes any sense. Certainly it is preposterous to suggest that Obama shared Wright’s crackpot conspiracies about AIDS and the government. Nor can I envision Obama himself joining with Wright in chanting “God damn America.” On the other hand, it is equally absurd to claim that Obama was clueless about Wright’s real views. He attended the church for two decades. Throughout this time, the Obamas supported the church financially, and in 2007 they donated $22,500 to Trinity, their single largest charitable contribution. Wright presided over Obama’s wedding and baptized his two children. Even more telling, just as Obama took his father’s name Barack as a tangible sign of his identification with him, so too Obama took the title of Wright’s sermon “The Audacity of Hope” and made it the title of his second book. Some have suggested that Wright became a kind of surrogate father for Obama. In any event, over time Obama and Wright developed a close relationship. And clearly an intelligent man like Obama knew who Wright was and what he stood for; in fact, those were his main reasons for choosing Trinity and staying there.
What was it about Wright that appealed so much to Obama? The crucial issue was anti-colonialism, and this is a central theme in Wright’s sermons, but it’s been ignored because hardly anyone has taken what the man says seriously. Yet Wright has been stressing this theme all along.