The Trinity United Church of Christ, the church that Barack Obama attends in Chicago, is at once vast and unprepossessing, a big structure a couple of blocks from the projects, in the long open sore of a ghetto on the city's far South Side. The church is a leftover vision from the Sixties of what a black nationalist future might look like. There's the testifying fervor of the black church, the Afrocentric Bible readings, even the odd dashiki. And there is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a sprawling, profane bear of a preacher, a kind of black ministerial institution, with his own radio shows and guest preaching gigs across the country. Wright takes the pulpit here one Sunday and solemnly, sonorously declares that he will recite ten essential facts about the United States. "Fact number one: We've got more black men in prison than there are in college," he intones. "Fact number two: Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!" There is thumping applause; Wright has a cadence and power that make Obama sound like John Kerry. Now the reverend begins to preach. "We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional KILLERS. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. . . . We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. . . . We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!" The crowd whoops and amens as Wright builds to his climax: "And. And. And! GAWD! Has GOT! To be SICK! OF THIS SHIT!"It seems to me that the Reverend Wright is still stuck in the early 1960s, to say the least, and refuses to see the many positive strides the United States has made in race relations. It's not all good, not by a long shot, but Wright makes the typical radical mistake of dismissing the good because it's not perfect.
This is as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, as much Malcolm X as Martin Luther King Jr. Wright is not an incidental figure in Obama's life, or his politics. The senator "affirmed" his Christian faith in this church; he uses Wright as a "sounding board" to "make sure I'm not losing myself in the hype and hoopla." Both the title of Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, and the theme for his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 come from Wright's sermons. "If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a leader of the religious left, "just look at Jeremiah Wright."
Obama wasn't born into Wright's world. His parents were atheists, an African bureaucrat and a white grad student, Jerry Falwell's nightmare vision of secular liberals come to life. Obama could have picked any church — the spare, spiritual places in Hyde Park, the awesome pomp and procession of the cathedrals downtown. He could have picked a mosque, for that matter, or even a synagogue. Obama chose Trinity United. He picked Jeremiah Wright. Obama writes in his autobiography that on the day he chose this church, he felt the spirit of black memory and history moving through Wright, and "felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams."
Obama has now spent two years in the Senate and written two books about himself, both remarkably frank: There is a desire to own his story, to be both his own Boswell and his own investigative reporter. When you read his autobiography, the surprising thing — for such a measured politician — is the depth of radical feeling that seeps through, the amount of Jeremiah Wright that's packed in there. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising. Obama's life story is a splicing of two different roles, and two different ways of thinking about America's. One is that of the consummate insider, someone who has been raised believing that he will help to lead America, who believes in this country's capacity for acts of outstanding virtue. The other is that of a black man who feels very deeply that this country's exercise of its great inherited wealth and power has been grossly unjust. This tension runs through his life; Obama is at once an insider and an outsider, a bomb thrower and the class president. "I'm somebody who believes in this country and its institutions," he tells me. "But I often think they're broken."
News flash: this nation is never going to be perfect. The Founders wanted us to strive for a "more perfect union," by which they meant that for all the essential flaws of our humanity we should never stop trying to make a better nation. And so it has been: two steps forward, one step back.
The above article alone should put to rest the facile lie Obama has told, and most have accepted, that the ravings we heard from Reverend Wright this past spring were new or unacceptable to Obama. They were the very bread and butter of the Trinity Church, and for better or worse what drew him to that church in the first place.
Here's the full, in-context speech of the Reverend Wright, put on YouTube by the Trinity United Church itself (warning, it's nearly 7 minutes long, but worth watching):
And, Senator Obama's first (37 minutes long!) response, when he refused to disavow Wright and compared Wright's racism to his white grandmother's, without making the obvious point that she, at least, did not preach said racism to a crowd of 5,000 strong each and every Sunday:
Draw your own conclusions.
Hat Tip: Victor Hanson, whose writing pointed me to the Rolling Stone article.