Race & Religion

Senator Barack Obama's frank speech this past week was both timely and long overdue.

It was timely because as a would-be candidate for the Democratic Party's nomination for president, he could hardly afford to put off the distasteful task of disowning or distancing himself from the incendiary remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright, who received Obama into his church twenty-some years ago, and whose Trinity United Church of Christ had grown to a congregation of about six thousand members, has been an outspoken advocate of Black Liberation Theology, the North American spin-off of the Liberation Theology that took root in the Catholic Church in Latin America. And while the Latin American variety has, at least in the eyes of social and economic conservatives, been all too tainted with Marxist overtones, the Black variety of Liberation Theology, at least in some of its rhetoric as expounded by preachers like Wright, has sometimes sounded outright racist in reverse, damning not racism but white society in general as diabolical. Obama, as a person who is as much white as he is black, could hardly do other than repudiate this kind of talk if he hopes to become president.

That being said, much of what Obama said about the pent-up anger of both the black community who still feel the burden of discrimination, as well as that of whites who feel that they are being made unfairly pay the price for the discrimination of the past, is still long overdue, even forty some years after the supposed triumph of the civil rights movement. True, we have come a long way from the days of Jim Crow, but we still have a long way to go before people are really treated equally regardless of skin color. And the fact that white Americans are currently worked up over the large number of Hispanics--mostly brown skinned people whose ancestors for the most part were the original Americans--makes both whites and blacks feel equally threatened. So while politicians may rant about "illegal immigrants," few are honest enough to admit the huge amount of racial prejudice and outright bigotry that is involved, even when it is cloaked behind concerns over low wages and unemployment.  

Years ago, at a convention of Catholic theologians, I heard a very highly respected New Testament scholar take his audience to task for trying to read a quasi-political agenda in to a Gospel that is all about spiritual, not political, liberation. The message was not well-received. It seems that most of us would like to read our own pet agendas into the words of others, even if they are the words of Jesus.

Nevertheless, I think that no one who takes the Gospel and its message of spiritual liberation to heart can miss its political implications. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to account for Jesus' own crucifixion. Religion, if taken seriously, inevitably spills over into politics.

In something of a reverse of this perspective, I suspect that the candidacy of Barack Obama, while he disavows that it has anything to do with race or that electing him would eliminate all the prejudice and bigotry, it would prove a major turning point in America's history. If nothing else, his candidacy should prove a major test of whether Americans are really serious about their Christianity or whether their religion is just a pious disguise that only papers over their deeper prejudices.

R W Kropf   3/20/08                                                                             Race&Religion.doc