Barack Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became a household name last month when ABC News reported on some of Wright’s inflammatory sermons. As his applauding congregation cheered him on, the former leader of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ condemned the U.S. government for “killing innocent people” and for treating American citizens, especially blacks, as “less than human.” “God Damn America,” Rev. Wright preached.
These sentiments were entirely consistent with comments Wright had made many times during his long pastoral career. From the pulpit, Rev. Wright also has taught that AIDS was concocted by the federal government as a genocidal plot against blacks. On another occasion, he declared, “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run! ... We [Americans] believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God.”
Millions of Americans were shocked to hear such vituperative rage and unrestrained anti-American hatred. They need not have been surprised. Rev. Wright’s passionate disdain for his country, and his belief that black Americans are still singled out for persecution, is entirely in keeping with the political philosophy that underpins his religious views: Black Liberation Theology.
In March of 2007, FOX News host Sean Hannity had engaged Obama’s pastor in a heated interview about his Church’s teachings. For many viewers, the ensuing shouting match was their first exposure to “Black Liberation Theology,” and to the name of one of its leading mouthpieces, James Cone, a professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary and an iconic figure venerated by Rev. Wright.
Until ABC News picked up the story months later, Black Liberation Theology remained a rather obscure discipline, confined to the syllabi of liberal seminaries. But after Wright’s sermons were broadcast again and again on the news and the Internet, Black Liberation Theology once again commanded popular attention. After all, Barack Obama had joined Trinity twenty years earlier, had been married in the Church, and had his daughters baptized there. Obama and his wife had donated $22,500 to Trinity in 2006. The presidential hopeful even took the name of his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, from the title of one of Wright’s sermons. The beliefs held by a presidential candidate’s longtime pastor and spiritual advisor are therefore of great national interest.
And what are those beliefs? Like the pro-communist liberation theology that swept Central America in the 1980s and was repeatedly condemned by Pope John Paul II, Black Liberation Theology combines warmed-over 1960s vintage Marxism with carefully distorted biblical passages. However, in contrast to traditional Marxism, it emphasizes race rather than class. The Christian notion of “salvation” in the afterlife is superseded by “liberation” on earth, courtesy of the establishment of a socialist utopia.
The leading theorist of Black Liberation Theology is James Cone. Overtly racist, Cone’s writings posit a black Jesus who leads African-Americans as the “chosen people.” In Cone’s cosmology, whites are “the devil,” and “all white men are responsible for white oppression.” Cone makes this point without ambiguity: “This country was founded for whites and everything that has happened in it has emerged from the white perspective,” Cone has written. “What we need is the destruction of whiteness, which is the source of human misery in the world.”
If whiteness stands for all that is evil, blackness symbolizes all that is good. “Black theology,” says Cone, “refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community ... Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.” Small wonder that some critics have condemned black liberation theology as “racist idolatry” and “Afro-Nazism.”
Furthermore, according to Cone, “black values” are superior to American values. Sure enough, the “About Us” statement on Trinity’s web page includes the following Cone-inspired declaration: “We are an African people, and remain ‘true to our native land,’ the mother continent, the cradle of civilization.”
It is troubling that Barack Obama’s closest friends and allies subscribe to an explicitly racist doctrine. Even more worrying is that the main exponent of Black Liberation Theology sees Obama as a kindred spirit. In the wake of the controversy surrounding Obama’s pastor and Church, Cone said: “I’ve read both of Barack Obama’s books, and I heard the speech [on race]. I don’t see anything in the books or in the speech that contradicts black liberation theology.”
It’s tempting to see figures like Cone and Wright as fringe actors with no constituency in the wider black community. Yet Cone considers himself to be the natural successor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and not everyone finds the comparison jarring.
Similarly with Rev. Wright. At a summit of black pastors held shortly after the recent controversy broke, many defended Wright’s sermons as part of the “prophetic preaching” tradition embodied by the assassinated civil rights leader.
Said Rev. Frederick Haynes III, senior pastor at Friendship West Baptist Church: “If Martin Luther King, Jr. were pastoring a church today, it would look very much like Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, and the sermons you would hear him preach would sound very much” like Wright’s.
Stacey Floyd-Thomas, who teaches ethics and serves as Director of black church studies at Brite Divinity School in Texas, explained that King, foreshadowing Wright, had once called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Moreover, said Floyd-Thomas, King was assassinated before he could deliver his scheduled Sunday sermon entitled “Why America May Go to Hell.”
Black Liberation Theology, in short, cannot be dismissed as a minority view. Americans are thus left with the troubling knowledge that millions of their fellow citizens consider them to be “devils,” having been taught to think this way by their religious leaders. They must wonder, too, why they should entrust the presidency to a man who has surrounded himself with those who actively despise the very country he seeks to lead.