When it was revealed that Sen. Barack Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had called upon his congregation to reject "God Bless America" and instead shout "God damn America," the Democratic presidential candidate was forced into damage control. Obama distanced himself from the remarks, calling them "inflammatory rhetoric," and Wright, who was an adviser to the senator, no longer serves on the campaign in any capacity. In an impassioned speech on Tuesday, Obama reflected on the "racial stalemate" that has divided this country and reiterated his denunciation of his pastor's comments, but added, "I can no more disown him [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother."
Edward J. Blum, a historian of race and religion at San Diego State University and author of "W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet" and "Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898," suggests that while some Americans may be understandably offended by Wright's divisive remarks, those remarks are part of a long and storied tradition among African-American church leaders who have forged Christian ideologies and rhetoric to condemn racial discrimination. Blum spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about this history and the entry of race as a front-burner issue in this presidential campaign. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You've said that African-American church leaders have taken America's Christian values and turned them against the nation's practitioners of racial discrimination, violence and imperialism for hundreds of years. When and how did this tradition begin?
Edward J. Blum: It began even before the United States became the United States, during the slave trade. Throughout slavery, African-Americans used the Bible to challenge their enslavement. Olaudah Equiano, a slave who was later freed, wrote a narrative juxtaposing the Christianity of the slaveholders vs. his own Christianity. Frederick Douglass said he hated the Christianity of whites but loved the Christianity of Christ. As Africans became Americans and embraced Christianity, they continued to turn the teachings of Jesus against whites.
But we've obviously come far since the days of Frederick Douglass. Is it still appropriate or effective for African-American pastors to condemn America with such harsh rhetoric?
Well, it's important to make a distinction between prophets and politicians. Rev. Wright doesn't want to be a politician, he wants to be a prophet, and prophets always border on treason and heresy. Their social function is to push the envelope, to speak the unspeakable. Politicians like Obama, however, have a different set of tasks. Their job is to bring unity among diversity. For Obama it would be inappropriate to say "God damn America," but not for Rev. Wright.
How do you think Obama handled this controversy in his speech on Tuesday?
He handled it beautifully, because he refused to repudiate Wright completely. He held on to the notion that [Wright] was a strong influence in his life, while repudiating specific words. Obama, who is savvy about hating the sin and loving the sinner, continues to see Wright as more than just those words. And let's not forget that the notion of God judging America doesn't just come from African-American churches or from the left. We heard it from Billy Graham as far back as the 1960s, and more recently from [one right-wing religious group] who would go to soldiers' funerals and say that the war was happening because of homosexuality and that God is judging America. It comes from different places for different reasons.
How much damage do you think the surfacing of Wright's remarks has inflicted on Obama's campaign, especially among non-African-Americans?
There is real damage. I've gotten two types of e-mails since Obama made his speech [on Tuesday], the first set coming from other academics who support Obama reminding me that great African-American leaders throughout history have said these same types of things. I've received another set of e-mails from old friends from high school, more white, middle-class, mainstream folks, who are all saying the same thing: "Can you believe this guy [Wright] said this?"
Do you think Michelle Obama's comment in Wisconsin last month that, “for the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country” will resonate more negatively in some voters' minds now with the revelation of Wright's remarks?
Yes. It already is being used in the blogosphere. The question of Obama's relationship to American patriotism and nationalism will be asked more forcefully now.
Obama's upbringing was secular, but while living in Chicago in his late 20s he embraced Christianity and Rev. Wright's church. What do you think attracted him to Christianity and to this congregation?
The church is the heart and soul of black organizing, language and rhetoric. I'm sure all of those factors brought him. And it wouldn't surprise me if he found real emotional sustenance and belief there, as well. The church was one of first organizations where African-Americans could lead. Your country tells you you are a boy, you are soulless, you are beneath human, but you can go to church and be a son and daughter and prince and princess of God. It's a place where workers became accountants, where you learned skills of leadership and business, and that history is still with us. And it's appropriate Obama ends up in a church in Chicago, the hub of South-North interactions, of African-American history. Thousands of African-Americans sang hymns on trains to Chicago. They would stop their watches as they passed the Mason-Dixon line, and bring their church sensibilities with them.
If Obama is the Democratic nominee, how big an issue will these remarks by his longtime reverend, and the issue of race in general, be in the general election?
They will be an issue, but [presumptive nominee] John McCain will have to be very careful about using any words than can be racially coded. And I suspect he'll push hard to win the support of the Latino community, his easier, more natural political ally. There are ugly aspects of this, but a more open discussion of race could be edifying if there are truly deep conversations about the realities of discrimination. There's still a racial divide in this country; having these conversations could be a positive.
So you're saying something good may have come out of Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory remarks?
His rhetoric is certainly problematic and troubling, but prophets, whether it be Wright or W.E.B. Du Bois, are necessary. They dream dreams, they cast visions, they challenge the world as it is. In 1904 Du Bois said that God is made of one blood, and that all men are brothers. That was absolutely treasonous talk in 1904. But of course you look back now and say his vision was right.