Obama's Reverend: No Politician

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is a man of many faces. He's an old-school '70s lefty, a man who preached every Sunday in what the American religion scholar Martin Marty has called "greenish African-American pajamas." He's an intellectual, a professor who reads Hebrew and Greek, a gifted musician who can play a wide variety of instruments and a teacher who feels comfortable tossing around words like "hermeneutics," as he did Monday morning in a speech at the National Press Club. And he's an angry black man, a pastor who has spent his life fighting injustice everywhere he sees it. When a questioner asked him to explain the now-familiar sound bite—a snippet from a sermon in which Wright damned America for sending its young men and women to war—Wright did not flinch. He said that he had told Barack Obama that if the Illinois senator were to be elected president, "On Nov. 5, I'm coming after you."

If Wright's speech on Monday—to an overflow crowd of press and members of the African-American religious establishment—showed anything, it's that these different personae don't always play well together. Wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a silver-gray tie, Wright sat on the dais before the proceedings began, looking professorial—a man with a long and proud career, chatting amiably with acolytes. When he began to speak, this side of him emerged even more. His remarks offered a history lesson to the white press, as he delivered an evenhanded lecture on the roots of the black church in America, going back to the days before emancipation, when black people had to worship God in secret. His elegant hands always in motion, he spoke movingly of a religion formed out of oppression and victimhood, a religion that preached always about justice and equality. And he chided the mainstream press for having just discovered this rich vein of American tradition. "These streams tragically remain 'invisible' to a dominant culture that knows nothing about those whom Langston Hughes calls 'the darker brother'," Wright said.

In his speech on race in March, Obama said that Wright saw the world through the lens of race—a lens that the candidate rejected as old-fashioned and out of date. "The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress has been made, as if in this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land … is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past," Obama said. On Monday morning Wright walked into the modern world, arguing that he and his church spoke for everyone, especially everyone who has ever been "invisible." "Maybe now," Wright said, "we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of 'invisibility' to the status of 'invaluable visibility,' not just for some black people in this country but for all people in this country!" With this rhetoric, Wright aligned himself with Obama and his commitment to diverse coalition-building—refusing, in a sense, to keep the distance Obama has tried so hard to create.

Only twice or three times during the speech did Wright's temperature go up; even then, it was nowhere near as hot as the searing images that have been looped over and over on cable television. Once, when talking about the difference between black worship and "European-American worship," he departed from the text before him. Black preaching is different, he said. It is not deficient. And then, in a clear reference to criticisms of his own controversial style, he added this: "It is not bombastic. It is not controversial." African-Americans in the audience cheered, "Go ahead, Doctor!" and the place erupted. In response to critics who have called into question his patriotism, he had this to say: "My goddaughter's unit just arrived in Iraq this week while those who call me unpatriotic have used their position of privilege to avoid military service." Again the room exploded, with members of the white press mutely scribbling in their notebooks or smiling silently, while African-Americans shouted and cheered. The speech itself was an A+ performance, a kind of Black Church 101 by one of its most decorated practitioners aimed at a white audience that, for the most part, hadn't a clue.

During the question-and-answer session, though, Wright showed another side of himself—a side that Marty, in an interview for a story about Obama's Trinity Church in Chicago, described as follows: "Funny as he can be, smiling, he can also be … I don't want to say aggressive. Kind of angry. That's what he grew up with; that's what he's part of."

This edgier aspect has been a problem for Obama—and will certainly continue to be as the race goes on. Fielding questions from the audience via a representative of the National Press Club, Wright was quick-witted and sometimes cruel to the questioner. He was sarcastic and blamed the media for the whole debacle surrounding the sound bites that have raised such questions, especially among white working-class voters. The media hasn't done its homework, he said; its members don't know anything about the black church and haven't listened to his sermons in full. The attacks on him have been an attack on his whole tradition—a tradition of which he's very proud, Wright said. When asked why he had decided to start speaking out now, he answered, "You think I'm going to let you talk about my mama and her religious traditions and my daddy and his religious traditions, you've got another think coming." These accusations may contain truth, but a smart politician would never have made them.

Wright was asked to explain his relationship with the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan, a relationship of particular concern to some Jewish voters. "Louis Farrakhan did not put me in chains. He did not put me in slavery, and he did not make me this color," Wright answered. When asked if he really believed the U.S. government spread AIDS among African-Americans, he said, "I believe our government is capable of doing anything … Yes, I believe we are capable." In an instant the professor had become, to use Wright's word, invisible, and the angry black man had taken his place.

Every church of any size—black or white—instantly puts its preacher's Sunday message on DVD these days, and the preacher's fans and students line up to purchase it in the bookstore after church. This is how Jeremiah Wright's sermons found their way onto cable news stations and became such a problem for Obama. Wright did not seek the national spotlight. It found him. His talk on Monday showed him to be a complex figure—a man of great intelligence and vision who, in a sense, is refusing in spite of Obama's declining poll numbers to stop preaching the message he's preached all along. Wright continues to be relentlessly, one could even say aggressively, critical of the white establishment on behalf of his own constituency—a constituency that does not generally include the white, beer-drinking working-class Democrats who Obama so badly needs to woo and win. Wright showed himself to be both professor and preacher. What he's not is what Obama now most needs him to be—and that is a politician.