As a major Obama supporter who’s been dwelling on the subject of the questionable value of religion, recent events regarding his relationship with Jeremiah Wright have me a little shaken. One question I ask myself is, how religious is Obama really? Did he choose to join this church as a typically political antidote to the taboo against being irreligious? Did he do it just for street cred in the black community? Maybe the guy is really, deeply religious as he claims? I’ve never been sure I wanted to believe this last possibility, but on the other hand, he’s always struck me as being authentic, so to be a true believer would be in line with that.
I just came across an intriguing read in TNR addressing this question, Why’d Obama Join Trinity in the First Place?
I’ve heard two basic theories since the Wright tapes first surfaced in March. The first is cynical: Obama was a black politician in Chicago with an exotic background and intimidating credentials. He needed a home in a black church to gain credibility with his less educated, less affluent, more parochial-minded constituents. Trinity offered him the requisite cred.
The second, not entirely unrelated, theory is psychoanalytical: Obama, as the product of a racially-mixed marriage, in which the black father was almost entirely absent, had spent his whole life groping for an authentic identity. Wright offered Obama both the father and the identity he never had.
The problem with both theories is that they don’t answer the question of why this particular church, this particular pastor. Yes, Wright was a prominent figure with a large congregation. But surely there were other pastors and churches that fit that profile. And, in retrospect, probably distinctly less controversial ones.
So what drew him to Wright in particular? Well, the one thing that is without doubt about Obama is that he is one smart cookie, and apparently- regardless of his passion and contentious approach- so is Wright.
…Trinity’s less doctrinal approach to the Bible intrigued and attracted Obama. “Faith to him is how he sees the human condition,” Wright said. “Faith to him is not . . . litmus test, mouth-spouting, quoting Scripture. It’s what you do with your life, how you live your life. That’s far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says women shouldn’t wear pants or if you drink, you’re going to hell. That’s just not who Barack is.”
This makes me feel even better about Obama, personally. He’s not so much religious as that he has an affinity for spirituality and he could see that it could have a positive influence in people’s lives and in his own. In the black community where he saw an opportunity to make a difference and build a promising career, this church and this pastor were the appropriate choices to nurture that spiritual core and become integrated into the community he hoped to energize.
Obama’s decision to jettison Wright is a tough one that can be seen is multiple ways. Did his once dear friend and mentor become too politically dangerous so he ‘threw him under the bus’ to get the media off his back? Did he react in anger to Wright’s characterization of him as purely a politician in the things he said about him in his Philadelphia speech? Was it the final stage in a maturing process, where he realized the need to be his own man in spiritual matters, one of those ‘kill the Bhudda’ moments? Probably a mix of all these things.
I feel better than ever about Obama as a great potential president after this, but less confident in the American people and especially the media to bother to understand these complexities. They like politics and religion to be straightforward and simple. What brand of belief does he profess, is it close enough to the officially sanctioned Judeo-Christian tradition? Does he hang with terrorists and radicals? He has to be safely religious but not go Jim Jones or Koresh on us. I also doubt their ability to forgive his wavering commitment to someone he once respected and admired. Too much of the dreaded monstrous flip-flop. OTOH, MSNBC’s panel of pundits were almost unanimous in thinking it would rescue his campaign in a big way, Perhaps they’re ready to frame this as a transcendent moment in the campaign where Obama put his biggest issue to rest and moves on to decisively claim the nomination. Maybe this will be old news by November and McCain will be stumbling with his own pastor problems.
I have my doubts we’ve heard the last of it and it will most likely dog Obama all the way to November to some extent if not blow him out of the water completely. A lot might hinge on him winning North Carolina decisively and at least being competitive in Indiana.
Like I believe I said recently, the Godly are dangerous.