Religion and Politics in the Age of Obama

Barbara Savage speaks at the 31st Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Public Affairs Lecture

In 1988, a twenty-something community organizer in Chicago named Barack Obama stumbled into Trinity United Church of Christ and fell to his knees beneath an old rugged cross, according to his memoir “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.”

Had this event not occurred, Obama possibly wouldn’t have been elected president of the United States 20 years later in the view of Barbara Savage, professor of American social thought at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The American people are still not prepared to elect a president who is not a Christian,” Savage said.

Savage came to Syracuse University to give the 31st Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Public Affairs Lecture, organized by the Department of African-American Studies, on Feb. 26 in Maxwell Auditorium. The lecture was largely based on Savage’s book “Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion.”

A significant part of her talk was devoted to discuss three of the “confrontations” that Obama has had to face in his public life.

The first one was with his former spiritual and political adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Trinity’s pastor emeritus.

Savage suggested that Obama’s critics scrutinized his every move seeking to dig up dirt on him. Eventually, video clips surfaced on YouTube showing Wright claiming that the U.S. government had in some way been involved in the invention of HIV to use it against “people of color,” among other allegations. After outrage in many quarters followed Wright’s contentions, Obama cut his ties with the pastor and Trinity Church.

Savage provided the backstory of this outcome. She said that the expansion of the black middle class resulted in the creation of megachurches, which tended to focus on the individual rather than on the communal. Along came Wright, “who placed himself in the biblical and historical tradition of the prophet Isaiah of working to change the oppressive structure of a social order gone sour.” Wright distanced Trinity from the more mainstream places of worship by implementing a different approach: to create a socially active and service-oriented church to help the urban poor. “Wright developed programs to support the elderly, unemployed, homeless, inmates, and people with HIV/AIDS and in alcohol/drug recovery,” she said.

During this period, Obama, then director of the Developing Communities Project, was in search for community and wholeness. “He wanted a way out of loneliness in a church where religious commitment and critical thinking were mutually reinforcing,” Savage added.

But Wright had a larger agenda, one that transcended local issues, as he supported black cultural nationalism and harshly criticized the U.S. government’s foreign policy as reeking of imperialism and militarism. Every step that Obama took while climbing up the political career ladder increased exponentially the potential of a run-in with his pastor as Obama knew that explicitly embracing Wright’s perspectives would have been equivalent to political suicide. “The preacher and the politician were destined for conflict,” Savage said and quoted Wright as warning Obama, “If you get elected, I’m coming after you, because you’ll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.”

Then Savage proceeded to examine a second confrontation involving Obama’s religion, this one pitting him against Tea Party supporters such as Sarah Palin. The Tea Party tried to portray Obama as being a Muslim, alleging that Obama’s father had been a Muslim and that Obama was raised in Indonesia, which is a Muslim country. Savage disputed these notions by saying that Obama grew up in a non-religious home.

Cornel West rounded out the list of Obama’s sparring partners discussed by Savage. West is a conspicuous African-American public intellectual who has taught at Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities, among other institutions of higher learning, and who is still at Princeton. He stands on the opposite side of the political spectrum in comparison to the Tea Party.

West has slammed Obama for conducting U.S. policies that have allegedly resulted in injustices both internally and externally. Savage said that it’s a challenge for a black man to have the reins of a capitalist democracy and the greatest military machine in the world. “West suffered a backlash for his remarks from the black community because its first instinct is to protect and shield a black president,” she added.

Horace Campbell, an African-American studies professor, didn’t fear a backlash. “Obama is trapped by liberal capitalism and the capitalist crisis,” he said from the upper seats of the auditorium.

During the 1988 vice-presidential debate the Democratic candidate Lloyd Bentsen told his Republican counterpart, Dan Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Savage didn’t go as far as telling Obama, “You’re no Martin Luther King.” Nevertheless, she didn’t explicitly included Dr. King on the list of black intellectuals and activists of the 20th century whose spirits Obama supposedly embodies.

“Obama twenty-first century ideas about race, religion, and politics remain firmly within the ideological, religious and political traditions of W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Carter Woodson, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Benjamin Mays,” she said. She implied that Wright was ideologically closer to Dr. King than Obama was. “Wright was a prophetic minister like Martin Luther King,” she went on to say.

In his memoir, written before his public spat with Wright, Obama attributed to his former pastor the understanding “that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking.” As pastor means shepherd in Latin and shepherds lead flocks of sheep, which don’t possess critical thinking, Obama seemed to be saying that his relationship with Wright was never purely grounded on dogmatic principles. This way Obama got an insurance policy against potential Wright’s deviations from Obama’s political campaign messages.

The presentation ended fittingly with Savage evoking Dr. King’s sermon, delivered on Sept. 9, 1954, to the 74th Annual Session of the National Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Mo., in which he addressed the theme “The Vision of a World Made New.” In the homily he spoke of those who suffered from a divine discontent with the old order and who were working to realize a vision of a new order. He juxtaposed the old and the new through pairings of injustice and justice, darkness and light, an old Jerusalem and a new Jerusalem, and endorsing John’s Gospel revelation of a new heaven and a new earth, Savage said.

Dr. King added: “We must rediscover that all reality has spiritual control. It is possible to affirm there is a God with our lips but deny it with our lives. Most of us unconsciously leave God behind. He admonished us to pick up these values so we can move forward to the New World.”



– Article by Miguel Balbuena, Community Correspondent for The Stand

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