Yesterday, Barack Obama gave a major speech in Philadelphia on the subject of race. This followed last week’s media tempest over sermon excerpts by the senator’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama rejected the controversial statements, carefully stood up for the man himself, and moved on to grander themes.
Few commentators have been willing to get much closer than Obama did to actually defending what Wright said—most notoriously, “God damn America.” Most have started by condemning it and proceeded to focus on why all this is or isn’t relevant to the presidential campaign.
But a couple of people have provided some helpful context. Writing on the Huffington Post, Frank Schaeffer, son of the late religious right icon Francis Schaeffer, points out that, naughty words aside, the spirit of “God damn America” is commonplace in far-right pulpits. He observes that when his father “denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government” over issues such as secular humanism and legal abortion, “he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr.”
What’s more, Jonathan L. Walton argues in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, many right-wing preachers are far more offensive than Wright: Unlike him, though, they don’t have the moral authority of a leader of a systematically oppressed community. “There is a difference between speaking truth to power in defense of the least of these," insists Walton, “and scapegoating the defenseless on behalf of the status-quo.” Both Wright and the elder Schaeffer’s successors are clearly prone to hyperbole—they don't actually want to see God or anyone else destroy America. But the religious right doesn’t share Wright’s inheritance of a long tradition of using extreme rhetoric to illuminate extreme injustice: the tradition of the black church pulpit.
Black church preaching can be difficult for white people to hear—even for religion scholars, as Diana Butler Bass attests on God’s Politics, a blog of Sojourners magazine. Bass takes a look at black preaching throughout U.S. history, finding that “throughout the entire corpus, black Christian leaders leveled a devastating critique against their white brothers and sisters—accusing white Christians of maintaining ‘ease in Zion’ while allowing black people to suffer injustice and oppression.” Hearing Wright over and over on television, Bass says she doesn’t “hear the words of a ‘dangerous’ preacher... I hear Frederick Douglass.”
Also on God’s Politics, Adam Taylor places Wright firmly within the “black prophetic tradition,” noting that even the revered Martin Luther King Jr. made some pretty incendiary statements, though they’re not the ones we’ve chosen to immortalize. “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty.” That’s not Wright, leading up to “God damn America.” That’s Dr. King.
Here’s how Wright did immediately follow last week’s ubiquitous three-word sound bite: “That’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.” It was a jeremiad, a passionate, hyperbolic sermon with activist motives. It’s no coincidence that Jeremiah’s giving jeremiads—both the term and the name come from the Hebrew Bible prophet Jeremiah. Like other biblical prophets, Jeremiah, claiming to speak for God, denounced Israel. “On your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor,” he declared. “You shall be put to shame.”
Wright’s no extremist; he’s an especially provocative participant in a rhetorically colorful tradition that predates the Civil War—and in a broader one that’s literally ancient. The prophet Jeremiah’s fellow citizens tried to kill him. But, through the lens of distance and his inclusion in the canon, Jews and Christians take it as received wisdom that Jeremiah was right. The Israelites were wrong to attack someone willing to speak truth to power, however indelicately. And Americans are wrong to do it now.