Before the break up: Sen. Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright share a cozy moment in March.

Photo: Trinity United Church of Christ/Religion News Service.











































































































The Rev. Wright Stuff

Today's prophets aren't any more popular than they were in the time of another Jeremiah.

By Mary Beth Crain

Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s a corker, all wright. Part preacher, part showman, part rabble-rouser and all ego, he’s determined never to go unnoticed. No humble shrinking violet, this man of God. As he tears across the vast terrain of our country’s racist history, his blazing rhetoric leaves skid marks on the angry white American psyche—and on the Obama campaign.

Wright, as we all know by now, was Barack Obama’s “spiritual mentor,” and was his pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ for 20 years, until Wright recently retired after 36 years in the pulpit. Wright married Barack and Michelle and baptized their two daughters. Obama appointed the Reverend to his African American Religious Leadership Committee, and even titled his best-selling personal memoir, “The Audacity of Hope,” after one of Wright’s sermons. And now…

In the immortal words of Jerome Kern, “I Loved You So…But the Dream Is Over.” A couple of months ago, the media got wind of some of Wright’s more outrageous left-of-left-wing and reverse racist diatribes, and suddenly it wasn’t cool to be anywhere near the good Reverend. At least not if you were running for prez. Two particularly unruly sound bites—“God damn America!” and that one about how America’s own terrorist policies brought about 9/11 and “the chickens came home to roost”—were so embarrassing that Obama immediately “distanced” himself from his beloved spiritual advisor and condemned his “outrageous and inappropriate” remarks.

But the fun was just beginning. Wright isn’t the type to go gentle into that good night of political expediency. He got pissed off—at Obama, at the media, at everybody—and proceeded to stick to his guns with even more incendiary verbiage. And for the last two days, he’s been way out there in everybody’s face, first at Sunday’s fundraising dinner for the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, and then Monday morning at the opening of a Religion in America symposium at the National Press Club, trumpeting his beliefs as if they were coming straight out of Gabriel’s horn, dominating the airwaves and undoubtedly giving poor Barack one hell of another Excedrin headache.

I myself was supremely irritated by Wright’s seemingly anti-American, anti-white, pro-Al Qaeda thunderings, along with a few choice ethnic slurs that were more hilarious than offensive. When I heard he’d referred to the Italians as “garlic noses,” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Was he for real? And it just kept getting worse. Wright apparently was chummy with, among other notorious pariahs, Louis Farrakhan and Muammar al-Gadaffi. He was even reputed to have remarked, “When Barack’s enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli [to visit] Gadaffi with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up like a snowball in hell.” Ouch! Pass me the triple strength Excedrin. On second thought, just give me a knife so I can slit my own throat.

What did that say about Barack Obama, the Great Unifier? I sure didn’t want anybody who called Rev. Wright his spiritual mentor to be checking into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. What was even more annoying, though, was Obama’s sudden and pathetically transparent defection from the Wright ranks. Back in March, he tried to defend himself by saying that he “wasn’t aware” of Wright’s worst remarks, adding that just because Wright was his pastor didn’t mean that he agreed with everything the Reverend said. Then he continued to dig himself deeper and deeper into his looming political grave by saying that he really only remained at Trinity United because he knew Wright was retiring. The more he opened his mouth, the more hypocritical and disingenuous he sounded.

And Rev. Wright was having none of it! This morning, when he spoke at the National Press Club, he fielded some pointed questions, among which was “What was your reaction to Barack Obama distancing himself from you?”
“Senator Obabma is a politician,” Wright replied. “That’s what you do when you’re a politician, if you want to win. That’s his job. I am a pastor. I speak the truth. That’s my job. I am answerable to a higher authority.” Oh my God—and that’s supposed to help the Obama campaign? Telling the world that their candidate speaketh with forked tongue because that’s his job?

I couldn’t sit through Wright’s entire NAACP address the previous night because he was simply so long-winded, self-importantoxnd obnoxious. His voice dripped with sarcasm as he patiently explained, over and over and over, that “different is not deficient.” He showed off his extensive intellectual prowess by quoting endless theological and sociological sources. He mugged shamelessly, singing, dancing, condescendingly imitating John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whose heavy accents were never considered examples of bad English, Wright said, unlike black children, whose accents are always put down as bad English. His oration was pompous and meandering; at times I wondered if he was high, he seemed so manic and rambling. The worst of it was, when he was finished, he wasn’t finished. He was on to D.C. for his National Press Club debut. “Why doesn’t this guy just go away?” Hardball’s Chris Matthews moaned, undoubtedly echoing Barack Obama’s exact thoughts.

And then, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, a metamorphosis occurred. As Wright took center stage at the Press Club, the haranguing, pontificating, insulting stance of the night before was replaced by a calm, articulate, very nearly brilliant discourse on the history of the black church in America, its proud roots in social and political activism, its caring and nurturing attitude toward humanity as contrasted with our government’s destructive and immoral policies. Everything he said made sense. He was so passionately rational, in fact, that I found myself falling under his spell.

And then I think I began to understand Jeremiah Wright. As arrogantly egotistical and appallingly insulting as he can be, he does speak the truth, about many things that nobody wants to hear. And, as he is quite fond of pointing out, so did Jesus. Our precious Lord was not the meek, gentle lamb we like to make him out to be. He was a noisy, rabble-rousing lefty whose legions were the poor and the disenfranchised. He had fits of rage and told the oppressors where to go. He didn’t care if he pissed people off. That was his job. Yes. That was his job.

I’m not saying Rev. Wright is Jesus Christ, mind you. But I am saying that he is far more complex than I, and many Americans, have given him credit for—because his cause, and the issues he addresses, are far more complex than we want to admit. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of him—in fact, we ain’t seen nuttin’ yet. “I told Senator Obama, if you win on November 5, I’m coming after you!” Wright told the Press Club crowd. “Because you are now the representative of a government that grinds people down.” No, this Jeremiah—like the one in the OT—isn’t letting anybody get away with anything. And that might not be such a bad thing. After all, it was the prophets who were put there to hold everybody accountable. They were the world’s conscience. Everyone hated them, and most of the time they would rather have been anywhere else on earth. But they had no choice. That was their job.


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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Why I Want to Be Pope.

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