Jeremiah Wright: What (Else) Is Going On

Sara Robinson

Jeremiah Wright is everywhere this week — and the media doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Mostly, they’re stuck so hard in the election horse-race narrative that they only question they can think to ask is: Does having Wright out there hurt Obama, or help him?

Lost in the tortured pondering over this narrow question — apparently the only one that matters, to hear them tell it — is a lot of deeper context, without which none of Wright’s current situation and status make a whole lot of sense.

Some of that context has to do with who Wright is, and what role he plays on the larger stage of American religion. Some of it of it is rooted in popular narratives about religion that the GOP has worked overtime to sell; and that the media (along with many Christians) have never questioned. Some of may have to do with the way our broader assumptions about the role religion can and should play in 21st-century American culture and politics could be changing. These three factors are driving a whole backstory that nobody’s talking about; but which provides the deeper subtext we need to have if we’re going to understand what Jeremiah Wright represents, and the role he plays not just for Obama, but for the country.

Since the corporate media isn’t remotely up to the job of explaining all this — and probably wouldn’t if they could — let me fill you in on what else is going on here.

Liberation Theology versus the Prosperity Gospel
The basic elements of this backstory are deftly laid out in Sarah Posner’s thoughtful new book, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. The book takes a hard look at the explosive growth of the “prosperity gospel” evangelical subculture, which is frequently found in suburban megachurches — and is supplanting Martin Luther King’s liberation theology in some black churches around the country as well. Posner describes the essence of this consumerist “Word of Faith” gospel:

Word of Faith…emphasizes the power of the born-again believer in Jesus Christ to call things into existence, including the believer’s own physical and mental health and, more important, the believer’s financial prosperity. Because of its emphasis on the believer’s divine right to physical well-being and financial riches, Word of Faith is often called the “prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth gospel.”

…Yet while it presents itself as a benign message of hope and purpose, critics of Word of Faith charge that it is a heresy that robs its followers of spiritual fulfillment, an affinity fraud that robs them of their money, and a distortion of the Scriptures, run by authoritarian preachers who rob their followers of their autonomy.

According to the “Word of Faith” panjandrums, whatever followers give to their preacher, God will return several times over. Forget the bank: if you need a thousand dollars, give the church a hundred, and wait for your supernatural return on investment. Forget the doctor: if you’re sick or injured, a little extra in the bucket will incentivize God to restore your health. In an unapologetic return to the glory days before the Reformation, the system even allows people to buy indulgences: you can atone for your sins by helping the pastor buy that new Palm Springs golf retreat his ministry so badly needs!

Taking these mites from desperate and hopeful widows nets top prosperity gospel ministers millions of dollars a year: successful Word of Faith ministers own numerous homes, private jets and expensive cars. And these preachers’ followers support their imperial lifestyles wholeheartedly. Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” According to this theology, you can tell the Elect, because they’re the ones with the biggest bowl of fruit. It’s a belief system tailor – made to justify the most rapacious consumer society in history.

(This divinely-ordained pyramid scheme has not gone unnoticed. Six months ago, Senator Charles Grassley — R-IA and a staunch Baptist — took an interest in the way these ministers are using their non-profit status to generate vast fortunes. He asked six of the richest ministers, including Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn, to open their books and submit to investigation of their operations. Four have complied in whole or part; two, including Copeland, are refusing outright, howling that this is a breach of the church-state wall — you know, that same one they’ve been working overtime for years to tear down.)

The movement also a strong conservative political undercurrent, which Posner makes explicit:

Politically, Word of Faith is essentially a conservative movement that benefits from conservative policies….The prosperity gospel doesn’t need regulation or legislation. A believer doesn’t need the government to regulate corporations. If you don’t make enough money, it’s your own fault for not believing enough, for not speaking the word, for not claiming what is divinely yours. A believer doesn’t need a government safety net if things go wrong. As [Rod] Parsley says, “The best thing government can do to help the poor is get out of the way. If government reduced taxes, removed industrial restraints, eliminated wage controls, and abolished subsidies, tariff[s], and other constraints on free enterprise, the poor would be helped in a way that AFDC, Social Security, and unemployment could never match.” …His gospel is the ultimate laissez-faire capitalism, regulated only by the invisible hand of God.

Starting in the Reagan years — and with considerable practical and moral support from the GOP, which Posner documents — the prosperity gospel swept through the country’s Pentecostal churches, both black and white. To give you some idea of how incestuously this movement is bedded down in GOP politics, consider the fact that John McCain claims Rod Parsley and John Hagee — two of the nation’s biggest purveyors of the prosperity gospel — as his “spiritual advisors.” (A lot of us wondered why he chose these two, who are regarded as nutcases even by many Evangelicals; but reading Posner, the political ends being served become obvious.)

Needless to say: not everybody welcomed this new gospel with open arms. Millions of devout Evangelicals who’ve read their Bibles and noted Jesus’ contempt for greed, as well as those who hew to older and more rigorous theologies like the Social Gospel and King-style liberation theology, find the whole thing beyond offensive and verging on blasphemy. From the beginning, some of the country’s leading ministers, both black and white, have taken public exception to the idea of reducing God to the status of a personal ATM machine — and have pushed back hard against a movement that they feel is a not only an IRS-sanctioned form of fraud, but also a heresy against 2,000 years of Christian teaching.

And here’s where Jeremiah Wright comes into the story. According to Posner, Wright has been a visible and articulate critic of the GOP’s new pet theology over the years — one of a noisy clutch of ministers who’ve made no bones about the mischief inherent in this new theology. He’s also a respected and insightful proponent of black liberation theology, holding King’s torch high in the face of unscrupulous preachers who think they’re helping poor people by cajoling them to vote away their safety net and toss their government checks in the offering plate.

Beyond that: unlike the vast majority of these ministers, most of whom attended small Bible colleges of dubious accreditation (if they attended seminary at all), Wright has degrees from Howard University and the University of Chicago Theological Seminary. It’s gotta go down hard that he’s a black man who is far better-educated than they are, and can argue circles around them about the Bible or anything else. Take it as a whole picture, and it’s not hard to see that Wright is very sharp thorn in these people’s sides. As long as he and his friends out there, their 30-year investment in the whole Word of Life movement is at risk. Obama’s candidacy put him in the spotlight, and thus magnified the threat. So now he has very powerful enemies on the religious and political right.

Furthermore, turning Wright into a national demon was a two-fer. They could not only tank the Democrats’ front-runner; they’d also take down a serious and persuasive theologian who’s been calling them out hard on one of their longest-running and most successful efforts to sell the conservative worldview to the very people who stand to be most harmed by it.

That’s a big part of what’s driving the animus against Wright. It’s the issue he was addressing head-on at the National Press Club on Saturday, when he talked about how the storm of criticism surrounding his remarks was, in effect, criticism of the traditions of the black church. It also answers the burning question of why the GOP and the corporate media will not let this go. What’s happening here is bigger than just Barack and Hillary and John. It’s a struggle between two competing Protestant theologies, both of which claim tens of millions of adherents — and a galvanizing figure who hasn’t gotten the hint, and still keeps standing up for his flock against those bent on shearing them.

A Voice for The Silent Majority
There’s another part to this backstory as well. It has to do with the media’s dominant narratives about religion in general over the past three decades.

Ever since Reagan came to power, media stories having to do with religion have almost always reflected a basic duality. On one hand, you had urban secularists (including the media people themselves) who had no connection at all to religion, which they regarded as backward and the sign of an inferior mind — a contempt that was reflected in their generally incomplete and inaccurate coverage of the subject.

On the other hand, you had far-right preachers with loud voices and red faces hollering ignorant and irrational rants about gays, feminists, and liberals. To the secularists, these preachers’ histrionics came to represent the evils of all religion; and furthermore, they verified every bias they had against every form of religion. And the hostility was returned in full: to these preachers and their followers, the condescending media coverage nourished their already overfed inferiority and persecution complexes, driving them further and further out of the mainstream.

This polarization was a boon to the conservative movement, because it’s exactly the kind of us-versus-them story that conservatism feeds on. It was a key split that created the space to define the preposterously unreal stereotypes of the coastal latte liberal versus the “real American” — the heartland values voter. And it made those two positions the only acceptable ones in the political or religious dialogue. It forced people to take sides in a war that nobody but the right wing even wanted to fight.

And in drawing that false and forced line, it also rendered vast stretches of America’s religious, cultural, and political landscape absolutely invisible. The vast majority of Americans — educated and moderate believers of many faiths whose understanding of God informs their passionate belief in justice, compassion, equality, and democracy — got cut out of the conversation entirely, because they lived in a far more nuanced place that didn’t look like either side. You never saw their intelligent, well-modulated religious leaders on TV talk shows; you never read interviews with their thinkers and writers in the paper. There was simply no place for them in that artificial narrative — and since they didn’t fit, the vast majority of America’s religious people simply ceased to exist as a public or political entity at all.

The conservative ascendancy depended on keeping these people completely cut out of the conversation; and the media, driven by their own biases, dutifully cooperated for years in accomplishing that goal. Without the balance these other voices could offer, the religious right was free to define “religion” (including civil religion) on their own terms, and claim full control of the country’s discourse. The first thing they did, of course, was declare all the moderate and liberal people of faith to be apostates, which only silenced them further. They’ve been out there, quietly fuming and frustrated, ever since.

But Jeremiah Wright appears to be turning his current notoriety into a bully pulpit from which, at long last, that forced silence might finally be broken. Listening to his interview with Bill Moyers last Friday, I felt like I was hearing something strong and intelligent and real and wise — the kind of nuanced spiritual voice most of us have never heard on TV in our lifetimes (though the fortunate among us have always heard them in our churches). It was the voice of that suppressed and silent majority, the people of faith whose concerns and insights have been so thoroughly stifled that they’ve been utterly absent from the discourse for three long decades. Wright gave us a sharp reminder of what liberal Christian voices can sound like at their best. I hope he also whetted an appetite for out-of-the-box moral thinking that will allow us to hear more — not just from Christians, but from many traditions. The broader the perspectives and the more corners we hear from, the better our responses to the current challenges will be.

Wright’s current media blitz is no doubt an effort to capitalize on his infamy — and, perhaps, help Obama by leaning into the controversy rather than shying away from it. (Honestly: does he have any other choice?) He may be hoping that the more we see of him, the more people will understand who he is, and the harder it will be for the slanders to stick.

But whatever his motives, I wish him well. It’s just so remarkable, after all these years of blackout and blacklisting, to hear a moral voice that’s not bought and paid for by the religious right, and not out there selling more fraudulent scams in the Great Republican Con. In Wright, we’ve finally got strong voice out there who knows how to call them on their game.

Comments