The Great Obama

America, and especially the America of our imagination, is the land of self-making and the self-made. Our presidential politics are far from the exclusive domain of the self-made, but our most interesting presidents (e.g., Johnson, Nixon, Clinton) tend to come from that category.
Barack Obama is the quintessential self-made man. He hails from the periphery, not just of our society but of our geographic boundaries. Lacking any relevant connections, he created his own — with the Ivy League, with the legal elite, with community activists in a town where he was stranger, with black nationalists in that same town, and with rich backers there.
In literature, the connections the self-made man creates always come back to haunt him, and so it may now be with Obama. When this happens the question becomes: what lies at the core of the self-made man?
In literature, the answer often is, nothing other than the compulsion of self-making and the sum total of the connections and deals that this compulsion yielded. Who, at root, was Jay Gatsby?
But Obama is not a fictional character, nor does he seem superficial. Most of his connections may say nothing specific about his core, and in theory this could even be true about his church affiliation and his spiritual adviser. However, Obama’s own writing suggests that his relationship with the Trinity Church and with Jeremiah Wright has been a deep one. He says he attended church regularly, except during specific periods such as after his first child was born. He says Rev. Wright had a significant influence on him and, in fact, played a major role in bringing him to Jesus.
If we take Obama at his word, his relationship with Wright was not pure opportunism. Rather there was an affinity. What was the nature of that affinity?
I think we should stipulate that it was not Wright’s most extreme racist and anti-American pronouncements. But it also seems clear that it was not traditional Christian belief either. Obama was not looking for that — indeed, he had rejected traditional Christianity before encountering Wright. As just noted, Wright brought him to Jesus. More precisely, Wright’s brand of Christianity accomplished this.
What is that brand? According to Wright (for example, during his contentious interview with Sean Hannity last year), the brand is liberation theology. Liberation theology sees the Christian mission as bringing justice to oppressed people through political activism. In effect, it is a merger of Christianity with radical left-wing ideology. Black liberation theology, as articulated for example by James Cone who inspired Wright, emphasizes the racial aspect oppression.
It’s easy to see why this brand of Christianity, and probably only this brand, could bring a left-wing political activist like Obama to Jesus.
How would the statements of Wright that have recently come to light be viewed in the context of liberation theology? In particular, employing the various terms Obama has used to describe Wrights statements, which ones would be “not particularly controversial,” which would be “controversial” or “provocative,” and which would be deplorable?
Comments about crimes against Palestinians would, I submit, fall within the mainstream of liberation theology, just as they do for most hard-leftists who don’t put Christianity into the mix. Palestinians make the “A List” of oppressed victims of virtually every leftist ideology that sees the world as divided into oppressors and the oppressed.
Comments about the U.S. treating some of its citizens as less than human, or bringing 9/11 on itself, or inflicting AIDs on black people would, I take it, be controversial and provocative even within the world of black liberation theology. One can believe that oppression is rampant and that the U.S. is heavily implicated, without going as far as Wright did in these remarks.
But Wright’s remarks seem no worse than controversial and provocative within this framework. An oppressor will go to great lengths to oppress, and it is an open question just how far that imperative extends. Wright offers one possible answer to that question: there are virtually no limits. If that answer were beyond the pale of the black liberation theology of his congregation, Wright would not have survived and prospered there.
Moreover, certain comments of Michelle Obama are surely uncontroversial in the world of black liberation theology. It would, in fact, be most difficult to reconcile pride in America with that theology. The open question for its adherents is how low their estimation of America should be, and how low they think America would stoop. Pride in America would seem out of the question.
In sum, Barack Obama’s close and longstanding affiliation with Wright and his church probably does tell us something important about the man. It doesn’t tell us that he agrees with Wright’s most extreme ravings, but it suggests that Obama is enough of a leftist to be attracted to, and comfortable at, a place where Wright’s most extreme views, though controversial and provocative, are not outrageous.
Obama’s current attempts to escape that inference likely have more to do self-making than with historical fact.

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