Politics & Government

Obama's church pushes controversial doctrines

Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. gives a sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, in October 2006.
Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. gives a sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, in October 2006. E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune / MCT

WASHINGTON — Jesus is black. Merging Marxism with Christian Gospel may show the way to a better tomorrow. The white church in America is the Antichrist because it supported slavery and segregation.

Those are some of the more provocative doctrines that animate the theology at the core of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Barack Obama's church.

Obama's speech Tuesday on race in America was hailed as a masterful handling of the controversy over divisive sermons by the longtime pastor of Trinity United, the recently retired Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

But in repudiating and putting in context Wright's inflammatory lines about whites and U.S. foreign policy, the Democratic presidential front-runner didn't address other potentially controversial facts about his church and its ties.

Wright has said that a basis for Trinity's philosophies is the work of James Cone, who founded the modern black liberation theology movement out of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Particularly influential was Cone's seminal 1969 book, "Black Theology & Black Power."

Cone wrote that the United States was a white racist nation and the white church was the Antichrist for having supported slavery and segregation.

Today, Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, stands by that view, but also makes clear that he doesn't believe that whites individually are the Antichrist.

In an interview, Cone said that when he was asked which church most embodied his message, "I would point to that church (Trinity) first." Cone also said he thought that Wright's successor, the Rev. Otis Moss III, would continue the tradition.

Obama, 46, who's biracial, joined Trinity in his late twenties when he worked as a community organizer. He says he'll continue to worship there.

He and other Chicagoans have praised Trinity's role as a melting pot that brings together blacks and some whites from all levels of wealth and education, boasts a joyous and energetic choir, and is deeply involved in community work, such as helping the homeless, the incarcerated and those touched by HIV and AIDS.

But Trinity has a history. Its affiliation with the United Church of Christ makes it part of a liberal, mostly white denomination that was the first in America to ordain gays, women and blacks as ministers.

Trinity goes further, embracing black liberation theology and its emphasis on empowering oppressed groups against establishment forces.

In that and related doctrines, the church and some of its guiding thinkers at times have been socially ahead of the curve and other times outside the mainstream of American religious and political thought.

For example, the 8,000-member congregation embraces the idea that Jesus was black. It's historically supported left-wing social and foreign policies, from South Africa to Latin America to the Middle East.

Wright, who hasn't been giving interviews since the controversy broke, told conservative TV talk-show host Sean Hannity last year that Trinity's black value system also had parallels to the liberation theology of laypeople in Nicaragua three decades ago. There, liberation theology became associated with Marxist revolution and the Sandinistas, and split the Roman Catholic Church.

White America today embraces Nelson Mandela, and he won the Nobel peace prize. But in the early 1980s, when the U.S. government considered Mandela's anti-Apartheid African National Congress a terrorist organization because of its support from communists and use of violence, Trinity became one of the first U.S. churches to support the group.

It isn't clear where Obama's beliefs and the church's diverge. Through aides, Obama declined requests for an interview or to respond to written questions about his thoughts on Jesus, Cone or liberation theology. Trinity officials also didn't respond to requests.

Obama's Illinois state and U.S. Senate voting records and his speeches suggest that, if elected president, he'd take a liberal but mainstream line and seek partisan bridge-building rather than agitation as his style.

It's possible that Obama joined Trinity as much because it gave him credibility as a newcomer to south side Chicago's black community as for its particular theological teachings.

"As a community organizer, would people join Trinity? Yes!" said Dwight Hopkins, a Trinity member and liberation theology professor at the University of Chicago's divinity school. (He said he'd contributed $25 to Obama's campaign.)

However, "someone who wanted to run for public office would think twice about intentionally using Trinity as a leverage," Hopkins said. "When it's Election Day, all the politicians come to Trinity. But not every day."

Cone, the Union professor, said he didn't know Obama personally. He supports his candidacy and considers the senator's worldview as set out in books and speeches "certainly not alien to black theology.

"But it doesn't have as much of a radical edge to it," Cone said of Obama's view. "He couldn't succeed with my message. He speaks less of the hurt and the pain of African-American history. I think his own life has been less of that."

But Cone stands by his message, and sometimes Obama echoes it.

Consider this passage: "Hope is the expectation of that which is not. It is the belief that the impossible is possible, the 'not yet' is coming in history."

Those words sound as if they were pulled from Obama's latest campaign speech. Instead, they're from a memoir Cone wrote in the 1980s. In it, Cone said blacks shouldn't limit their hope to what the Republican and Democratic parties stand for. Then he posited a thought that voters are unlikely to hear from Obama:

"Together, black religion and Marxist philosophy may show us the way to build a completely new society."

Asked about that, Cone said: "I'm not a Marxist. . . . I'm a theologian, and I want to change society. I was searching for my way forward. I want a society in which people have the distribution of wealth, but I don't know how quite to do that institutionally."

He said that the idea of a black Jesus didn't mean Jesus necessarily looked like a black African, but it did rule out Jesus being a white European. More importantly, he said it meant that Jesus "made a solidarity with the (oppressed) people of the land."

Black liberation theology doesn't hold that Africans or black Americans are superior to others. Cone said its concern for the oppressed often allied it with conventional liberal goals.

He argued early on the imperative of supporting women's rights and gay rights. He's said that environmentalism and fighting racism should go hand in hand, as minorities and Third World nations are affected disproportionately by pollution and the environmental costs of capitalism. Civil rights, black liberation and helping the oppressed all share the same values, he said.

"When the Berlin Wall came down, they were saying, 'We shall overcome.' In Tiananmen Square, they were saying, 'We shall overcome.' "

Liberation theology's stance on the rights of Palestinians likewise is informed by its emphasis on seeing God's mission through the lens of oppressed people.

"Black theological liberation is not anti-Israel. It's never been that Zionism is racism," theologian Hopkins said. "It's more for a truly two-state solution."

Still, Hopkins believes, "black theology liberation is to the left of Obama."

On Middle East policy, Obama is strongly pro-Israel. He's rejected an argument voiced by Wright that U.S. support of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians helped fuel the 9-11 attacks.

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