Religion has not, or not yet, become an important ingredient of the nastiness in the current presidential campaign. It has been quiet around Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, possibly because he has spouted language that might make Southern Baptists feel comfortable (though it surely makes some other people uncomfortable). Michele Bachmann’s affiliation with the Lutheran Wisconsin Synod (which teaches that the Pope is the Anti-Christ) has faded from public attention along with her short-lived candidacy. Until just now Barack Obama’s unfortunate relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which has been a sharp issue in the 2008 campaign, also seemed to be dormant. Not so any longer: It was widely reported that a pro-Romney super-pac has a plan to use the issue to attack Obama. Romney quickly distanced himself from such a plan, but others on his side have been less fastidious. It is anyone’s guess whether this revived issue will have legs. In the meantime, some observations about Jeremiah Wright’s worldview and its ideological context may be useful.
A reminder of the 2008 episode: Wright was the pastor of Trinity United Church in Chicago, which was the religious home of Obama and his family for many years. Some excerpts from Wright’s sermons were widely quoted in the press, some shown on television (including one in which he said that God should not bless, but damn America). Particularly offensive were statements to the effect that 9/11 meant that “America’s chickens were coming home to roost” and that HIV was caused by the US government. I cannot assess to what extent these quotations were taken out of context; I rather doubt it, since in many other sermons Wright was fiercely critical of American domestic and foreign policies. Obama said that, though aware that some of Wright’s sermons were “controversial”, he had not heard the ones that were broadcast all over the media (quite possibly true – I don’t know how often Obama went to church, and he would not be the first parishioner whose mind is elsewhere during a sermon). In any case, he sharply repudiated Wright’s reported views, resigned from the Chicago church, and gave an eloquent speech affirming his commitment to a multiracial America.
Mark Oppenheimer, who frequently reports on religion, gave a rather tendentious column in The New York Times on May 25, 2012 about Jeremiah Wright redivivus. He accuses conservative critics of “reducing an important theological movement of the past 40 years to an abusive sound bite”. His putatively less superficial view of the movement describes it as “a renewed focus on the poor and suffering, as embodied by Jesus”. What is this “important movement”? And is Oppenheimer right about it?
The movement, with which Wright has identified for many years, is Black Theology. It emerged in 1969, with an influential book by James Cone entitled Black Theology and Black Power”. It proposed an approach to the Gospel based on black experience in particular, but also on oppressed and poor people anywhere. Its analysis of contemporary society leaned heavily on a neo-Marxist perspective. A statement by Wright neatly sums up this perspective: “We are only able to maintain our level of living by making sure that Third World people live in grinding poverty”. Black Theology was from the beginning founded on the assumptions of Liberation Theology, a movement which originated in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s; indeed, Black Theology defined itself as one of many liberation theologies, each rooted in this or that specific oppression. The original Latin American version was first formulated by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Dominican priest. It quickly found support in other Latin American countries, marked by similar normative and cognitive assumptions – the former identifying the Gospel with a revolutionary political ethic, the latter heavily influenced by neo-Marxist “dependency theory” (which held that capitalist imperialism is the cause of Third World poverty, and that socialism is the remedy for this condition). The important 1968 meeting in Medellin, Colombia, of the Catholic bishops of Latin America did not embrace Liberation Theology outright, but showed its influence. Specifically, it endorsed a principle first formulated in the same year by Pedro Arupe, the head of the Jesuit order – the so-called “preferential option for the poor”. This formula has become part of Catholic social teaching, but it can obviously be interpreted in different ways. Some (for example, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua) interpreted it in the full sense of Liberation Theology, revolution and socialism included. Others proposed a much more moderate interpretation, simply proposing that improving the condition of the poor must be a primary concern in any Catholic social ethic. That is the line taken by the Vatican, which rejected the revolutionary aspects of Liberation Theology and systematically appointed bishops opposed to it.
It is not “an abusive sound bite” to put Wright’s views not only in the context of Black Theology, but in the broader context of religiously inspired liberation ideologies. Some are completely religious in character, such as so-called Minjun Theology in South Korea (the Korean people as a whole are seen as victims of oppression on the part of American imperialism and its Korean allies). In other cases secular liberation movements have been theologically legitimated by a sort of Christian caucus among their followers. This the case with feminism and gay liberation (now called “GLBT”), and comparable movements among Latinos and other minority groups in the United States. One that Oppenheimer seems especially impressed by is so-called mujerista theology, combining feminism with Hispanic consciousness (mujer is Spanish for “woman”).
Where are the liberationists right? On one point only: The New Testament sources make clear that Jesus was indeed concerned with poor and marginalized people. Whether this was a unique concern in the Judaism of his time is less clear; in this as in other matters, recent Biblical scholarship has put great emphasis on the Jewish context of Jesus’ ministry. But that is another matter. I, for one, am willing to concede that Jesus can be plausibly said to have had a “preferential option” for people outside the elite (including the tax collectors, despised henchmen of Roman imperialism) – apparently he sought such people out wherever he went.
Where are the liberationists and their sympathizers wrong? Very few New Testament scholars would agree that Jesus’ “good news” was a program of social transformation here and now; it was the proclamation of the coming of a supernatural order in which the reality of “this eon” would be totally transcended. In this respect Oppenheimer follows a liberal Protestant understanding of Jesus, one that has been largely falsified. He misses completely the neo-Marxist theory of contemporary society as it dominates Latin American liberationists and their imitators in other parts of the world. That theory has been massively falsified. If anything, it should be stood on its head: What causes Third World poverty is not dependency on the rich countries, but rather lack of such dependency – better put as interdependence. On the level of consciousness, there is no reason to think that poor or oppressed people are, as it were, epistemologically privileged. Whatever else it may mean, the “preference” does not have a cognitive aspect – stupidity and illusions are not correlated positively with low levels of wealth or income (or, for that matter, with high levels – princes and paupers can be equally dumb and illusionary).
If someone wants to exercise a “preferential option for the poor”, the first question to ask is “Which poor have elected you to speak for them?” The second, finally more important question is “What is good for the poor?” Just about the last thing needed by the poor is socialism. African-Americans least need black consciousness and black power detached from the incomplete but ongoing experiment of American democracy.