Is Barack Obama an Evangelical?

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Peter Kirk takes Obama's conversion experience as evangelical (but see his comment below resisting the seemingly-uncontroversial inference from having an evangelical conversion experience to being an evangelical). The interview Peter links to in support actually leads me to conclude that he's definitely not an evangelical, and a case can even be made that there's nothing distinctively Christian in his personal faith. Let me first outline what I think the boundaries of evangelicalism can include, and then I'll look at some of the things Obama says that make me think he's outside the realm of evangelicalism and perhaps even not very specifically Christian. Much of the content here is adapted from comments in my conversation with Peter in the comments.

Theologically liberal views (at least compared to the status quo in evangelicalism) would include people who reject the substitutionary element of the atonement but retain a penal element (e.g. my co-blogger Wink), who support open theism but insist that God has a plan and will win in the end (e.g. philosophers Dean Zimmerman and Dale Tuggy), who are universalists of the sort that they're convinced everyone who goes to hell will eventually repent and follow Christ once they see the consequences of not doing so, and thus evangelism is still urgent, and hell is still real but just not eternally populated (e.g. Keith DeRose), who are inclusivists of the sort where Christ's sacrifice in fact atones for some in other religions because general revelation teaches them that God must provide a solution to the sin problem and trust him to do so (e.g. the C.S. Lewis view), that a homosexual lifestyle is morally ok but who feel the need to reinterpret scripture to defend such a view (e.g. I have a friend who holds such a view and is clearly an evangelical) rather than saying the Bible includes an immoral prohibition.

There are some who deny inerrancy (but really affirm it and just deny a straw man that they think inerrancy is), but I think actual denial of inerrancy is harder to maintain while being an evangelical. The Fuller Theological Seminary model makes an effort by still insisting that scripture is infallible on any moral teaching or theology within its pages. (Some at Fuller don't actually follow this. I know of one who thinks Paul was a complementarian but insists that we shouldn't be, and I think that moves out of the range of evangelicalism.) But I think you can say that there are errors in dates and place names in the Bible and still count as being within evangelicalism, just on the fringes. Once you start explicitly questioning the plain moral and theological teaching of scripture without trying to reinterpret it so that you at least believe scripture teaches your view, it's hard for me to see that as even on the fringes of evangelicalism. That's just theological liberalism in its most plain form.

So I'm certainly open to finding liberalizing tendencies within evangelicalism, even if one is on the fringes for holding certain views. Some of these are closer to the fringes than others (e.g. Wink's view of the atonement doesn't seem very extreme to me, just extreme-sounding to those unwilling to think very hard about what they've been taught). Those who combine several of these are more on the fringes than others. But one can be an evangelical and hold such views. It's a separate matter whether someone is a Christian but not an evangelical. I'm not saying here that one must be an evangelical to be a Christian. I know plenty of people whom I would not consider evangelicals but who do lay claim to being more broadly Christian. Very few Catholics are evangelicals, in my view, although I personally know a handful who I think are evangelical Catholics. I do think pious Catholics are Christian in a perfectly normal English usage of that term. I know a number of people who I think are Christians in mainline denominations who aren't evangelicals by the criteria I've outlined above. Some evangelicals want to restrict the term 'Christian' so that it only applies to evangelicals, but it's linguistically inappropriate to do that given what the term has come to mean.

But suppose someone denies the reality of hell and then expresses skepticism even about the existence of an afterlife in heaven. What if you say you pray, but then when you go on to explain what you do when praying it becomes clear that you're just maintaining an internal dialogue evaluating your life? What if you talk about a power that goes out of you when you speak the truth (rather than inflating your ego or playing rhetorical games), and then when your interviewer asks you if that's the Holy Spirit, you prefer to speak instead of just seeing a common recognition of truth outside of you? What if you're willing to talk of Jesus as your personal means of bridging the human-God gap but think of that in terms of reaching something higher rather than as the solution to a problem of sin? Speaking of sin, what if you admit to believing that there is such a thing but then define it entirely in terms of going against your own convictions, as if hypocrisy is the only sin? In the above-linked interview, Barack Obama did all these things.

(I should also note that he clearly expresses a theology of works-earned salvation, even in the limited kind of salvation that he admits to in this life. That alone is going to make it hard to place him in the evangelical camp, given that he's basically denying the very Reformation that evangelicalism insists is central to Protestantism, and evangelicalism is unquestionably a Protestant movement, even if a few Catholics who in practice resist Catholic teaching on that issue can count as evangelicals.)

It's hard for me to see someone who says all that as even distinctively Christian, never mind an evangelical. Sure, he attended a culturally-Christian church rooted in traditions the historically black church in America had developed. But a closer examination of Wright's theology showed that he rejected the crucial Christian conviction that all who are Christians are united in Christ, choosing to reject white Christians as his brothers and sisters, and he at least toys with the rejection of the gospel itself in favor of a social gospel. So I don't think Obama's church affiliation counts as being very strongly in favor of his being an evangelical.

I'm pretty open to thinking of someone as evangelical, albeit on the fringes, even if one is not theologically conservative. I consider Keith DeRose an evangelical because of the way he frames his universalism in a way that fits it to core evangelical convictions. There are some whose views I simply can't discern, such as Brian McLaren, largely because he never really comes down on the details of the views he makes a lot of hay about questioning. But some have expressed enough of a clear rejection of core evangelical convictions that I think there's reason not to consider them evangelicals, and in some cases I'm not sure there's even anything distinctively Christian about their religious views, even if they attend a Christian (in name at least) congregation.

This seems true of Obama from this interview. I expect it's probably true of J.K. Rowling, for the record (and I'm a big fan of her work). If I had a chance to sit down with either and talk about their faith, I'd try to steer the conversation in a way that might help provoke them toward genuine faith and commitment. If it's an issue of their own ultimate salvation, I would certainly try to seek their own good. But it seems to me that Obama could just as easily have had pretty much the same faith he has if he had instead found himself in Mormonism, Islam, or Unitarian Universalism, and the only reason he was in Wright's church was its political usefulness and his personal friendship with and admiration for Wright in the political context he'd known him in (regardless of what he said about Wright later on when it was more convenient to ditch Wright). It thus makes it very hard for me even to be sure there's anything distinctively Christian about his faith, and he seems to be pretty solidly outside the range of views that I can comfortably see as even on the fringes of evangelicalism.

I'd happily support someone for president who I think would be the better president, even if I didn't consider that person an evangelical or a Christian at all. My judgments on this question have nothing to do with politics. I'm certainly not sure that John McCain is an evangelical either, for the record, and I even have some hesitations about George W. Bush (although there's at least a prima facie reason in his case, and I haven't seen real evidence to the contrary). This isn't about politics. I just don't think Barack Obama's views are within the realm of evangelicalism, and I'm not even sure there's anything about them that makes them genuinely Christian as opposed to just loosely Christian-like enough to fit into a theologically liberal, loosely-Christian denomination like the UCC and its particular black-liberation-theology incarnation at Trinity in Chicago.

26 Comments

Nice post J.

Jeremy, please withdraw the lie in your first few words. I have never said that Obama is an evangelical. You suggested this in comments on my blog, and I twice denied it, in my comments 151284 and again in comment 152587. All I wrote was that he had "a clear evangelical conversion experience". I know of very many people who have had similar conversion experiences but are now by no means evangelical, sadly including quite a number of bishops in the Church of England. So having had some such experience in the past by no means implies that one is an evangelical now. We don't have enough evidence about Obama's current belief, nor do we have a clear enough definition of "evangelical", to say clearly whether or not he can be considered any kind of evangelical. He is clearly not now a conservative evangelical.

Since you effectively repeated your last comment on my blog, let me repeat my response to it:

Jeremy, I too would “worry about flat-out assertions that he’s an evangelical”, if I ever saw one. But I haven’t, and haven’t made one myself.

As for Bush, I’m not sure if warmongering in direct contradiction to Jesus’ commands is enough to make one not an evangelical, but surely it is enough to make one at best a very bad Christian.

On your definitions I would probably be a liberal evangelical. I would use the term of people significantly more liberal than me, but probably not of Obama from the limited evidence I have seen.

But God, who is full of love and mercy, will probably save both of them (and me!) on the basis of their confessions of faith, despite the failure of both to live up to the highest ideals of the Christian faith.

Jeremy, thanks for the correction. But I simply cannot fathom the inference which you claim to be "uncontroversial" but which in fact totally belies your definition of evangelical. If everyone who has had an evangelical conversion experience is an evangelical, that completely puts paid to your definition of "evangelical" in terms of a set of beliefs and replaces it by a definition like "someone who, regardless of their present beliefs and behaviour, has at some time in the past made an evangelical profession of repentance and faith". Now I can understand the argument that this is the condition for salvation, but not that this is the correct definition of "evangelical".

I don't think it's a crazy inference to move from the claim that his conversion experience was evangelical to the claim that he's an evangelical. Conversion experiences are nearly definitional for most evangelicals. A genuine conversion experience, to most evangelicals, means that God has initiated a work in your heart, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh and transforming you into Christ's likeness. A genuinely evangelical conversion experience produces a genuine evangelical. So yes, I did take you to have asserted by implication that he's an evangelical, and I don't consider it a lie to report your assertion as what it implies. But I've tried to make your position clearer, since you don't seem to accept that inference.

I'm not going to comment on whether George W. Bush is a bad Christian, but I don't think your example is anything close to evidence that he is. You know my views on that. I see no contradiction between Jesus' commands and a healthy just war theory, and I'm already on record defending the Iraq invasion as consistent with a sufficiently healthy just war theory that takes into account the realities of terrorism and modern technology.

On my definitions, you're more toward the liberal end of evangelicalism, but I wouldn't say you're on the fringes. On most of these issues, you seem to approach them in ways that I think are clearly within the boundaries of evangelicalism, just on the leftward side of it.

I think you're pretty much all correct here. Obama let me down, not as a man, not as a candidate, but as a Christian. (I'm still very glad he won). What a surprising interview! He did say more orthodox things in the town hall with Warren, but he seems to take it all back here.

This was actually earlier, so perhaps he's changed his mind on some of these things, or maybe he was somewhat catering to the audience in the Warren interview. This interview was while he was running for the Senate in a very blue state, and the Warren audience was a politically mixed evangelical congregation in a blue-purple area of the country. I still haven't read the whole transcript of the Warren thing, so maybe I should do that and compare the two.

It's truly amazing today how many Christians do NOT understand liberal Protestanism. Jeremy, perhaps you could do a coulpe of posts on that...you know....Schleiermacher, Fosdick, and now today, Spong, Borg etc. And, I may do that on my blog too. With all the emergents now (neo-liberal Protestants) and other assorted folks, we need to revisit this heresy. I grew up in it and I can tell you...it's garbage. Thankfully, a friend in college told me the gospel. I had never heard it before as the liberal Protestant church never tells you (Rom/ 10:14). And hearing Obama talk, it is apparent to me that he is a liberal Protestant. That doesn't mean he isn't born again, but you kind of wonder because of the things you wrote about in your post.

I don't actually know all that stuff very well, so I'm not really the person to write about it. I know the philosophical tradition through Immanuel Kant and the Anglo-American side of it since Kant, but I don't know the Continental side since Kant very well, and that's what all those figures come out of.

"But a closer examination of Wright's theology showed that he rejected the crucial Christian conviction that all who are Christians are united in Christ, choosing to reject white Christians as his brothers and sisters"

This isn't true at all. I guess by "closer examination" you mean "speculating based on a youtube clip".

Actually, I got most of my initial information about Wright from mainstream media coverage and transcripts quoted by liberal bloggers defending him by providing more substantial excerpts of his provocative claims while asserting that the greater context justifies or excuses his controversial remarks.

Wright does talk about racial reconciliation and about how one of the ultimate goals of liberation theology is to liberate the oppressor. See here, for instance. But that just means he knows better when he expresses a divisive spirit by speaking of white Christians as a whole as the evil enemy, even to the point of calling the white church the Antichrist (although I can't find a transcript to that one now). If he doesn't really mean it, then he's teaching his flock something he knows is false. If he does mean it, then he clearly isn't interested in reconciliation. The fact that he says he doesn't disagree with any of James Cone's theology, and James Cone explicitly calls the white man the devil makes me wonder what's going on.

Never mind the fact that it's theologically problematic to speak of the white church to begin with. I'm no denier of the reality of race, but Galatians 2:28 is pretty clear that the church isn't divided along such lines metaphysically, so if we pretend that it is for the sake of petty human politics (in comparison with things of eternal importance, anyway), then it shows that we're not thinking along kingdom lines but along the kinds of lines that the Corinthians were thinking when the various parties associated with different leaders.

Hem and haw all you want. The long and short of it is, you said he rejects white Christians as his brothers and sisters. And that's a big fat lie.

He's got white members of his church, white officers, has performed interracial and white weddings in his church. His church in all likelihood has a better record of diversity and racial outreach than the churches of anyone reading this blog.

It seems obvious that when Wright is referring to the "white church" he's making reference to a specific community that has a nasty historical legacy of racism. Far from rejecting them as his Christian brothers and sisters, Wright's ministry has been about criticizing those churches for their historic failure to recognize black Christians as their brothers and sisters. And just how is Wright supposed to do his prophetic duty of criticizing that community without referring to it in some way? The term "white church" seems just as apt as any. Anyone inclined to interpret his words charitably (i.e. not you) would easily recognize what he's referring to. And I'm pretty sure that he would allow that the white church he refers to in this sense wouldn't include all churches that have a majority white congregation.

I feel certain that if you asked him if he felt that there is an actual religious distinction in the body of Christ along racial lines, he'd say no. And his long record of reaching out to and working with majority white congregations proves this.

But I guess your thinking is, forget that he is, for all his flaws, unquestionably a fellow Christian and evangelical. He's a liberal, and worse a black nationalist, so it's okay to just make up scary, evil sounding opinions and then attribute them to him.

Jeremy,

I did a series of posts on Trinity UCC Obama Wright that you will find easily enough if you google ancient hebrew poetry and the above. If nothing else the details I give should make it clear tat Trinity UCC really is a subset of the larger black evangelical world, albeit an eccentric one. Unless, of course, you wish to define evangelicalism without reference to pentecostalism, revivalism, a conversion experience, intense devotional reading of the Bible, self-help holiness disciplines, and so on. Unless, of course, you wish to define evangelicalism in such a way that precious few black Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, etc. would meet the grade.

Having taken lily-white youth and adults to Trinity UCC on multiple occasions over the last 10 years, and having served as translator for James Cone when he lectured in Italy years ago, I can assure you that you misunderstand their rhetoric. It's true, they have no more patience with the historical and current complicity of many white evangelicals in the oppression of black people than Amos had for the powerful of his day, including the clergy. Why should they?

For the rest, I think you risk ending up using theological truths, not as a means to penetrate reality, but as a means to disqualify theologians and traditions c3with an approach very different from your own. Many evangelical Christians around the world mix and match historical givens and theological truths in ways that white evangelicals in the US, who normally do the same with respect to the version of capitalism they are familiar with and American exceptionalism, find disconcerting - in a variety of directions, a social gospel dimension, a Jakes-like or Osteen-like wealth is a sign of God's approval sort of theology, another version of national exceptionalism (Chinese, Korean), etc.

It seems obvious to me that the meaning any competent speaker of English will take from the expression "the white church" would include every majority-white congregation and every white Christian. If Cone and Wright deliberately use the term to mean a subset of that and then say all sorts of nasty things about that subset using a term that they know applies to a wider group, it's hard to see that as morally condonable. If they honestly think the term can be used that way without causing offense to well-meaning people, then there's a serious problem with their relationship to white Christians. But either way, it wouldn't even be morally allowable for a Christian to use it that way of actual racists who are genuine Christians. No Christian is perfect, and some genuine Christians are indeed racists. Nevertheless, they are Christians, and calling them the Antichrist is evil for a Christian brother to do. It's perfectly ok to call an evil aspect of someone or a large group evil. It's not ok to call the person or group the Antichrist. That kind of divisiveness is grounds for excommunication in the New Testament epistles.

John, I'm not finding anything on your site that sheds any further light on this than what I already know.

"It seems obvious to me that the meaning any competent speaker of English will take from the expression "the white church" would include every majority-white congregation and every white Christian."

That's absurd. Every time I criticize America, I obviously do not intend that my criticism applies to every individual American. If I say "the American people have lived irresponsibly on credit for too long" a competent speaker of English will not take me to be including Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in my critique. He'll take me to be referring to a general cultural phenomenon, not to every individual American. It's no different when Wright says (correctly) that the white church in America has never adequately addressed the issue of racism. You could only be taking him to mean this to apply to every individual white Christian if you were determined to interpret every word he says in the least charitable fashion imaginable, as you clearly are.

I don't know if Wright actually called the white church the Antichrist, and given your record here I can't take your word for it. But if he did, I can't see how it's automatically outside the bounds of Christianity for him to do so, since the author of 1st John didn't shy from calling false teachers Antichrist.

"John, I'm not finding anything on your site that sheds any further light on this than what I already know."

Really? Because it seems obvious from his site that Wright accepts whites as his brothers and sisters, and you still don't seem to know that.

There's a difference between attributing a property at the general level to a group when it's a common tendency within the group and saying that the group simply is the Antichrist, where that statement is the "is" of identity. When you're dealing with a group whose identity is in Christ, calling that group the Antichrist does amount to associating that description with every member.

If you'd been paying attention to my comments and to your own, it should be clear that accepting whites as brothers and sisters wouldn't be sufficient. It does not contradict the claim that, though he accepts whites into leadership positions and speaks of reconciliation, he still uses rhetoric that places whites on the side of evil and as enemies. That's the claim I'm confronting, and he doesn't deny it.

As I said, I can't find that claim, even though mainstream media stories attribute it to him without a second thought. As I said, that was one of my initial main sources. I've seen specific quotes from Cone saying exactly that sort of thing, and I've seen direct quotes from Wright saying that he agrees with all the stuff Cone is criticized for saying. So even though I can't find the quote so commonly attributed to Wright, it's clear from what he said that he doesn't at all mind the kind of rhetoric Cone uses. For all I know, it's that statement that these mainstream media stories have been relying on, but that's sufficient to ground the claim I'm making.

Have you read first and second John? The writer of first and second John used the is of identity. At least, that's the way it's translated:

1 John 2:18-20
"Little children, these are the end times, and as you heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen....They went out from us, but they didn't belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have continued with us. But they left so that it might be revealed that none of them belonged to us."

2 John 1:7
"For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who don't confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the AntiChrist."

1 John 2:22
"Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the Antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son."

The author of first and second John was saying this about people who identified themselves as Christians. Are you going to excommunicate him? Your equivocations are only digging this hole embarrassingly deeper.

The mainstream media got several stories about Wright fantastically wrong, and they never recanted. They said he gave Farrakhan a man of the year award. He didn't. They said he called Farrakhan a great man. He didn't. So the fact that the mainstream media said this (if they did, I find it hard to believe that they covered Wright making such a statement and yet you can't find any record of it) they are insufficient cover for your careless statements.

I neglected to make these points. You can include them in one post if you like:

"If you'd been paying attention to my comments and to your own, it should be clear that accepting whites as brothers and sisters wouldn't be sufficient."

I think his accepting whites as brothers and sisters in Christ is sufficient to clear him your original charge that he doesn't accept whites as his brothers and sisters in Christ.

"It does not contradict the claim that, though he accepts whites into leadership positions and speaks of reconciliation, he still uses rhetoric that places whites on the side of evil and as enemies. That's the claim I'm confronting, and he doesn't deny it."

1. Even if this were true, that's no different than conservative commentators on talk radio using the terms "liberal" and "Democrat" as if they were the opposite of Christian, and treating all liberals and Democrats as the enemy, when in fact MOST people in America who identify themselves as Democrats and liberals also identify themselves as Christians.

2. As a matter of fact, this is not true. Wright does deny it. He's denied it multiple times, on print, from the pulpit, and in video. He's said he's not anti-white in nearly every media interview and public statement he's given since the controversy began. And you've yet to provide any kind of evidence that would support your claim that he's in some sense anti-white in the slightest.

I've already conceded that he treats white Christians as brothers and sisters, so I'm not sure why you're acting as if I didn't do that. That's clear from the above comments. I didn't ever encounter evidence for this until this comment thread, but I have now conceded that, so it's not entirely fair to pretend that I didn't do so.

As for John's epistles, the "is" of identity is clearly used to describe the entire group of false teachers, yes. I'm not sure how a passage about calling false teachers the Antichrist shows that it's unproblematic to call the mainstream white church the Antichrist. Do people who supported segregation also deny that Jesus is the Christ? Do people who unknowingly participate in practices that perpetuate racial inequality all teach false doctrine?

I never said I couldn't find a record of the mainstream media attributing this view to him. What I couldn't find is the transcript of him saying it. I found several instances of people saying it's his view and quite a few more saying it was Cone's view. (See here, for example, which seems to be the source of several of the other stories I've seen.)

What seems likely to me at this point is that some reporters saw Wright's unflagging support for Cone, to the point of saying he doesn't disagree with any of Cone's theology, and then went quote-mining for Cone's controversial statements. See here for a quote about the white church being the Antichrist. So it's not clear if Wright said it also or if only Cone said it, and it's been attributed to Wright because Wright said he supports Cone's theology 100% (which he did say).

Either way, such a blanket endorsement is extremely hard to put together with how he treats white people in practice, and I don't think it's all that inaccurate to say that he endorses anti-white rhetoric, since such rhetoric in central to Cone's theology that Wright says he fully agrees with.

"As for John's epistles, the "is" of identity is clearly used to describe the entire group of false teachers, yes. I'm not sure how a passage about calling false teachers the Antichrist shows that it's unproblematic to call the mainstream white church the Antichrist. Do people who supported segregation also deny that Jesus is the Christ? Do people who unknowingly participate in practices that perpetuate racial inequality all teach false doctrine?"

According to the relevant Cone quote from your link, Cone would clearly answer yes to both questions. Cone says "“Racism is a complete denial of the Incarnation and thus of Christianity…If there is any contemporary meaning of the Antichrist (or “the principalities and powers”), the white church seems to be a manifestation of it."

So whether or not the accusation is appropriate even on your dubious standards depends upon the strength of his theological argument that racism necessarily involves a denial of the Incarnation. I'd assume his argument in some way involves the fact that, whatever race Jesus was, he almost certainly wasn't white. Thus a white supremacist would not necessarily have to deny that Jesus came in the flesh, but he would have to deny the flesh Jesus came in. He'd have to deny some fact about the Incarnation to make it acceptable to his prior beliefs. That comes close to the offense that prompted the author of first John to call some of his contemporaries Antichrist.

"What seems likely to me at this point is that some reporters saw Wright's unflagging support for Cone, to the point of saying he doesn't disagree with any of Cone's theology, and then went quote-mining for Cone's controversial statements."

It's cute how you say this like you didn't just do it. You'll no doubt accuse me in the next thread of not being fair by not acknowledging this recantation, but I'm sorry, this kind of blame-shifting is not much of a recantation in my book. Reporters didn't put Cone's words in Wright's mouth in this thread; you did.

"I don't think it's all that inaccurate to say that he endorses anti-white rhetoric."

Can you name a single incidence of him using anti-white rhetoric?

In my opinion, he'd be much more open to the charge of using anti-American (or, I would say, Anti-American exceptionalism) rhetoric. But because he's a black preacher, and his anti-American exceptionalism generally focuses on racism, he's interpreted as being anti-white. I assume this is what you're doing here, but I'll recant if you can find an example of Wright himself using anti-white rhetoric.

Jeremy,

You say:

"he still uses rhetoric that places whites on the side of evil and as enemies."

You're right, Wright does use this kind of rhetorical trope, and then will turn around and engage you, a white person, with intense consideration so long as you address him as a fellow-believer.

The way Wright uses "white" is not that different from how the gospel of John on several occasions uses the term "Jews." The term accurately communicates the pain and alienation that came with belonging to a movement whose head had been killed and whose current leadership was threatened by Jewish leaders. The ESVSB explains "The phrase does not usually mean all Jews . . . In many places in John, "the Jews" seems to be a shorthand expression for "the Jews who opposed Jesus."

Don't get me wrong. Though I understand what he is doing (he is referring to some whites in particular, not to all whites without distinction), I am not defending Wright's rhetoric, which I regard as sloppy and counter-productive.

Indeed, one of the reasons I like to take white Christian kids to Trinity UCC is because I'm aware of how some of them get caught up in using racial slurs. Being stung by prima facie racial slurs uttered by people who are treating you real nice takes the wind right out of the sails of the whole put-down enterprise.

I would go further and say that Jeremiah Wright has sometimes been his own worst enemy, and that black liberation theology peaked, in terms of prophetic authenticity and biblical resonance, generations ago, with hymns like "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (composed in 1921). But then, I think white evangelicalism is also rather often its own worst enemy and that its current theologians are little-leaguers compared to, e.g., Orr, Machen, and Warfield of old.

Screwtape, you have now acknowledged that at least Cone has committed the grievous offense that I'm talking about that deserves excommunication. If he's treating segregationists as automatically not genuine believers, then he deserves excommunication for being the kind of divider that grossly misrepresents what it is to be in Christ.

Now the National Press Club speech shows that Wright does the same thing. He says:

To say "I am a Christian" is not enough. Why? Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship."

It's true that the slaveowner has a false view of anthropology, and there are possible ways that could come from a false theology, which in turn could come from actually not being in genine contact with the actual God of the Bible, but that's certainly not the only way this could happen. Yet Wright spends several paragraphs in that speech arguing that it's because they worshiped a different god and therefore weren't following the same Christianity as the slaves that the slaveowners could do what they did. It's hard for me to see that as compatible with the view that they're nevertheless brothers and sisters in Christ, even though he does go on to say that he does see all God's children as sisters and brothers who need reconciliation. The only way I can put these together is that we're all sisters and brothers in a general sense, not sisters and brothers in Christ. That does seem to lend some support to my original statement.

Your argument about the incarnation and white supremacy is fallacious. I'm convinced that open theism is incompatible with the implications of the gospel. My reason for that is that there's no way God could have ensured that Jesus would actually have been put to death to atone for our sins if open theism were true, at least not without violating the free will of those who put Jesus to death. There are problems with prophesying of Jesus' coming and of what people would do to him, and so on. But the very central act of all history is no guarantee if open theism is true. Nevertheless, it's crazy to say that people who accept open theism are going to recognize this. They don't see that open theism conflicts with the basis of the gospel, and thus they don't actually deny the gospel. The same is true of a host of other theological positions that if you trace out their implications might cause problems for the gospel. I happen to think Arminianism is like that, but I don't think Arminians deny the gospel. I think they just have sadly not realized the implications of their view. It would be wrong for me to call Arminians the followers of some other god. It would be divisive to the point of being worthy of excommunication.

I'm not sure why what Cone and Wright have done is any different. This is just like the hyperfundamentalist who says Christians need to be separate from those who don't use the KJV or hold to some mainstream theological position that the group in question opposes. The only difference is that it's picking out something that's immoral to hold rather than something innocent, but even if it's immoral to be a racist that doesn't mean one hasn't accepted the gospel, because no one is without sin.

Now there are other warning signs with Wright. Here's another quote (from here):

'I would work for Barack, but he doesn't have the experience that Hillary has.' 'But he's an unknown in terms of foreign policy.' 'But his health-care plan ain't as good as Edwards' plan.' 'But the church he has belonged to for 20 years causes some white people and some Uncle Toms some problems.' God shows us the answer and we let our 'buts' get in the way. Put it another way, God shows us the answer and, like Andrew, we show God our 'buts.'

He's responding to bad excuses for supporting Hillary over Obama. One of them attributes the view to Hillary supporters that Wright's church has caused problems for some white people and some Uncle Toms. Now there's no way he means to attribute to such Hillary supporters the view that the people who have been caused problems really are Uncle Toms. He means to excuse his own actions in calling out these people he views as Uncle Toms, so he paraphrases their claim from his own perspective. The idea is that there are these people out there whom his teaching has caused problems for, but some of them are white and the others Uncle Toms, so he doesn't care. I'm wondering who these so-called Uncle Toms are. If it's Colin Powell and Condi Rice, then calling them such a racist slur is pretty sickening. I'd say that qualifies, since as far as I know both of them are Christians.

Joan Walsh of salon.com, no right-winger, indeed an Obama supporter, cites his referring to Rice as CondoSkeezer Rice. She also makes the correct point that his "God damn America" comment shows his willingness to tar and feather broadly in his uncareful sermons when his more careful speech is sometimes pretty hesitant to do so, and that's a mark of either dishonesty in his careful speech or complete incompetence in his ability to present the truth as he believes it, and thus he's radically unqualified to be a minister of the word, even apart from his views.

Wright has also claimed that attacks on him are attacks on the black church (see the National Press Club speech for an example). It's hard to take such a claim seriously, since the attacks were criticizing the content of his speeches, whether they got him right or not, rather than any general tendency in the black church, as if his church is all that representative (and in my experience, and the much more extensive experience of my wife, it's not remotely representative). Criticizing black liberation theology isn't criticizing the black church, and criticizing his comments as anti-American and anti-white isn't an attack on the black church.

The only reason he might think so is if he's thinking in black-white oppositional categories such that any criticism of him by white people is a racist attack on blacks, and since he's a black minister on the black church as a whole. It's hard to see such an attitude as consistent with a genuine attitude of racial reconciliation, even if he's got individual cases where he's happy to get along with white people who agree with his racial politics and that theology that's rooted in his politics.

John, I think the analogy with John's use of "the Jews" is helpful. But keep in mind how that comes across in the present context and how easily people will take offense at it. There's a reason so many contemporary translations will retool that as "the Jewish leaders". There's also a reason that such translations don't get it right. John was legitimately characterizing the opposition to Jesus based on the dominant mindset of the Jews of his day without intending to tar all Jews as bad or anything like that. Particularly, there's no reason to think he disagreed with Paul's placement of Gentile believers as grafted into the spiritual Israel. But "the Jews" also ties to the secularized or worldly mindset of those in charge under Roman occupation rather than those focused on being the Israel of God. In the context of the early church, those in the intended readership of the book could have seen these things more clearly. But it remained true that the dominant attitude toward Jesus among Jews was the one the gospel of John characterizes as the opposition of the Jews.

I resist this for speaking of whites in the contemporary setting, for two reasons. One is that what remains of white anti-black racism is either structural and institutional or much more of a marginal phenomenon. Any public racism, or even anything that can successfully be tarred as racism even if it's not, gets so decried in the public eye that it usually ruins someone's career and certainly ruins their public image. Mel Gibson will never have the moral authority to do anything like The Passion of the Christ again, after his racist ramblings during his DUI arrest. Michael Richards is done for as a beloved comedian, even if people might still enjoy his work on Seinfeld and UHF. He simply won't be fully the endearing figure he's been.

It's true that the structural problems that remain are exacerbated because this public condemnation of racism leads a lot of people to think racism is a thing of the past, and therefore there's more need for closer analysis and vigilance against one's own unconscious residual racism. Nevertheless, it seems immoral to speak of most whites as racists in the sense most people mean by that term. The way Wright and especially his mentor Cone speak does seem to me to do exactly that, and it's hard to fit that with a genuine belief that white people are fully brothers and sisters in Christ, except for the few exceptions who agree with his racial politics.

"If he's treating segregationists as automatically not genuine believers, then he deserves excommunication for being the kind of divider that grossly misrepresents what it is to be in Christ."

Jeremy, be consistent. Either it is wrong to treat people who make some kind of Christian profession as not genuine believers, i.e. to excommunicate them, or it is not. You can if you wish believe that it is wrong to do so, but in that case it is wrong to excommunicate Cone or Wright. But the biblical position seems to be that people who persistently sin and teach falsely should be excommunicated and treated as outsiders, Matthew 18:17. It is surely a reasonable (if debatable) conclusion that segregationists are teaching something so remote from the gospel of Christ that they should be treated as outsiders according to this verse. Of course we cannot claim to pronounce on their eternal salvation, only their current status within the church.

Peter, you're running together two separate issues. One is the question of whether gross sin, heresy, or divisiveness is grounds for heresy. That's a biblical datum. Division on other grounds is grounds for excommunication, but division on excommunicable grounds is not. If I took your charge seriously, Paul's handing people over to Satan would be grounds for excommunicating Paul. The very concept of having to hand someone over to Satan for handing someone over to Satan is what's contradictory. It would make excommunication impossible.

Now you could make the claim that segregationists are committing gross enough sin to be excommunicated. I'd say that's probably true. But Cone and Wright attribute it to their theology, which seems crazy to me, and they go one step further and speak to the white church today as if it's equally guilty of the same sin.

I'm not claiming to pronounce on anyone's eternal salvation.

Thanks, Jeremy, for a fine discussion. I don't think it's true that Wright or Cone think of white Christians past or present as anything less than full brothers and sisters in Christ, however much the latter may have sinned or still sin against their black brethren.

When they use the term "heretic" they use it loosely, not as grounds for excommunication.

I was impressed the last time I was at Trinity UCC, to see how they handled Phelps and the "God hates Obama" (previously God hates fags) crowd. It really was brotherly. One might suggest that it takes one to know one, but I don't think that's quite fair.

Calling someone a heretic but not meaning it does seem to me to be better than calling them a heretic and meaning it (assuming the person isn't really a heretic). But I'm not sure it's sufficient to dodge the charge of gross divisiveness in this case, since it can have exactly the same effect when you're dealing with public speeches and published works with a wide audience, without the personal aspect of friendly interaction and love.

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