Obama, The Black Church and The New York Times: A Dicey Combination Indeed

by Dax-Devlon Ross

The NY Times.com has posted a multimedia page on Obama and Religion that is supposed to give its readers a better understanding of the roots and rhetoric behind Obama’s Christian faith. As of right now, the page has two speech excerpts in which Obama has used religious themes or religious language along with commentary by a Times reporter. I’ve provided the quotes from both Obama and the Times and offered my analysis after.

From “My Christian Faith” speech:

It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education that I ever had and where I learned the meaning of my Christian faith.

                                                                          Barack Obama

Notice how Mr. Obama makes it sound as if he was always a Christian but for most of his early life, and indeed most of the time he was a community organizer, Mr. Obama was not a believer. In Chicago, ministers told him to join a church so he would become a more credible, effective leader and that’s pretty much what he did. Mr. Obama’s transformation from non-believer to Christian was a sincere one by all accounts but it was also one that aided him in his career.

                                                                                      NY Times

A more penetrating analysis would have gone beyond merely looking to discredit Obama and into the heart of the conversionary experience he had while working within poor communities. For instance, what was in these poor neighborhoods that helped him learn the meaning of his faith? After all, he calls it the “best education” he ever had. This is a guy who went to Harvard and Columbia, a guy who’s well read and traveled, who speaks multiple languages. What about that inner-city experience was so powerful that it transformed his life? Was it that the people who held on in spite of their bedraggled conditions that inspired him or humbled him? Or were these just words Obama used?

Frankly, I take notice whenever politicians invoke poor people as their means toward enlightenment. Guatama Sakyamuni’s path to Buddhahood began with his search outside of the walls of his palace and into the surrounding streets, where in disguise, he discovered the Four Signs that ultimately led him to commit his life to service of the humanity. The legendary “Four Signs” that the future Buddha encountered were death, disease, old age, and monkhood. After encountering all four, he was converted and began his search for enlightenment.

Dr. King Poor People’s Campaign in Chicago had a similar kind of conversionary effect on him in that seeing, and mingling with Northern blacks who had very little made him rethink his intergration platform. It was that Poor People’s Campaign that ultimately informed his burgeoning critique of war and of the system itself.

In fact, there are countless stories of the Chosen One being converted through his/her experience with the realities of the poor and destitute. Gandhi was another who was “converted” through his experience with the poor, as was Nelson Mandela. The point is that there is something much deeper here than mere authentic Christian rhetori, something that the NY Times misses altogether in its analysis. Consider Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on the Hero’s “Call to Adventure”:

This first stage of the mythological journey…signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state.

Obama may use pragmatic, Christianized language to express his transformation, but make no mistake, it is a universalized, mythologized metaphysics that he, I’m sure, is aware is linked to our collective, conscious awareness of the hero’s journey.

Quote #2

Giving Praise and Honor to God for bringing us together here today. Thank you so much.

                                                        Barack Obama

Did you hear that cheer in the back. ‘Giving all praise and honor to God’ is a standard line in the black church, one that you might use before an important declaration or just announcing that bingo game has been moved from Tuesday to Wednesday. So this is a shout out not only to God, but, more specifically, the black church.

                                                                                   NY Times

Remind me, what century are we living in again? This ‘commentary’ sounds like something that could’ve been written 200 hundred years ago in a slaveholder’s handbook. Aside from being benignly insulting, this commentary offers no valuable insight and merely fuels the stereotype of the ‘black church’ as a monolithic, dangerous sub-culture that adheres to strict set of code words. More insidiously, by ‘translating’ the meaning of the language, it portrays the black church as the “other” rather than as a part of the American religious tradition. Lastly, it shows us who the Times is written for in the first place.

From the “Joshua Tree Generation” speech:

The Times’ commentary on Obama’s Joshua generation speech back in March interprets Obama’s identification with Joshua as the Senator’s way of linking himself to Biblical royalty, and to a new kind of African-American politician.

Quote #3

…I got a letter from a friend of some of yours named Reverend Otis Moss Jr. in Cleveland…And he said, if there’s some folks out there who are questioning whether or not you should run, just tell them to look at the story of Joshua because you’re part of the Joshua generation

                                                                         Barack Obama

It’s a canny comparison because Mr. Obama implicitly compares himself to a great biblical leader without coming right out and saying it. Also, this particular figure is a bit of an underdog, He doesn’t have as much experience as Moses and he is humble.

                                                                                     NY Times

While the commentator was quick to look into the comparison Obama implicitly makes, she failed to take into consideration what he explicitly says: that he is part of the Joshua generation.

Quote #4

Joshua said, you know, I’m scared. I’m not sure that I am up to the challenge, the Lord said to him, every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon, I have given you. Be strong and have courage, for I am with you wherever you go. Be strong and have courage. It’s a prayer for a journey.

                                                                        Barack Obama

Mr. Obama’s message comes through very clearly. He’s saying that he’s not a power-hungry politician seeking the most exalting job in the country, but a steadfast and humble man answering a higher calling.

                                                                                   NY Times

But in the paragraph directly preceding the one excerpted above, Obama says, “You know, when Moses was first called to lead people out of the Promised Land, he said I don’t think I can do it, Lord. I don’t feel brave and courageous and the Lord said I will be with you….The same thing happened with the Joshua generation. ” (see full speech text here)

The distinction the commentator draws between Obama’s Joshua generation and the Civil Rights’/ Moses Generation isn’t e actually reflected in his speech. While he has certainly posited himself as a different kind of leader, he never speaks of Moses’ generation as “power-hungry.” That, I believe, is a cheap shot reference to the likes of Sharpton and Jackson that is unfounded in the speech itself. What is indicated from Obama’s words is that the Moses generation dealt with the same doubts as his generation, something the commentary totally ignores.

One doesn’t need to analyze Obama’s religious rhetoric in order to capture the gist of his message. He has said time and again that this election isn’t about him but about the people he represents. Also, the quotes — what the reporter refers to as “a cheat sheet” — used by the Times are misleading in the sense that Obama spent much of the speech discussing the challenges of the Joshua Tree Generation as they related to his interpretation of Bible. What we gather from these clips, however, is that Obama knows how to ‘cannily’ deploy religious language for political effect. However, if you read the speech from which the quotes were derived, you discover that his use of the comparison is steeped in black liberation theology, which stands at the heart of Trinity Church’s teachings. His use of the comparison, therefore, is not merely politically expedient as the Times makes it seem.

A more careful analysis of the Joshua generation speech might’ve gone beyond trying to identify where Obama’s implicit assertions and tangled with the religious spirit of his message. Throughout the speech, Obama points out the challenge of his generation to do more than make money and live well for themselves; to, in the spirit of Christianity, look back, give back and restore hope, and yet none of that found its way into the commentary. Instead, we get more of the same: fishing expeditions for flaws in Obama’s character and campaign that lead people away from the issues.