I’ve just finished Barack Obama’s remarkable autobiography, A Promised Land. Its biblical title invites reflection about the theological orientation and resulting policies of the man the book portrays. By his own testimony, that direction was originally set by Jeremiah A. Wright, Mr. Obama’s former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side.
James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology has described Dr. Wright as Black liberation theology’s foremost contemporary exponent. So, in Mr. Obama, the United States experienced not only its first Black president, but its first chief executive to have been shaped spiritually by liberation theology.
With all of that in mind, the point of the following review of The Promised Land will be that had Mr. Obama employed what he learned at the feet of Jeremiah Wright, his policies would have been markedly different from their actual forms. Practically speaking, they would have more resembled those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt than a continuation of the neoliberal legacy of Bill Clinton. They would have set the country on a profoundly different and more widely beneficial trajectory from the one we are currently following.
Professed devout Catholic, Joe Biden, should take note. The radical biblical tradition espoused not only by Wright and Cone, but by King and William Barber – i.e., championed by thought leaders among Mr. Biden’s most crucial constituents – won’t support a return to “normalcy.” It requires policies that prioritize the needs not of Wall Street, but of the poor. It demands departure from Barack Obama’s business as usual.
And that brings me precisely to liberation theology.
In case you’ve forgotten, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective life economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.
Its Judeo-Christian orientation is about political and economic starting points and end points.
Sociologically speaking, it begins (as OpEdNews’ Rob Kall would say) from the “bottom up.” In the case of the Jewish tradition, it starts with the liberation of slaves in Egypt by a Life-Force they called “Yahweh.” It ends with Yahweh’s pledge to give the enslaved (as Mr. Obama’s book title reminds us) “A Promised Land.”
In its Christian form, the tradition starts with a poor houseless child who grows into a prophet. He promises dispossessed victims of the Roman Empire the end point of “the kingdom of God.” By this he meant a world where God is king instead of Caesar – a world with room for everyone. For liberation theology, that’s the North Star – the guiding vision meant to shape all of life, economically, politically, socially, and spiritually – a world where no one is excluded or marginalized
Following that star, liberation theology emphasizes what the Christian Testament’s Paul of Tarsus calls “the wisdom of God” contrasted sharply with “the wisdom of the world” (I Cor. 2: 1-16). In modern terms, the wisdom of the world is trickle-down; it begins with the well-off. It holds that if the wealthy prosper, the tide that lifts their luxury yachts will lift all boats. By contrast, God’s bottom-up wisdom begins with the well-being of the poor.
Unfortunately, the policies, Mr. Obama describes in A Promised Land ended up reflecting the former over the latter.
Jeremiah Wright’s Influence on Mr. Obama
That reflection contrasts dramatically with what scandalized America’s right wing when it first encountered Jeremiah Wright’s liberation theology. The discovery occurred soon after they realized that Barack and Michelle Obama not only were parishioners of a fiercely radical black pastor, but that he had officiated at their wedding (A Promised Land 23).
That sent conservatives scurrying to unearth evidence of Wright’s (and by extension Obama’s) unacceptably extreme viewpoints. In fact, what their excavations uncovered nearly terminated Mr. Obama’s political ambitions (140).
That’s because (true to liberation theology’s form) Wright’s words explicitly foregrounded the experience of the poor as victims of what he called U.S. terrorism. His sermons often traced it from the genocide of Native Americans, through the enslavement of Africans, to Middle Eastern policies that, he said, invited the tragic events of 9/11/2001. It led him to refer to his country as the “USA of KKK,” and to conclude, “Not God bless America,” but “God damn America” (140).
Despite all of that, and notwithstanding his eventual repudiation of his former pastor, President Obama’s testifies in A Promised Land that Rev. Wright remained an important part of his consciousness (142). And so, throughout his narrative, the former chief executive gives indications of critical truths often reminiscent those voiced (albeit more forcefully) by his one-time pastor. For instance, Mr. Obama recalls that:
- As part of a generation willing to question the U.S. government (456), he frequently found Wright’s black liberation theology inspiring and as channeling the understandable rage of black people in general (119, 141).
- Not only did Rev. Wright’s disturbing insights become part of his consciousness, but so did the radical thought of W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash (11) – along with those of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi and the belatedly revered socialist, Nelson Mandela (598).
- He realized that despite the convictions of many liberals, America’s race problems are far from being solved (128).
- He felt impatient with having to soften blunt truths that whites find disturbing (121).
- He himself had often experienced police harassment (395).
- He found sympathy with the assessment of critics like Wright that America’s “. . . ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start” (xv).
- In fact, after World War II, the U.S. had “. . . bent global institutions to serve Cold War imperatives or ignored them altogether . . . meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results;” and its “. . . actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination and human rights. . .” (329).
- America’s war in Vietnam was no less brutal than the Soviet Union’s repression of Hungary (469).
- The criminal U.S.-supported Shah of Iran and his feared SAVAK secret police were typical of murderous client regimes supported by America in the Global South following World War II (310, 450-1).
- The Shah’s regime was part of U.S. Mideast policy that needlessly alienated Muslims throughout the world. That policy tolerated corruption and repression in the region and routinely humiliated Palestinians (358).
- China represents an attractive alternative (to the United States’) model for the developing world (481).
- That’s true especially after so many Global South countries embraced the illusory “wisdom” of the Washington Neoliberal Consensus and thus followed America over a fatal precipice (330).
Obama’s Repudiation of Wright (and radical change)
Despite such insights, Mr. Obama’s presidential ambitions not only made it necessary for him to repudiate Jeremiah Wright, but evidently to adopt a series of policies that contradicted the tenets of liberation theology. His policies prioritized the welfare of the rich over those of the working class and poor. Accordingly, the president ends up admitting that:
- Because of the financial crisis, he did not follow through on his campaign promises to U.S. workers (177).
- For him, the financial markets (presumably as opposed to wage earners) were the only audience that really mattered (304).
- His interventions alone were responsible for saving bankers from wage earners’ justified anger and retaliation (297).
- Resulting white working-class anger, e.g., in Pennsylvania about jobs lost through such neoliberal policies, was justified (144).
- In retrospect, bank nationalization and prosecution of crooked bankers might have been a better solution to the Crisis of 2008 than the bailouts favored by his economic team (280, 296, 305).
- By avoiding that solution and bowing to bankers’ interests, Obama consciously missed a once-in-a-generation chance to reengineer the overall economy in a bottom-up way reminiscent of FDR’s New Deal (304).
- He could have done so, because of his 70% approval rating coupled with the super majority he possessed in the Congress at the outset of his first term (225, 378, 243).
Nowhere in his autobiography does Mr. Obama reveal his repudiation of Wright’s outspokenness than in the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil tragedy of 2010. There, BP Oil had unleashed the most devastating oil spill in the history of offshore drilling. It lasted for 87 days and pumped out into the ocean at least 20,000 (and possibly 50,000) barrels of oil daily (569).
As time wore on and scientists and engineers scrambled to cap the leaks, Republicans increasingly blamed the president for the failure to do so. They even referred to it as “Obama’s Katrina” (569).
What Mr. Obama’s best instincts told him to say in response was reminiscent of Wright’s candor – this time in favor of perhaps the earth’s most oppressed being, Mother Earth Herself. According to the former president, he should have said:
“. . . the only way to truly guarantee that we didn’t have another catastrophic oil spill in the future was to stop drilling entirely; but that wasn’t going to happen because at the end of the day we Americans loved our cheap gas and big cars more than we cared about the environment except when a complete disaster was staring us in the face, and in the absence of such disaster, the media rarely covered efforts to shift America off fossil fuels or pass climate change legislation, since actually educating the public would be boring and bad for ratings; and the one thing I could be certain of was that for all the outrage being expressed at the moment about wetlands and sea turtles and pelicans, what the majority of us were really interested in was having the problem go away, for me to clean up yet one more mess decades in the making with some quick and easy fix, so that we could all go back to our carbon-spewing, energy-wasting ways without having to feel guilty about it” (570-71).
Again, that’s what, Obama admits, he wanted to say: stop drilling altogether, get rid of your big SUVs, pay the true price of gasoline, and pass courageous climate change legislation despite effects on the “American Way of Life.”
Instead, the president describes his Casper Milquetoast response with the following words: “. . . I somberly took responsibility and said it was my job to ‘get this fixed.’”
In other words, in contrast to liberation theology’s and Jeremiah Wright’s “preferential option for the poor,” Obama’s policy preference supported the corporate status quo. He short-changed those represented by what he elsewhere describes as “his kind of crowd” from the days when he worshipped at Trinity United – “democracy activists, heads of nonprofits and community organizers working at a grassroots level on issues like housing, public health, and political access” (466).
That in a nutshell encapsulates Obama’s choice not to follow the outspokenness not only of Jeremiah Wright, but of FDR’s ghost with whom POTUS #44 wistfully compares himself throughout his memoir (177, 239, 240, 264, 388, 524, 547, 549).
Following Roosevelt, Mr. Obama’s legacy could have been different. He could have bailed out wage earners instead of the bankers. He could have instituted a 21st century New Deal prioritizing health care, infrastructure renewal, clean energy technology, and a green counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Moreover, Barack Obama was more up to selling those programs than any president within living memory. He was better equipped for game-changing fireside chatting than even Roosevelt himself. No chief executive since FDR enjoyed his natural charm, charisma or eloquence.
Yet by his own admission, he wasted what that other Roosevelt called his “bully pulpit” by failing to persuade the American people to support legislation in their own best interests regarding single-payer health care, immigration reform, clean energy, nuclear disarmament, and cessation of endless wars (594).
None of this is to say that his own words in A Promised Land reveal President Barack Obama as somehow nefarious or intentionally two-faced. As presidents go, he emerges as a decent man. And no one can deny the significance of his enormous achievement as the first black man to overcome the tremendous obstacles barring election to the highest office in the land. Moreover, once in office, #44 acquitted himself with impeccable moral integrity (595). His staff worked extremely hard. Mr. Obama was the kind of boss most of us would like to work for – upbeat, sensitive, inclusive and willing to laugh at himself (534). He is also a gifted writer.
Neither is any of this to say that Mr. Obama should have been as outspoken as Jeremiah Wright. Such style might be appropriate for a prophetic pastor on Chicago’s south side, but it’s surely not the way to get elected president.
As a theologian however, I find it regrettable that the former president so completely cut himself off from the lessons learned at the feet of his early mentor. (And this is where Catholic Joe Biden has something to learn from his boss’ admitted regrets.) Had President Obama quietly embraced Dr. Wright’s lessons, had he ignored the Geithners, Emanuels, and Sommers, had he prioritized the needs of the poor, had he offered us another New Deal, we’d likely be living in a far greener country with far less wealth disparity, injustice and anger ( 522, 524).
And judging by Mr. Roosevelt’s success with the electorate, the Democrats would today enjoy much firmer standing in the White House and halls of Congress.
Biblically speaking, Barack Obama would have brought us all that much closer to A Promised Land.