God Bless America, or God Damn America?


As promised, here are Ed Blum's " 'God Damn America' in Black and White" and Ralph Luker's "Jeremiah." Both explain the historical origins of some of the rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, lately of Barack-Obama's-minister fame. Both of them, in their own different ways, make the point Blum summarizes here:

What is striking, historically, is that there is nothing new in Wright’s sermon and how often African American perspectives on so-called American Christian nationalism are ignored. If we look closely at African American perspectives of Christian nationalism, we find Reverend Wright firmly in a long oppositional and rhetorical tradition.

Luker puts Wright in the tradition of Vernon Johns and other African American "Jeremiahs":

"The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, 'I love you, Israel.' He's also the God that stands up before the nations and said: 'Be still and know that I'm God, (Yeah) that if you don't obey me I will break the backbone of your power, (Yeah) and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.' (That's right)."

Those words from a jeremiad sound like something by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. He's much quoted this weekend as having said: "
God damn America." But the first quotation comes – not from Wright, but from Martin Luther King's first address to the Montgomery Improvement Association on 5 December 1955. Both African American preachers understand prophetic biblical preaching far better than those who feign shock at and condemn Jeremiah Wright's words.

Prophecy and politics can be difficult to mix, which, presumably, is why Obama is backpedaling a bit. But without prophecy, then politics loses something it can't do without.

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory nails it here: In the end, I don't see much of a difference between Wright's pronouncements and the following by Frederick Douglass: "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?" Or consider the following from Martin Luther King: "[T]he greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government."

By the way five years ago this week George Bush made a decision to invade a foreign country that was not a threat to the United States. There is still no end in sight. Stop worrying so much about Wright's words and focus on a man whose words and actions have resulted in the deaths of close to 4,000 servicemen and women along with countless innocent Iraqis.

Just to add a bit to that: today's Wall Street Journal features an excellent extended piece by Gina Chon, "Iraq, 5 Years On, A Nation of Refugees," which details the immense costs of the war, including the four million Iraqis internally displaced or forced into refugee status outside the country. Never mind the $2 trillion (that's a T), and counting, cost at home. Embrace your inner jeremiad, and count the cost of hubris and mendacity, buried in the ground.


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Anonymous said…
I like this, from reader EM at Talking Points Memo:

"What drives me crazy is how this could have been avoided so easily if Wright was the slightest bit media-savvy. Had he merely controlled his tongue and limited himself to advocating an attack on Iran to encourage massive worldwide Muslim attacks leading to a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of end-times and bringing about Armageddon and the summary slaughter of every Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and non-believer on the planet while rapturing him and his flock up to heaven, then followed it up by denouncing Catholics as cult members and blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay people, this story wouldn't be metastasizing like this. One five minute milquetoast repudiation by Obama and it would all be behind him.
But what does Wright do instead? He spews this vile 'God damn America' bile. What a psycho."

About the lack of media-savvy in the quotations: what if this was a planted story--a silly story really: why is Obama accountable for the words of his pastor? Sounds like 1928 and the critiques against Al Smith...--but what if this was a plant so that Obama would have to respond as beautifully as he did today? He looked mighty noble tackling "race" head on, no?

Get your conspiracy theories revving!
Scooper said…
Excellent post. I have a similar analysis here and here.
John G. Turner said…
I dissent in at least a subtle way from the post and many of the comments.

"In the end, I don't see much of a difference between Wright's pronouncements and the following by Frederick Douglass"

Maybe there is more of a similarity between King's statement and Wright's, but Douglass's doesn't seem in the same ballpark. And context is important. When Douglass made that comment, a majority of black Americans were in chains and the rest were denied basic citizenship rights. The situation in recent years, while still unjust in many of the ways Obama outlined, is not in the same ballpark. Making these sweeping comparison ignores context and change over time.

Furthermore, neither Douglass nor King used the same sort of rhetoric as Wright did (in my opinion). For better or worse, his was much more inflammatory and often unsupportable (such as the government trying to pump drugs into the black community).

Also, there is a major difference in tone between the Graham quote Ed cites and what I've read from Wright. Had Wright said, "God will judge America in the near future if our government doesn't address racial inequality and poverty," nobody would be batting an eyelash. But he said much more than that.

All of that being said, I agree that the issue pales in comparison to Iraq, etc., and I thought Obama's speech was eloquent, thoughtful, and widely persuasive (though I'm not convinced it will play in Peoria).

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