Tolerance and the American Pulpit
A cable newscaster on Friday afternoon asked in a tone of voice that expressed her wide-eyed naivety: "What is liberation theology?" Having covered the news for many years, and having covered the Rev. Jeremiah Wright thunderstorm for two weeks, it was still a question that she had not bothered to research. And frankly, I don’t really want to experience that learning curve as part of my continuing coverage of the Presidential campaign.
I doubt that the summer of ’08 will be the time to provide a sufficient, good-faith answer to the question of liberation theology or how the black social gospel is spiritual grandfather to these momentous American movements. Such an attempt at national education played out upon our contemporary media landscape would likely morph very quickly into a witch-hunt.
Sen. Barack Obama appears to agree with this assessment. The Senator’s public review of Rev. Wright’s oratory during Tuesday’s "race speech" did not mention either keyword, neither liberation nor theology. And yet, Rev. Wright has asked that these be the key words applied to any serious assessment of his work.
Because it would likely be a poisonous time and place for the adult discussion that liberation theology requires, I think Obama’s judgment call is valid as he tried to move public discussion around the issue rather of "liberation theology" rather than through it.
However, I think there are stronger arguments for going around Rev. Wright’s oratory as a campaign issue. The stronger argument is that the American unity that Obama claims to want will require some faith in the principle of religious toleration.
Since it is "liberation theology" that is required to understand Rev. Wright, and since theological agreement is precisely the kind of thing that should not be required in the context of public policy debates, then it is time to agree that when Rev. Wright speaks from a pulpit in a church, it is better that a tolerant society back off of his comments as a Presidential issue.
There is some sophistication in the careful wording of Sen. Obama’s speech, which hints that he knows the difference between theology and policy discourse, even as he puts Rev. Wright’s oratory upon a two-dimensional plane of public policy. The clues are in the repeated uses of the phrase ‘as if': "he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past."
Sen. Obama has three times denied the truth of is own pastor with the phrase ‘as if.’ But is it not the theological function of prophetic speech to talk precisely ‘as if’?
Although it is unlikely that the cable news cyclists would respect Sen. Obama’s call for religious toleration in behalf of Rev. Wright, I think that toleration is the better argument for moving on. An attitude of toleration has the benefit of refusing to flatten all public oratory into the plane of policy speak. And if we achieve this act of toleration for Rev. Wright, then we will strengthen the three-dimensional life of spiritual language for all theologies (or anti-theologies), and maintain a more healthy distance between church and state as a precious resource for everyone’s freedom of worship in a robust democracy.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.