What did Jeremiah Wright actually say in the “Audacity of Hope” sermon that so famously led to Barack Obama’s conversion? It seems clear that the sermon text posted by PreachingToday.com and reposted on many blogs during the height of the Wright controversy in March is not, in fact, a complete text of what Obama heard on that fateful day. A longer and decidedly more political text, can be found in What Makes You So Strong? Sermons of Joy and Strength From Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. The “Audacity to Hope” sermon reprinted in that volume may not be precisely what Obama himself first heard, but it does seem significantly closer to the original than the text posted last month at PreachingToday.com.
In any case, the book version of the famous “Audacity” sermon, like the other sermons reprinted in What Makes You So Strong?
provides a fascinating window into Reverend Wright’s political and social worldview. Out of this collection come passages equating Zionism with racism, offering criticism of the Catholic practice of Holy Communion, defending Louis Farrakhan, and attacking American military interventions in Panama, Grenada, and the first Gulf War.
Sorting Out the Texts
It’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about the relationship between the “Audacity of Hope” sermon described in Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father, the sermon-text posted on PreachingToday.com, and the text printed in What Makes You So Strong? The sermon described in Obama’s book appears to have been delivered sometime in the late winter or spring of 1988. The text posted at PreachingToday.com dates from 1990, and the version in What Makes You So Strong? was delivered in early 1991.
Although the So Strong version is the latest of the three, it matches much more closely to the 1988 sermon described in Obama’s book than the supposedly complete text posted at PreachingToday.com. Obama’s book speaks of Caribbean cruise ships that throw away more food in a day than poor Hatians see in a year, and unlike the text at PreachingToday, the sermon in So Strong mentions the same detail (with some slight differences of wording). Obama’s book notes a comparison between our actions in Hiroshima and the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, and that point is also made in the So Strong text. In contrast, the PreachingToday text leaves Sharpeville out altogether. Obama’s book includes a powerful detail about Reverend Wright himself being “busted for grand larceny auto theft” at age 15, which again we also find in the So Strong anthology, but which is softened considerably in the PreachingToday text.
All this suggests that the longer text reprinted in the So Strong anthology is significantly closer than the PreachingToday text to what Obama actually heard in 1988. On the other hand, a number of the most political passages in sermon reprinted in So Strong may have been either added or reworked to reflect the fact that this 1991 version of the “Audacity” talk was delivered as part of a series of guest sermons in Houston honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Obama’s description of the original Audacity sermon of 1988 notes that the comments about Sharpeville and Hiroshima were followed by talk about “the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House.” Since the 1991 text doesn’t mention the “State House,” the political passages in the 1988 sermon Obama heard may well have been reworked to fit the occasion in 1991. Nonetheless, the 1991 sermon, like the other sermons reprinted in the So Strong collection, would appear to give us a far more realistic and complete indication of the Reverend Wright’s sermons than the short, relatively apolitical and “sanitized” text posted at PreachingToday.com.