Today Barack Obama gives what is being billed as a “major speech” on race in America. It will be fascinating to see what Obama has to say in light of the comments by his pastor for two decades, Jeremiah Wright.
One line of argument Barack Obama may be thinking about using in his speech goes like this: The comments by Reverend Jeremiah Wright may sound hateful to the ears of many whites and middle-class Americans — and Obama himself may personally reject them as hateful and divisive — but they are perceived very differently within the African-American community. Wright’s words are “tied to black tradition,” in the words of a Wall Street Journal article on Monday. They “may sound harsh — but they are rooted in the history of black protest and in a form of ‘liberation theology’ popular in many black churches.”
According to this view, what matters is less what Reverend Wright said than the narrative he uses and the reality for which he, as an African American, speaks. Wright’s words may sound vitriolic to some, but it has deep resonance to others. The fact that people react so differently to the same words underscores the divisions in our society. Both sides need to understand one another better. And that is where Senator Obama comes in. He alone among contemporary political figures can bridge the differences.
I hope Senator Obama rejects this approach. For one thing, he has a lot to explain — including how he could worship at Wright’s church for a quarter century and not know the vicious anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments Wright harbors. It is almost inconceivable that Obama was unfamiliar with Wright’s fundamental attitudes. They are likely core to his views as an exponent of black liberation theology.
Senator Obama should be chastened and ashamed of his presence and support for Trinity United Church of Christ and its senior pastor over the years. And if Obama attempts to portray himself as the healing balm for America’s racial divisions — as the man who can understand the attitudes of both Wright’s parishioners and his critics — it will be a step of astonishing arrogance.
More fundamentally, Obama should not, in attempting to explain the appeal of black liberation theology to African Americans, embrace the postmodern view that truth is relative and all that matters are the “narrative identities” we create for ourselves. What matters are not facts but our own personal and social history, according to this postmodern view, and we can all create our own reality.
Of course our experiences shape how we perceive reality. We all have cultural biases and social upbringings that influence how we interpret history and our own lives. None of us is in a perfect position to judge truth claims. But that is quite different from believing that we should give up the effort all together, that truth is relative, that no one has the authority to define right and wrong, and that each of our truth claims are equally valid. And it is quite different than believing that one’s race gives license to interpret history in a way that is false and to slander a nation that has stood, even imperfectly, for liberation and human dignity.
The postmodernist view is morally impossible to sustain — and thankfully no one lives their everyday lives as an authentic postmodernist. If a person said they wanted to take your five-year-old daughter from you in order to make her part of a ritualistic child sacrifice because such things were part of his own “personal truth,” you wouldn’t, as a parent, be persuaded by the rigor of the argument. Nor would you give up your child. Rather, you would try to lock the person behind bars, if you didn’t physically harm him first.
The danger for Senator Obama is that in trying to explain “black liberation theology” in a sympathetic light, he will commit a series of philosophical errors. If Obama chooses this tack — and he may not — he will rue the day he gave this speech.
Postmodernism may sell at Columbia University and Harvard Law School; it doesn’t sell nearly as well in the rest of America.
– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.