Will President Barack Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his fiery sermons make an appearance in the 2012 elections, just as they had for a bit in 2008? Last week, the New York Times reported that a billionaire Republican businessman had approved a plan that would drag Wright back into the limelight in an attempt to color Obama as extreme and "un-American". The plan was leaked and then scrapped, but Mark Oppenheimer wonders if the reemergence of Wright's sermons, which espouse a particular brand of liberation theology, might give way to a more mature conversation. From the New York Times:
In 2008, conservatives gleefully attacked the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. Obama’s home pastor in Chicago, for his provocative remarks in sermons, taken out of context, including his assertion that 9/11 was evidence that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” They persuaded many that Mr. Wright was wielding something called “liberation theology” — and that Candidate Obama had to answer for it.
“How important a strain is liberation theology in the black church?” a reporter asked Mr. Obama at an April 2008 news conference. “And why did you choose to attend a church that preached that?”
To his credit, Mr. Obama began his reply to that reporter by saying, “I’m not a theologian.” But others had no such modesty. In March 2008, after tapes of Mr. Wright’s fiery sermons surfaced, Jonah Goldberg wrote in his blog for National Review, “I keep meaning to go to school on black liberation theology, but I just haven’t had the time. The similarities between certain strains of the German Christian Movement and Jeremiah Wright’s shtick certainly seem significant.” The German Christians were a movement of pro-Nazi Protestants in prewar Germany.
Also that month, Glenn Beck, then a Fox News host, called black liberation theology “the theological tradition based in hate, intolerance and racial black nationalism.”
Last week, four years since the last liberation-theology scare, it was reported that Joe Ricketts, a billionaire business executive, was considering a plan to finance an anti-Obama advertising campaign, focused on Mr. Wright and those same video clips. The campaign prospectus was incendiary and demeaning — it recommended that the backers “include an extremely literate, conservative African-American in our spokesman group” — and Mitt Romney quickly said he rejected any such campaign on his behalf.
While Mr. Wright has said his ministry is inspired by James H. Cone, the author of “Black Theology & Black Power,” the founding text of black liberation theology, Dr. Cone’s 1969 book is far subtler than any one sermon, no matter the preacher. Contrary to the simplifications of the past four years, liberation theology, which has become hugely influential, teaches not hate, nor anti-Americanism, but a renewed focus on the poor and the suffering, as embodied by Jesus.
“Liberation theology, at its most simple, is the Sunday school Jesus who healed the sick or took care of the poor people,” said Shannon Craigo-Snell, a theologian at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “It’s what your Sunday school teacher taught you if you grew up in a church. It isn’t something people should be afraid of, unless they’re invested in poor people not getting fed or sick people not getting healed.”
Liberation theology has a strong history in the Catholic Church. I remember being introduced to the concept as an undergrad at St. Anselm College, where many of my peers were captivated by the social justice themes that are the backbone of lib theo. Even those students who seemed to despise the church were compelled by the efforts of so many Catholics to stand with the poor, fight oppression, and take on systems that exploit the weak and marginalized. I must have watched the 1989 film Romero, which tells the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero opposing the tyrannical government in El Salvador, in at least four classes during my time in college. I also remember learning how the movement has been stifled in recent decades by the church, citing close ties to Marxism and certain unpalatable elements of the left-wing.
If liberation theology makes people uncomfortable, that's because it's supposed to. It is meant to challenge us, to knock us a bit off kilter and ask us to see the world through a Gospel lens. Will liberation theology make another appearance during this election cycle? If so, how will Americans react? Does liberation theology have a place in the American religious marketplace?