I consistently try to stay away from overtly political discussions here on Pop Theology. I find myself too tied up in the “fantasy worlds” of movies, television shows, books, and video games to cast my lot in “real world politics.” However, when religion, politics, and the news converge like they did on Friday, it is hard to stay away. The following post is not an endorsement of any candidate, but rather a brief examination of the explosion of religion and media surrounding Barack Obama’s campaign. Coincidentally, I have also been reading Stewart Hoover’s Religion in the Media Age which will, hopefully, help shed some light on this topic. I am sure Mr. Hoover has quite enough information to fuel a second edition of his book after the media frenzy around Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s comments. Check back in the next few days for a review of Hoover’s book and read on for my thoughts on Obama’s drama.One thing that Hoover makes perfectly clear in Religion and the Media Age is that people have difficulty articulating the relationship between their religious values (or lack thereof) and their media consumption (film, television, music, Internet, etc.). Equally clear is the fact that the media, especially the news, lacks sufficient religious understanding, as evidenced by their continual turn to Pastors Falwell, Hagee, or Robertson as talking heads. Ironically, throughout his research, Hoover finds that even the most conservative interviewees lament the media obsession with these representatives of Christianity. Thus, through their lack of religious understanding, and an obsession with controversy, the news media pigeonholes various religious voices. It stands to reason that if they do not understand majority (white) expressions of Christianity in this country, they probably will be even less knowledgable of minority Christianity.
As I write about this, the more keenly aware I am of my lack of experience in and knowledge of African American religious traditions. However, during my time in divinity school at Wake Forest University, I had the privilege of hearing prophetic preaching from both black and white traditions. I am aware that this prophetic characteristic is particularly present in African American preaching, perhaps more consistently than in “white preaching.” African Americans have historically faced oppression and injustice that white Americans will never know. To not hear strong denouncement of this from the pulpit would be another injustice indeed and a betrayal of the social gospel that defines Christianity.
Perhaps the media’s coverage of this issue reflects a similar knowledge gap. It also signals, yet again, the crucial intersection of religion and media in contemporary society. If we place Reverend Wright’s statements in the context of his sermon and his sermon in the context of prophetic African American preaching, it is hard to find him at fault. Of course, his use of “God damn” will set many religious folk on edge, black or white. Yet in the context of his sermon, Rev. Wright simply said that God should damn the practices of unspeakable violence, hypocrisy, and injustice and the circumstances that lead to them. Aside from Rev. Wright’s strong language, can we refute any of his claims? Is Obama part of the establishment? Do white-run corporations run this country? What has been the only constant in the history of American politics? Has America undertaken nefarious (to put it lightly) foreign policies?
It is difficult, no impossible, to link the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 because of the uniqueness of each event and the uniqueness of their horror. It is much harder to denounce Rev. Wright’s accusations of US participation in state-sanctioned terrorism. Our involvement in the Middle East, Africa, and South America is hypocritical to say the least. For all of our efforts at liberation, we can also look at the underside of this myth and fin untold suffering that this “liberative” foreign policy has caused. In a seminal post-colonial text, The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon argues, in part, that the violence that the oppressor works on the oppressed, will be the same violence that the oppressed work on the oppressor. A vicious cycle indeed…chickens coming home to roost. This should in no way justify the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, but it could serve as one point of departure in understanding the situation.
I have yet to see, and hope to in the coming days, a scholar of religion speak to Reverend Wright’s comments. All I have seen so far are political “specialists” speculating on to what extent these statements will harm Obama’s campaign. There might be an implicit racism in these interactions as well or, again, just a complete and total ignorance of African American religious traditions. One thing is sure: religion has not faded from the public sphere. It is interacting with media in ways never before imagined. As one of my spiritual advisors argued, not every pastor wants every sermon posted on YouTube.