Published May 19, 2008
To the question of the moment–What did Barack Obama know and when did he know it?–I answer, Obama knew everything, and he's known it for ages. Far from succumbing to surprise and shock after Jeremiah Wright's disastrous performance at the National Press Club, Barack Obama must have long been aware of his pastor's political radicalism. A careful reading of nearly a year's worth of Trumpet Newsmagazine, Wright's glossy national “lifestyle magazine for the socially conscious,” makes it next to impossible to conclude otherwise.
Wright founded Trumpet Newsmagazine in 1982 as a “church newspaper”–primarily for his own congregation, one gathers–to “preach a message of social justice to those who might not hear it in worship service.” So Obama's presence at sermons is not the only measure of his knowledge of Wright's views. Glance through even a single issue of Trumpet, and Wright's radical politics are everywhere–in the pictures, the headlines, the highlighted quotations, and above all in the articles themselves. It seems inconceivable that, in 20 years, Obama would never have picked up a copy of Trumpet. In fact, Obama himself graced the cover at least once (although efforts to obtain that issue from the publisher or Obama's interview with the magazine from his campaign were unsuccessful).
Building on his reputation as a charismatic and “socially conscious” preacher (and no doubt also upon the fame conferred by his Obama connection), Wright decided several years ago to take the publication national. In September 2005, Trumpet officially separated from Wright's church and became an independent entity, with Wright as CEO and his two eldest daughters managing the magazine. Then in March 2006, with key financial backing from the TV One network, Trumpet released its first nationally distributed issue. The goal was to turn Trumpet into “a more sophisticated publication that would speak not just to black Christians but to the entire African-American community.” In November 2005, Wright's daughter and Trumpet publisher/editor in chief Jeri Wright announced the goal of increasing circulation from 5,000 to 100,000 in 10 months. Thanks to a national publicity blitz, she was able to declare that goal had been met well ahead of schedule.
If you've heard about the “Empowerment Award” bestowed upon Louis Farrakhan by Wright, or about Wright's derogation of “garlic-nosed” Italians (of the ancient Roman variety), then you already know something about Trumpet. Farrakhan's picture was on the cover of a special November/December 2007 double issue, along with an announcement of the Empowerment Award and Wright's praise of Farrakhan as a 20th- and 21st-century “giant.” Wright's words about Farrakhan were almost identical to those that, just four months later, led a supposedly shocked Obama to repudiate Wright. The insult to Italians was in the same double issue.
I obtained the 2006 run of Trumpet, from the first nationally distributed issue in March to the November/December double issue. To read it is to come away impressed by Wright's thoroughgoing political radicalism. There are plenty of arresting sound bites, of course, but the larger context is more illuminating–and more disturbing–than any single shock-quotation. Trumpet provides a rounded picture of Wright's views, and what it shows unmistakably is that the now-infamous YouTube snippets from Wright's sermons are authentic reflections of his core political and theological beliefs. It leaves no doubt that his religion is political, his attitude toward America is bitterly hostile, and he has fundamental problems with capitalism, white people, and “assimilationist” blacks. Even some of Wright's famed “good works,” and his moving “Audacity to Hope” sermon, are placed in a disturbing new light by a reading of Trumpet.
Getting across his political message is Wright's highest priority. Back in May 2007, the liberal, Chicago-based Christian Century published an extended study–really a defense–of Wright's church. Attempting to inoculate Wright (and Obama) from critics like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, Christian Century dismissed the notion that Wright's Trinity church “is a political organization constantly advocating for social change.” Yet in Trumpet, Wright and his fellow columnists show themselves to be exactly that.
Wright is the foremost acolyte of James Cone's “black liberation theology,” which puts politics at the center of religion. Wright himself is explicit:
[T]here was no separation Biblically and historically and there is no separation contemporaneously between 'religion and politics.' . . . The Word of God has everything to do with racism, sexism, militarism, social justice and the world in which we live daily.
In fact, for all his rousing rhetoric, Wright is a bit of a policy wonk, moving fluidly and frequently from excoriations of American foreign policy in various African countries, to denunciations of Senate votes on the minimum wage, to fulminations against FCC licensing policies and Clear Channel, and so much more. Wright is up to speed on local, national, and international politics, and it's tough to imagine him missing an opportunity to confer with Obama on his wide array of legislative crusades.
When Trumpet surprised Wright with a “Lifetime Achievement Trumpeter Award,” it said that he “preaches a liberation theology” whose “religious message [is] fused with political activism.” Not only does black liberation theology founder James Cone see Wright as his most important follower, but Wright's successor as pastor at Trinity, Otis Moss III, also views Wright as the quintessential political pastor. Moss (himself now considered the most promising young black-liberationist preacher in the country) turned down the opportunity to step into the leadership of his own preacher-father's nationally known church for a chance to serve at the still more renowned Trinity. Wright's Trinity, affirms Moss, is “the most socially conscious African-centered and politically active church in the nation.”
While the majority of Trumpet's articles weave radical politics into a religious framework, some are purely political. For example, the April 2006 issue features a column entitled “Demand Impeachment Now!” The author pointedly refuses to call Bush “president,” merely referring to him as the “resident” of the White House (and therefore as “Resident Bush”). Another piece taunts Vice President Cheney for his shooting accident and ends, “America, it's time for regime change.” Neither piece has so much as a religious veneer.
What about patriotism? While many consider Wright's call for God to damn America irredeemable, others might argue that “in context,” Wright's prophetic denunciations actually prove his love of country. Unfortunately, neither Wright nor any of the other regular Trumpet columnists displays a trace of this “I'm denouncing you because I love you” stance. On the contrary, the pages of Trumpet resonate with enraged criticism of the United States. Indeed, they feature explicit repudiations of even the most basic expressions of American patriotism, supporting instead an “African-centered” perspective that treats black Americans as virtual strangers in a foreign land.
Although the expression “African American” appears in Trumpet, the magazine more typically refers to American blacks as “Africans living in the Western Diaspora.” Wright and the other columnists at Trumpet seem to think of blacks as in, but not of, America. The deeper connection is to Africans on the continent, and to the worldwide diaspora of African-originated peoples. In an image that captures the spirit of Wright's relationship to th
e United States, he speaks of blacks as “songbirds” locked in “this cage called America.”
Wright views the United States as a criminal nation. Here is a typical passage: “Do you see God as a God who approves of Americans taking other people's countries? Taking other people's women? Raping teenage girls and calling it love (as in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings)?” Anyone who does think this way, Wright suggests, should revise his notion of God. Implicitly drawing on Marxist “dependency theory,” Wright blames Africa's troubles on capitalist exploitation by the West, and also on inadequate American aid: “Some analysts would go so far as to even call what [the United States, the G-8, and multinational corporations] are doing [in Africa] genocide!”
According to Wright, America's alleged genocide in Africa, as well as its treatment of “Africans in the Western diaspora,” both leads to and flows from a single underlying truth: “White supremacy is the bed rock of the philosophical, ideological and theological foundations of this country.” So for Wright, it's really not a question of correcting America in the spirit of a loving patriot. America, to Wright, is a kind of alien formation, scarcely less of a “cage” for “Africans in the Western Diaspora” than it was during the days of slavery: “[T]his country is built off, and continues to exist on, the premise of white supremacy.” Again and again, Wright makes the point that America's criminality and racism are not aberrations but of the essence of the nation, that they are every bit as alive today as during the slave era, and that America is therefore no better than the worst international offenders: “White supremacy undergirds the thought, the ideology, the theol-ogy, the sociology, the legal structure, the educational system, the healthcare system, and the entire reality of the United States of America and South Africa!” (Emphasis Wright's.)
One of Wright's most striking images of American evil invokes Hurricane Katrina. Here are excerpts of a piece in the May 2006 Trumpet:
We need to educate our children to the reality of white supremacy.
We need to educate our children about the white supremacist's foundations of the educational system.
When the levees in Louisiana broke alligators, crocodiles and piranha swam freely through what used to be the streets of New Orleans. That is an analogy that we need to drum into the heads of our African American children (and indeed all children!).
In the flood waters of white supremacy . . . there are also crocodiles, alligators and piranha!
The policies with which we live now and against which our children will have to struggle in order to bring about “the beloved community,” are policies shaped by predators.
We lay a foundation, deconstructing the household of white supremacy with tools that are not the master's tools. We lay the foundation with hope. We deconstruct the vicious and demonic ideology of white supremacy with hope. Our hope is not built on faith-based dollars, empty liberal promises or veiled hate-filled preachments of the so-called conservatives. Our hope is built on Him who came in the flesh to set us free.
Given Wright's conviction that America, past and present, is criminally white supremacist–even genocidal–to its core, Wright is not a fan of patriotic celebration. Predictably, Columbus Day is a day of rage for Wright. Calling Columbus a racist slave trader, Wright excoriates the holiday as “a national act of amnesia and denial,” part of the “sick and myopic arrogance called Western History.”
Strangely, given his view of this country, Wright insists that real credit for America's discovery goes to Africans. As evidence for the African discovery of America, Wright cites Dr. Ivan van Sertima's book They Came Before Columbus. (Sertima's work has been severely criticized by scholars and was dismissed by prominent British archaeologist Glyn Daniel in a 1977 New York Times book review as “ignorant rubbish.”) Wright concludes: “Giving Columbus the credit is called 'American History' or 'The History of Western Civilization.' Back in the 1960's we called it what it was and is, however, and that is 'a pack of lies.' ”
Contempt for Columbus Day is hardly novel, but in the 2006 July/August issue, regular Trumpet columnist the Rev. Reginald Williams Jr. comes down hard on the Fourth of July, which Williams dismisses as “the national holiday of the dominant culture.” Williams invokes Frederick Douglass's famous 1852 Fourth of July address:
What to the slave is the 4th of July? What have I to do with your national independence? . . . What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham . . . your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless . . . your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings . . . mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy–a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
To Williams, Douglass's words ring every bit as true today as they did before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. (This column is illustrated with a large picture of slave manacles.) Williams goes on to echo and update Douglass, condemning the Fourth as “nothing more than a day off work and a time for some good barbeque to the millions of African Americans who suffer and have suffered under the policies of this government and this country.” Liberation theologian that he is, Williams is particularly hostile to those who “will even invoke religious fervor, and biblical quotes to justify their flawed sense of phony patriotism.” No flag pins here.
Hostility to capitalism is another of Trumpet's pervasive themes. As we've seen, Wright blames multinational corporations for conflict and poverty in Africa. Trinity Church urges parishioners to boycott Wal-Mart, and Wright decries what he calls “the “Wal-martization of the world.” In another one of his regular Trumpet columns, Reginald Williams criticizes McDonald's for failing to heed leftist advocacy groups by voluntarily raising the price it pays for tomatoes (so as to raise the wages of tomato pickers). Williams apparently wants to replace market mechanisms with a pricing system dictated by “human rights groups.”
While the nationally distributed issues of Trumpet in 2006 contained no pieces blaming 9/11 on America's “terrorist” foreign policy (as Wright did in a famous sermon), one remarkable piece defended then-congress-woman Cynthia McKinney's suspicion that the Bush administration knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened. This column, “The Beloved Cynthia McKinney” (illustrated with pictures of McKinney in model-like poses), decries the fact that McKinney was “tarred and feathered in the press” for raising questions about possible government foreknowledge of 9/11. The “crimes of 9/11,” it darkly announces, are “not only unsolved, but covered up by both Democrats and Republicans.”
America's justice system is another favorite Trumpet theme. Wright likes to call it “the criminal injustice system.” A piece headed “Read Me My Rights: Protocol for Dealing with the Police” decries racial profiling and counsels those detained to refuse to speak to police without a lawyer present. Reginald Williams calls prisons “the new concrete plantations” and likens the inclusion of nonvoting prisoners in state population counts to the official counting of nonvoting slaves in state populations before the Civil War. In other words, the abolition of slavery and segreg
ation notwithstanding, America is still a fundamentally racist nation. Wright likes to call the American North “up South.”
Is Wright an anti-white racist? He would certainly deny it. In When Black Men Stand Up for God (a book he coauthored, in praise of Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March), Wright says, “The enemy is not white people. The enemy is white supremacy.” There are white members of Wright's church, and black liberation theologians have always, if a bit reluctantly, welcomed support from white radicals. Nonetheless, the problem of reverse racism keeps coming up, abetted by episodes like the assault on “garlic-nosed” Italians.
Wright's swipe at Italians is actually directed toward the Romans who crucified Jesus (in what James Cone calls a “first-century lynching”). Following black liberation theology, Wright emphasizes that the black Jesus was “murdered by the European oppressors who looked down on His people.” In a sense, then, disclaimers notwithstanding, Wright turns the crucifixion into a potential charter for “anti-European” anger.
Wright, however, rejects the notion that “black racism” is even possible. That is why he prefers the term “white supremacy” to “racism.” “Racism,” says Wright, is a “slippery” and “nebulous” term, precisely because it seems potentially applicable to blacks and whites alike. The term “white supremacy” solves this problem, and Wright deploys it at every opportunity.
Wright opposes “assimilation,” expressing displeasure with the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, and Colin Powell. He dismisses such blacks as “sell outs.” Wright's hostility to assimilation goes beyond classic American expressions of pride in ethnic or religious heritage. For example, Wright claims that “desegregation is not the same as integration. . . . Desegregation did not mean that white children would now come to Black schools and learn our story, our history, our heritage, our legacy, our beauty and our strength!” This, for Wright, is genuine “integration.”
One of the most striking features of Wright's Trumpet columns is the light they shed on his longstanding theme of “hope.” Wright's “Audacity to Hope” sermon is built around a painting he describes of a torn and tattered woman sitting atop a globe and playing a harp that has lost all but a single string. In that sermon, Wright's allegory of hope amidst despair concentrates on our need to soldier on in faith amidst personal tragedy. Yet the “Audacity” sermon also features allusions to South Africa's Sharpe-ville Massacre (1960) and “white folks's greed [that] runs a world in need.”
In Trumpet, the political context of the “hope” theme is harsher still. Instead of counseling determination amidst personal tragedy, Wright uses “hope” to exhort his readers to boldly carry on the long-odds struggle against white supremacist America: “We deconstruct the vicious and demonic ideology of white supremacy with hope.” Here's another passage in the same mode:
[O]ur fight against Wal-Mart's practices has not been won and might never be won in our lifetime. That does not mean we stop struggling against what it is they stand for that is not in keeping with God's will and God's Kingdom that we pray will come every day.
In that earlier striking passage on the post-Katrina flooding in New Orleans, Wright speaks of his determination to “drum into the heads of our African American children (and indeed, all children!)” the idea that America is flooded with the “crocodiles, alligators and piranha” of white supremacy. That image creates the context for one of Wright's most energetic invocations of “hope”:
We are on the verge of launching our African-centered Christian school. The dream of that school, which we articulated in 1979, was built on hope. That hope still lives. That school has to have at its core an understanding and assessment of white supremacy as we deconstruct that reality to help our children become all that God created them to be when God made them in God's own image.
The construction of a school for inner city children undoubtedly falls into the category of the “good works” which nearly everyone recognizes as a benefit bestowed by Trinity Church on the surrounding community, Wright's ideology notwithstanding. But is a school that portrays America as a white supremacist nation filled with predatory alligators and piranha a good work?
Wright's status as a father-figure comes through clearly in the pages of Trumpet. In a Trumpet interview, Jesse Jackson characterizes Wright as “between a huge father, pastor, preacher, [and] prophet.” Wright's young minister protégés call him “Daddy J” and “Uncle J,” and perhaps this latter name prompted Obama's reference to Wright as “like an uncle.” Obama's longing for a father figure surely gave him a great hunger to get to know what Wright was about. In their first meeting, Wright warned Obama that many considered him too politically radical, and it is simply inconceivable that in 20 years' time someone as sharp as Obama did not grasp the intensely political themes repeated in so much of what Wright says and does. Radical politics is no sideline for Wright, but the very core of his theology and practice.
There can be no mistaking it. What did Barack Obama know and when did he know it? Everything. Always.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.