Published April 21, 2008
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 Haitians 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.
The sermon text in the So Strong collection was apparently drawn from tape recordings and slightly modified for purposes of writing by the collection's editor, Jini M. Kilgore. In a sermon titled, “When God is Silent,” Wright tells a revealing story from one of his three trips to Cuba. Talking about his Cuban translator's nervous desire to see his sermon text ahead of time, Wright says: “…sometimes there are things too hot for paper, and you're going to be looking around trying to figure out where I am in that manuscript, and I am not going to be on that manuscript.” So it's obvious that all of these printed sermon texts are imperfect (and probably toned down) versions of what Wright actually says in his sermons.
The Audacity to Hope
Here, then are some of the political passages from the fuller version of “The Audacity to Hope” text reprinted in What Makes You So Strong?:
In order for a people to have taken a negative and turned it into a positive, surely somebody had to have had the audacity to hope. In order for a race held in bondage to slavery to have taken a proclamation not worth the paper it was written on and to have turned it into a proposition that produced a race full of giants, somebody had to have had the audacity to hope. Abraham Lincoln is remembered as the “Great Emancipator” of the slaves, but in reality, he did not see black Africans as equal with whites. (The issue of slavery was paramount for him because it threatened the unity of the country. The primary reason that the Civil War was fought was not to free the slaves, but to save the United States…. [p. 104])
A bit further on, Wright says that when Martin Luther King Jr. went beyond working for integration alone and, “had the courage to call the sin of Vietnam exactly what it was — an abomination before God — he had to have the audacity to hope.” Wright goes on to list prominent black leaders (Senator Brooke, Jackie Robinson, Carl Rowan, Roy Wilkins, and the Urban League) who turned against King over Vietnam:
It was all right for this preacher to protest against North American apartheid and segregated lunch counters, but when he dared speak the message God gave him against our racist, militaristic posture in South Vietnam and our racist involvement in South Africa, he was iced and isolated by all the establishment blacks. And in order for him to hang in and hold on, in order for him to have the audacity to hope, he had to have a vertical hookup that assimilated Negroes had forgotten all about. It was a hookup that said “before I'd be a slave [a slave to conservative theology that enslaves and preaches love], before I'd be a slave [a slave to right-wing ignorance that wears black robes on Sunday morning and white robes on Sunday night], before I'd be a slave [a slave to white America's corporate dollars that hold and pull the purse strings of so many national black organizations], before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave, and go home to my God and be free.”….Martin was a man who integrated the buses of Montgomery and the streets of Selma, yes, but Martin also took on the unjust economic system of our country. He took on the iron-fisted military system….
[N.B.: The brackets in this passage were inserted by Wright himself, as a way of updating the meaning of an old anti-slavery spiritual. Also, “vertical hookup” here means “connection to God.” (p. 105)]
These political comments in Wright's 1991 “Audacity to Hope” text may well have reworked and/or substituted for the remarks in the 1988 sermon chastising what Obama calls “the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the
State House.” But they are clearly echoed throughout the many sermons reprinted in What Makes You So Strong? Wright here is sounding attacks on American foreign policy, corporations, “assimilationist” blacks, and America's founding icons and presidents that permeate both the body of his sermons, and black liberation theology more generally.
Zionism as Racism
For example, in the sermon “When God is Silent,” Wright launches a systematic attack on America's military interventions:
We have no money to educate our inner-city children who happen to be black and brown, but we do have money to wage war in the Persian Gulf. We do have money to send those same black and brown children to an early and unnecessary grave, wearing the uniforms of a country that will not make funds available for making geniuses, only for making war. This country will exterminate them, but not educate them. And God is silent.
Martin gave his life for the cause of a more humane and just society and a reordering of an economic priority in a society gone insane with self-interest and sick military solutions for every problem. Twenty-two years later, none of those issues have gotten better by one iota; if anything, they have gotten worse. African Americans are still at the bottom of the economic ladder. There is a resurgence of racism. We have traded Vietnam for Grenada in the Reagan years and for Panama in the Bush years. Martin's dream has turned into a nightmare, and God is silent…. [What Makes You So Strong, pp. 117-118.]
Perhaps most striking here is the apparent equation of military service with “extermination.”
Over and above the first Persian Gulf war, Wright is clearly opposed to America's Middle East policy more broadly. In his sermon, “Ain't Nobody Right but Us,” Wright equates Zionism with racism. More than this, Wright goes on to suggest that, while not literally racist, the Catholic practice of denying Holy Communion to non-Catholics is an overly exclusivist practice. (Wright hits Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptists for too much exclusivism as well.) Here is the key passage:
But right on the heels of the ego issue there surfaces what I call the flip side of the coin and that is this whole notion of the “in crowd,” “our group,” or what I call the “our gang” mentality. If you're not a part of our gang, then you're not a part of anything, cause “ain't nobody right but us.”…You can see that kind of circling of the wagons mind-set clearly when you look at the Dutch Afrikaaner Church and the white racism that is so open and blatant in the doctrines of apartheid or in Zionism. That's ain't nobody right but us kind of thinking.
We can see the “our gang” mentality clearly when there is racism involved, but there are other places where this same kind of thinking rears its ugly head. When, for instance, Catholicism teaches that Protestants and Catholics can work together, worship together, pray together, walk together, do everything together except take Holy Communion; when it teaches that Catholics can share only among themselves the body and blood of Jesus Christ, then what Catholicism in effect is saying is “ain't nobody right but us.”
[What Makes You So Strong?, pp. 13-14.]
It's already well known that Wright traveled to Libya with Louis Farrakhan in 1984 to meet with Qaddafi. In a sermon titled, “Full of the Holy Spirit,” Wright defends Farrakhan, and connects his refusal to repudiate Farrakhan with his refusal to repudiate Malcolm X. (This is also a major theme within black liberation theology — the determination to laud not only King, but also the more radical Malcolm X):
Don't let anybody trick you into thinking Minister Louis Farrakhan is your enemy. He ain't the enemy. Any African man who can clean folks up, get them off of dope, get them in school, get them reading instead of rapping, get them building each other up, is not the enemy. He isn't the enemy. The enemy is the one bringing the drugs into your country, into your community, your block, and your house. Some folks are tricky. They will try to make you choose between Malcolm and Martin. Don't you let them. No, no. If you have been helped by both, say “hallelujah!” for both of them.
And they are not going to make me choose between Minister Jackson and Minister Farrakhan. [What Makes You So Strong?, pp. 87-88.]
Although the version of “The Audacity to Hope” reprinted in the So Strong collection may not be precisely the same as the 1988 sermon heard by Barack Obama, it appears to contain many passages closer to that original than the supposedly complete text posted at PreachingToday.com. Although the most political passages in the 1991 sermon may have been either reworked, added, or both, to reflect the theme of honoring King, it's clear from a broader reading of this sermon collection that the themes of the 1991 “Audacity to Hope” sermon are echoed throughout Wright's broader corpus. If the 1988 sermon's attacks on “the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House” have not yet been recovered with certainty, the general drift of Wright's views on these subjects seems clear. It also seems most unlikely that Obama could have failed to pick up on these themes, which are echoed throughout Wright's sermons.
It also appears highly likely that the version of the “Audacity” sermon posted at PreachingToday.com gives an unrepresentative and sanitized view of Wright's sermons. Obama's own account of the original “Audacity” sermon indicates significantly greater political content than what we see in the PreachingToday text. And again, even if it may not take us back to 1988 with complete precision, the So Strong collection makes the overall political character of Wright's sermons of that era fairly obvious.
More discoveries remain to be made, no doubt. Yet the texts already uncovered raise serious questions about what Barack Obama heard, what he thought of it, and why he remained so close to Reverend Wright.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an NRO contributing editor.