[Note: Hello to all of you in the Crabitat! It's been awhile since I've posted anything here, but Gaius once said "Whenever you want to post something here…" so I'm back in the clear blue water.]
It has been a little strange to see the attempts to "normalize" the ideas behind folks like Rev. Wright and Trinity Church. The left of center meme has been to act as if views of Wright and Co. are just another Christian denomination, the intellectual and moral equivalent of Methodists or Lutherans. In fact, they have no problem comparing Wright, favorably, to Martin Luther King.
In a sense, it could be argued that this is simply an expression of the liberal adherence to the principle of religious freedom embodied by the First Amendment. In such a view, we are a country populated by a plethora of religious creeds, and as a nation our strength is measured more by our diversity than our uniformity. Thus, if some version of faith strikes you as outlandish, well that is simply the price of admission. Such a view makes some sense until you note the left of center penchant for trashing various forms of evangelicalism at the drop of a hat. So, I don't really think the pass Rev. Wright is getting could be explained away as simple reticence to criticize anyone's religion.
So, what exactly is going on? I would argue that there seems to be modicum of religious ignorance and a lack of theological sophistication on the part of many on the left. Many of the commentariat seem to hold some variation of Christopher Hitchens' belief that all religions are basically a legitimized form of organized crime. They are all frauds, so says this belief system, so how can you make any meaningful distinction between them? After all, there is no such thing as a more sincere con job.
The big problem with this view is the overwhelming majority of Americans believe there is a big difference between being a Catholic or a Lutheran, and being a Branch Davidian or a Ralien. Once you go down the road of saying there are indeed distinctions and judgements that can be legitimately made about different religious groups, it demands a greater basis of knowledge and a certain level of theological sophistication in order to make such judgements.
Now, obviously, Wright's Trinity Church or the Raliens or the Episcopalians, all enjoy equivalent legal protections under the Constitution, but that is not the same as saying they are all morally equivalent. Additionally, one's commitment to the legal protections of the Constitution does not preclude our being able to make moral distinctions between belief systems. As a result, blanket assertions that it is "un-American" to examine or take into account a person's religious thinking are simple nonsense. To undertake such judgements in no way alters the legal protections religious faiths enjoy, which is all that is demanded of us under our system of law. It is un-American to force someone to espouse Lutheran theology. It is in no way un-American to determine the Raliens are a bunch of nutjobs.
So, what kind of judgements can we draw about Rev. Wright and his church built upon the "black liberation theology" of James Cone? For starters, it doesn't seem to be a particularly Christian church. By that, I mean its motivating principles seem to derive less from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ than they do from the writings of Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. The language of Wright's church is not that of grace and the love of God for his children on Earth. Instead, a vision of a politicized church built upon a rather clumsy and simplistic transposition of Lenin's essay on "Imperialism" (itself not a model of intellectual brilliance) is put forward in place of the Christian gospel. Where Lenin railed against the exploitation of the un-industrialized nations by the industrialized nations in a statist version of the Marxist idea of class struggle, Wright/Cone offer a vision of racial exploitation that can only be overcome by the "destruction" of the criminal race (i.e. whites.)
If this is what this perspective is politically, what can we say about it as a religion? From a religious perspective the question becomes what sort of claim such a view could have to being called "Christian" at all. (This is assuming that something being "Christian" is not merely a question of self-identification. For example, whatever variation there might be in the definition of "Vegan," you cannot legitimately claim to be a Vegan if you wear leather and eat veal four times a week.)
In my opinion, it seems unlikely that the political goals advocated by the Wright/Cone ideology can be squared with the bare minimum requirements of religious Christianity. In fact, the Wright/Cone vision requires the direct repudiation of the teachings of Christ. For example, whatever Christianity is it must allow for "Christians" of any race or ethnicity. For Wright/Cone only blacks can be "true" Christians. Christianity has always been built around the idea that Jesus Christ came not as a political revolutionary promising liberation for a specific people only, as many messianic Jews had been expecting for generations, but was instead sent for all mankind. But for Wright/Cone the only legitimate work of God is for the benefit of blacks and blacks alone. Such a view represents not just an "unusual interpretation" of Christianity, but a direct repudiation of it.
There are a lot of differences between Christian denominations concerning the idea of the sacraments, the nature and role of clergy, the importance of church authority, the nature of grace, the nature of sin, the status of Mary, the teaching role of the Bible, and hundreds of others subjects. However, such differences do not touch upon the most basic and fundamental roots of what it means to be a Christian. Christ asked us to recognize that whenever two are more are gathered in his name he is there as well. He did not say he would only be present when two or more of the "correct" ethnicity were gathered. Any church that implies this is so will have a hard time upholding any claim to Christian-ness.
For the non-Christian all of this must seem like much ado about nothing. But even an ardent agnostic can legitimately look at the dodgy political ideology masquerading as religious belief in Barrack Obama's church and ask probing questions about it. If we are not allowed to ask the difficult questions including those touching upon the intersection of faith and politics, in a mistaken belief that it is "bad form," how can we ever know what Obama believes about anything?
Cross Posted at my home blog, The Iconic Midwest