-- or perhaps backward. Rev. Wright's intellectual mentor, professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary, retreats from the universality of Christianity. "Black theology," says Cone, "refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him." And again: "Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy." And again: "In the New Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors."
This emphasis on the structural evil of white America has natural political consequences -- encouraging a belief that American politics is defined by its crimes, a tendency to accept anti-government conspiracy theories about AIDS and drugs, a disturbing openness to anti-American dictators such as Castro and Gaddafi. It explains Wright's description of the 9/11 attacks as a "wake-up call" to "white America."
But the deepest flaws in black liberation theology are theological, not political. Jesus did advocate a special concern for the rights and welfare of the poor and helpless. But he specifically rejected a faith defined by social and political struggle, much to the disappointment of his more zealous followers. The early church, in its wrenching decision to include Gentiles as equals, explicitly rejected a community defined by ethnicity. No Christian theology that asserts "Jesus is not for all" can be biblical.
Yet this kind of substantive disagreement ultimately shows more respect for black liberation theology than Obama initially did. Most people would rather be termed right or wrong than dismissed. And a smart, passionate pastor such as Wright naturally wants his views to influence his own congregation. He has every right to ask Obama, "Have you just now noticed my most basic beliefs? Have you really been asleep in the pew for 20 years?"
Under the pressure of Wright's clarity, Obama has now awakened from his theological slumbers. But a lesson remains: "Transcending" is often indistinguishable from "condescending."