WASHINGTON -- In the last few weeks Barack Obama has learned the political perils of condescension.
His Philadelphia speech on race was filled with it. People who don't share Obama's views were not refuted, they were explained.
Lower income whites, he argued, "feel their dreams slipping away" and so they turn to resentment against busing and affirmative action, "anger over welfare" and "fears of crime." And Obama not only understands these angry and manipulated souls, he defends them. They should not, after all, be labeled as "misguided" or "racist."
This is the same argument, expressed more bluntly at a San Francisco fundraiser, that Obama made about bitter, small-town Americans who cling to guns and religion. He does not even admit the possibility that these folks might have actual convictions on issues of affirmative action, welfare, crime, gun ownership or the meaning of the universe. The only thing more insulting than being attacked is being explained.
In his Philadelphia speech, Obama applied the same lofty discernment to his own racial and religious community. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- and other African-Americans guilty of "bitterness and biases" -- was described as a product of a difficult experience. Wright "came of age in the late '50s and early '60s, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted." Obama urged a large-hearted tolerance for Wright's foibles instead of engaging his arguments.
Obama's response, I believe, provided a justification for Wright's media campaign to describe black liberation theology. Wright may be a camera-seeking egotist. He is certainly a showman, enjoying his moment. But his main argument seems to be: "No, Barack, I actually hold these theological convictions. You may need to attack me for political reasons.
But don't you dare dismiss me as a batty uncle."
It is a tribute to the power of the Christian message that there is such a thing as African-American Christian theology at all. Christianity was the religion held by slave masters -- often distorted into an ideology of oppression. But African-Americans found a model of liberation in the Exodus. They discovered that Jesus more closely resembled the beaten and lynched slave than their pious oppressors. And African-Americans -- by their courageous assertion of God's universal love and man's universal dignity -- redeemed a nation they had entered in chains.
But black liberation theology takes this argument a large step further
-- 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."