Having had more of a think on last week’s developments, I’d like to cast less heat and more light on the Jeremiah Wright fiasco.
As I reported in “Far Wright,” boundaries between preaching, personality and politics were pretty nonexistent during his tenure at Trinity. “Even choir members can be seen scribbling in their bulletins during the sermon, on the blank, lined pages reserved for such note-taking. (The fine print below? "Sermons copyrighted by Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.")” The day I went, candidates for Illinois state’s attorney were making their pitch to voter/parishioners, and it was clear the 3,500 seat sanctuary was more than a convenient venue for coffee hour. The well-oiled DVD production, the countless ministries, the juggernaut fundraising—it is all part of a power-aggregating principle among a community of blacks on Chicago’s South Side. As far as I’m concerned this is a good thing.
Not enough has been made of this socially-invested outreach component of the Trinity experience. (And here I can dispel the critique that Obama’s children are exposed to Wright’s more virulent untruths. No less than three age-appropriate children’s services are held Sundays in the several chapels of the Trinity compound.) But nothing at all has been said about how a corporatist, quintessentially American business model is increasingly visible in the practice of religious faith. Trinity is industrial, to say the least. And dozens of such megachurches--white and black, are strewn around the United States.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But church figureheads, especially those with the longevity of a Jeremiah Wright, are not dissimilar from other wildly-successful American entrepreneurs. Wright has spent years at the head of an organization he personally built. His associations are likely characterized by unconditional deference, and as we’ve seen this week and for years, far-flung speaking engagements and high-level political counsel are not out of the mainstream. So we ought not be surprised that the hubris we’ve seen regarding thin-skinned, out of touch, richly-rewarded corporate executives is also evident in a man who has been CEO of Trinity for three decades. (I hear he drives a Porsche.)
This consolidated executive model, however, is one Barack Obama has frowned upon time and again during his public life. The campaign’s rhetoric relentlessly pushes a more robust civic culture, with a more shallow and broader organizational tree. Of course, that tree is large enough to shade Wright and his flock, and their different means of organizing. (Take a look at Obama’s important “Joshua Generation” speeches and the interesting back-and-forth this week on Andrew’s site for more evidence.)