The influence of the black liberation theology of James H. Cone appears in the political philosophy of Barack Obama as well as in the recent controversial statement about national pride made by Michelle Obama.
The spiritual role that Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC) and its just-retired pastor Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright have played in the lives of Barack and Michelle Obama is well-established, as is the Africentric theology that is the cornerstone of the church's self-proclaimed identity. One largely unexamined element of that Africentric theology, though, is the pivotal role that black liberation theologian Dr. James H. Cone, Professor of Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary (NYC), and his 1969 book Black Theology & Black Power, have played in the life of that faith community. Examining Cone's theology may enlighten us on Barack's political philosophy and Michelle's recently controversial statement about not having been proud of her country until the favorable reception to her husband's candidacy. The Trinity UCC website was updated early this year. Before that, Cone's book was singled out as required reading for Trinity parishioners who wished to more thoroughly understand the church's theology and mission. That highlighting was removed. Jason Byassee, of The Christian Century Magazine, wrote this about Cone and Trinity in May, 2007:
"There is no denying, however, that a strand of radical black political theology influences Trinity [UCC]. James Cone, the pioneer of black liberation theology, is a much-admired figure at Trinity. Cone told me that when he's asked where his theology is institutionally embodied, he always mentions Trinity. Cone's groundbreaking 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power announced: "The time has come for white America to be silent and listen to black people. . . . All white men are responsible for white oppression. . . . Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man 'the devil.'. . . Any advice from whites to blacks on how to deal with white oppression is automatically under suspicion as a clever device to further enslavement." Contending that the structures of a still-racist society need to be dismantled, Cone is impatient with claims that the race situation in America has improved. In a 2004 essay he wrote, "Black suffering is getting worse, not better. . . . White supremacy is so clever and evasive that we can hardly name it. It claims not to exist, even though black people are dying daily from its poison" (in Living Stones in the Household of God)."
On the internet you can hear Professor Cone deliver an October 2006 lecture at Harvard Theological Seminary entitled "Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree." Cone's stated goal is to "make sense of the Christian Gospel in the face of the horrific suffering of Black people in the U.S." To do that he links the cross with the lynching tree -- for him, they interpret each other. Today, Cone's 2006 language lacks the initial shock effect he delivered in 1969 by labeling white society as the Antichrist, and the white church as uniformly racist. But, what he wrote in 1969 seems to remain at the core of his theology:
"There is, then, a desperate need for a black theology, a theology whose sole purpose is to apply the freeing power of the gospel to black people under white oppression."
So where might we discern the influence of Cone's black liberation theology in the behaviors of Barack and Michelle Obama?
Barack's life of social activism, coupled with an emphasis in his speeches on government social action to eradicate unjust suffering, aligns with Cone's words, albeit in a context that extends beyond the black community to the nation, and then to the world. Cone wrote:
"Therefore, whoever fights for the poor, fights for God; whoever risks his life for the helpless and unwanted, risks his life for God. God is active now in the lives of those men who feel an absolute identification with all who suffer because there is no justice in the land." (p. 47, Black Theology & Black Power)
Michelle Obama's recent statement about pride-in-country is thoroughly consistent with both the Africentric theology of Trinity UCC and with the black theology of their spiritual mentor's (Wright's) mentor (Cone). Her efforts to explain what she meant by her statement have, so far, been vague. The less she says, the better it will be for her husband's campaign. The more she elaborates on what she meant, the more damage she could do to his candidacy.
In the wake of her statement, some commentators were quick to respond with wonderment that she wasn't proud of such geo-political milestone events like the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the USSR, the liberation of Kuwait, as well as, on a personal level, her elite education and the election of her husband to the U.S. Senate.
What they don't understand is that, while Barack is the softer, social justice side of black liberation theology, Michelle is the harder anti-white-supremacy side:
- The fall of the Berlin Wall was a seminal event in the battle between two white racist, oppressive political-economic systems. What's to be proud of there?
- The fall of the USSR was merely the victory of one racist system that has long exploited poor, non-white, Third World countries with economic colonialism over another system similarly guilty. What's to be proud of in that victory? Both brought havoc and death upon the surrogate countries when their Cold War battles turned hot.
- The liberation of Kuwait, too, falls into the category of white supremacist politicians exercising U.S. military power over an oil-rich region of the world. What's to be proud of there?
- And, the idea that her education should be a matter of pride could be heard as having a condescending tone that suggests she should be proud because she, a black woman, earned degrees generally reserved for whites.
These responses would be thoroughly consistent with Cone's theology -- the mentor of the Obamas' spiritual mentor. Cone's myopic theological worldview looks solely through the prism of his understanding of the experience of Blacks in America as victims of white oppression.
Ironically, while the media has occasionally focused on the religious beliefs of Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, a much more substantive faith element has been at work in Obama's campaign, and the media mostly hasn't noticed, or if it has, hasn't commented.
None of this, if accurate, makes Barack Obama a man necessarily unsuitable for the Presidency of the United States, nor his wife for the role of First Lady. But, it may give us cause to further explore their worldviews, and the perspectives of those who, like Dr. Cone, have influenced the formation of those views.