Edward J. Blum: Interviewed about Obama and race

Historians in the News

Edward J. Blum, a historian of race and religion at San Diego State University and author of "W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet" and "Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898," suggests that while some Americans may be understandably offended by Wright's divisive remarks, those remarks are part of a long and storied tradition among African-American church leaders who have forged Christian ideologies and rhetoric to condemn racial discrimination. Blum spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about this history and the entry of race as a front-burner issue in this presidential campaign. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You've said that African-American church leaders have taken America's Christian values and turned them against the nation's practitioners of racial discrimination, violence and imperialism for hundreds of years. When and how did this tradition begin?

Edward J. Blum: It began even before the United States became the United States, during the slave trade. Throughout slavery, African-Americans used the Bible to challenge their enslavement. Olaudah Equiano, a slave who was later freed, wrote a narrative juxtaposing the Christianity of the slaveholders vs. his own Christianity. Frederick Douglass said he hated the Christianity of whites but loved the Christianity of Christ. As Africans became Americans and embraced Christianity, they continued to turn the teachings of Jesus against whites.

Newsweek: But we've obviously come far since the days of Frederick Douglass. Is it still appropriate or effective for African-American pastors to condemn America with such harsh rhetoric?

Blum: Well, it's important to make a distinction between prophets and politicians. Rev. Wright doesn't want to be a politician, he wants to be a prophet, and prophets always border on treason and heresy. Their social function is to push the envelope, to speak the unspeakable. Politicians like Obama, however, have a different set of tasks. Their job is to bring unity among diversity. For Obama it would be inappropriate to say "God damn America," but not for Rev. Wright.

Newsweek: How do you think Obama handled this controversy in his speech on Tuesday?

Blum: He handled it beautifully, because he refused to repudiate Wright completely. He held on to the notion that [Wright] was a strong influence in his life, while repudiating specific words. Obama, who is savvy about hating the sin and loving the sinner, continues to see Wright as more than just those words. And let's not forget that the notion of God judging America doesn't just come from African-American churches or from the left. We heard it from Billy Graham as far back as the 1960s, and more recently from [one right-wing religious group] who would go to soldiers' funerals and say that the war was happening because of homosexuality and that God is judging America. It comes from different places for different reasons.

Newsweek: How much damage do you think the surfacing of Wright's remarks has inflicted on Obama's campaign, especially among non-African-Americans?

Blum: There is real damage. I've gotten two types of e-mails since Obama made his speech [on Tuesday], the first set coming from other academics who support Obama reminding me that great African-American leaders throughout history have said these same types of things. I've received another set of e-mails from old friends from high school, more white, middle-class, mainstream folks, who are all saying the same thing: "Can you believe this guy [Wright] said this?"...
Read entire article at Newsweek

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