As shocking as they may be, the provocative sermons of Barack Obama's pastor come out of a tradition of using the black church to challenge its members and confront what preachers view as a racist society.
Yet while the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's racially tinged messages still resonate in some black churches, evidence also suggests his style is receding into the past as civil rights-era pastors retire. Sermons in other congregations now focus less on societal divisions and more on the connection between spirituality and a materially prosperous life.
Wright's words have come under intense scrutiny because of his long association with Obama, a member of his Chicago congregation. Video clips widely circulated in the past week show Wright, in a booming voice, suggesting that America's actions were partly to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks and accusing the country of continuing to mistreat blacks.
Obama delivered a speech on race Tuesday that criticized Wright for expressing a "profoundly distorted view of this country."
Wright, he said, failed to recognize the nation's great progress in race relations, embodied by Obama's own candidacy for president. But Obama also pointed out Wright's good works and attempted to put his comments in context, noting that Wright and his contemporaries grew up during an era of segregation and restricted opportunity.
Building a church
More than three decades ago, Wright took over a small, demoralized congregation on Chicago's impoverished South Side and built it into the largest church in the liberal, mostly white United Church of Christ.
At the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ, the slogan "Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian" has meant preaching about divestment during South Africa's apartheid era. It has also meant fighting poverty, homelessness and AIDS at home. The religious message has been anything but watered down, with Wright dissecting Bible passages line-by-line.
The pastor's experience is grounded not only in the civil rights movement, but also in 1960s black liberation theology, which applies the Christian Gospel to contemporary struggles against race-based oppression.
"The whole generation that Rev. Wright represents is expressing what they call a righteous anger, the anger from the failed promises of America," said Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "The prophetic anger is toward expanding the democracy, expanding it so all citizens can walk through the door of opportunity."
Often lost in the attention paid to Wright's fiery sermons is the typical conclusion, Hopkins said - that despite all obstacles, you are a child of God and "can make a way out of no way." That phrase, common in the language of the black church, was used by Obama in his 4,700-word speech Tuesday.
Black and white
While Trinity United Church of Christ is more Afrocentric and slightly more political than most black churches, "even conservative black churches talk about racism in a way that many whites would find wounding or offensive," said Gary Dorrien, a religion professor at Columbia University in New York.
"Most white Americans have a very limited capacity for dealing with black anger or acknowledging their own racial privileges," Dorrien said. "Wherever white people are dominant, whiteness is transparent to them. In black church communities, dealing with that problem is an every-week issue."
Wright does not focus his ire on white America alone, said Martin Marty, a retired professor of religious history who taught Wright at the University of Chicago.
"He is very hard on his own people," Marty said. "He criticizes them for their lack of fidelity in marriage, for black-on-black crime. He is not saying one part of America is right and one is wrong."
Obama and others also have highlighted Trinity's extensive social safety net. It offers college placement help, drug and alcohol counseling, a credit union and domestic violence programs.
Wright retired last month. He has not been giving interviews and a call to the church office requesting one Tuesday was not returned.
Message holds on
Wright's generation of pastors is being supplanted by a new wave of preachers with TV ministries and megachurches who preach a prosperity message, said Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of religion at Vassar College who studies the black church. That theme has little to do with overcoming racial or societal barriers, and a lot to do with faith being rewarded with material riches.
"We see that as the dominant trend now, with many young black seminarians in divinity school seeing that as their major model," Mamiya said. "Some of the older clergy like Wright decry that, saying it's forgetting the whole social justice tradition."
Yet messages like Wright's are still heard in the majority of black churches because most are in poor, urban areas with high black unemployment and other inequities, said Hopkins, of the University of Chicago.
"People go to church to find the explanation: What does the Bible say about my reality?" he said. "Urban America does not want to hear a candy Christianity that doesn't resonate with their everyday experience."