May 20, 2009

Religious Liberty and Jeremiah Wright

2009 1514 page23 capLMOST A YEAR AFTER THE HEIGHT OF THE JEREMIAH WRIGHT CONTROVERSY, I’m still wondering how, in the midst of one of the more controversial periods in our nation’s recent history, we might have missed a very subtle and little recognizable outcome arising out of the sad saga involving Jeremiah Wright. Wright is no hero in this story—not by a long shot, but the events surrounding his sojourn in the media portend something ominous when it comes to religious liberty.
Come on, Russell, you think. How do you get anything regarding religious liberty out of Jeremiah Wright, of all people?
Well, stay with me as I briefly unpack what I see as one of the major threats to religious liberty I’ve come across recently. And our church is in the “crosshairs” with its implications.
If you live in the United States and don’t know who Jeremiah Wright is, you’ve had to be living in a vacuum over the last year or two. Video recordings of some of his more controversial statements played endlessly over the news for weeks during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign. This was especially so with his “hot” critiques of the United States. To be fair and balanced, the selected comments that aired didn’t always provide the full context for what he was saying. But with or without the context, the excerpts from some of his sermons were clearly controversial and genuinely offended a lot of people. Yet, given the diversity of thought in the country, others affirmed what he said.
2009 1514 page23On the surface, what occurred seems like an open-and-shut case. The headline writes itself: “Controversial preacher uses his pulpit to rant against the United States.” But when one views this matter through the lens of religious liberty, another aspect might need to be considered: the right to express one’s personal religious views in a house of worship without fear of external censure or threat.
What played out in the media (intensified by the fact that it was a presidential candidate’s pastor and church) was at times a harsh media and societal reaction to words spoken in the pulpit of a church. This issue cannot be limited to agreement or disagreement over Wright’s words, but focuses on his right to speak them without outside interference, notwithstanding the serious disagreement or even the impact on a presidential candidacy.
Whenever the media and outside forces begin to attack people for what they say in church, it clearly portends danger for any church that may speak things that the wider culture may view as unacceptable.
Whether you think Jeremiah Wright was right or wrong in his comments is something each per-son has to weigh on their own. But we as a church, at least from a religious liberty perspective, must understand the wider implications as to how this can affect us in the not-too-distant future.

For instance, let someone get hold of some of the statements regarding the United States in the powerfully insightful book The Great Controversy. Those statements placed in devious hands and used at an opportune (or inopportune) moment can be distorted and taken out of context to make our church appear to be out of step with cultural and national norms.
More to the point is the fact that our church’s prophetic understanding leads us to believe that there is coming a time when we, too, will be singled out for speaking what we believe; so much so that it brings us into disfavor with the masses. We may even be categorized as unpatriotic. I predict that if this happens the media will play these “statements” again and again—whipping the masses into such a furor that it just might usher in, along with other events, a time of trouble such as has never been seen before.
The point: We don’t have to agree with Jeremiah Wright; we can even think he’s dead wrong. But from a religious liberty perspective, we have a responsibility to defend his right even to be wrong, especially within the walls of his own church. 
Fredrick A. Russell is a president of the Allegheny West Conference, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.