A cable newscaster on Good Friday asked in a tone of voice that expressed her wide-eyed naivety: "What is liberation theology?" Having covered the news for many years, and having covered the Rev. Jeremiah Wright thunderstorm for two weeks, it was still a question that she had not bothered to research. And frankly, I don't want to experience that learning curve as part of my continuing coverage of the Presidential campaign.
I doubt that the summer of '08 will be the time to provide a sufficient, good-faith answer to the question of liberation theology or how the black social gospel is spiritual grandfather to these momentous American movements. Such an attempt at national education played out upon our contemporary media landscape would likely morph into witch-hunt.
Sen. Barack Obama appears to agree with this assessment. The Senator's public review of Rev. Wright's oratory during Tuesday's 'race speech' did not mention either keyword, neither liberation nor theology. And yet, Rev. Wright has asked that these be the key words applied to any serious assessment of his work.
Because it would likely be a poisonous time and place for the adult discussion that liberation theology requires, I think Obama's judgment call is valid as he tries to move public discussion around the issue of liberation theology rather than through it.
However, I think there is a stronger argument than Obama's for going around Rev. Wright's oratory as a campaign issue. The stronger argument is that the American unity that Obama claims to want will require some faith in the principle of religious toleration.
Since it is liberation theology that is required to understand Rev. Wright, and since theological agreement is precisely the kind of thing that should not be required in the context of public policy debates, then it is time to agree that when Rev. Wright speaks from a pulpit in a church, it is better that a tolerant society back off of his comments as a Presidential issue.
There is some sophistication in the careful wording of Sen. Obama's speech, which hints that he knows the difference between theology and policy discourse, even as he confines Rev. Wright's oratory upon a two-dimensional plane of public policy. The clues are in the repeated uses of the phrase 'as if': "he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country . . . is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past."
Sen. Obama has three times denied the truth of his own pastor with the phrase 'as if.' But is not the theological function of prophetic speech to talk precisely 'as if'? Public policy may spend long hours concerning the need to 'store up' resources for long-term planning. But does that dismiss the value of the prophet who walks up and says: "You fools, not tomorrow, but today, your souls are required of you!" As if there is no time.
Although it is unlikely that the cable news cyclists would respect calls for religious toleration in behalf of Rev. Wright, I think that toleration is the better argument for moving on.
The argument from toleration has the benefit of refusing to flatten theological oratory onto the plane of policy-speak. And if we achieve this act of toleration for Rev. Wright, then we will strengthen the three-dimensional life of spiritual language for all theologies (or anti-theologies), and maintain a more healthy distance between church and state as a precious resource for everyone's freedom of worship in a robust democracy.
Not only do the continued houndings of Rev. Wright exemplify racialized ignorance, as Sen. Obama argues, but they also tighten the bands of religious intolerance that have too broadly constricted our national character for at least the past seven years. On this issue, perhaps, another great speech needs to be written that would restore Rev. Wright to the dignity that any theologian deserves when his name is dragged through the galleries of public-policy clamor.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article appeared at CounterPunch.