Back in May, when the furor over Jeremiah Wright threatened to derail the Obama campaign, the candidate mournfully explained his decision to leave the controversial Trinity United Church of Christ. "We don't want to have to answer for everything that's stated in a church," Obama said. "On the other hand, we don't want to have a church subjected to the scrutiny that a presidential campaign legitimately undergoes." After Obama parted from Wright, the preacher and Trinity United became the campaign issue that dared not speak its name.
Now the campaign is over and so, it appears, is the scrutiny--for the new president has just made a personnel decision that reopens the entire issue. Earlier this month, he appointed the Reverend Dr. Otis Moss Jr. to serve on the new President's Advisory Council established as part of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The official White House press release notes that Moss is the pastor emeritus of Cleveland's Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. Not noted, however, are Moss's many ties to Trinity and its troublesome former pastor.
To begin with, Moss's son, Reverend Otis Moss III, succeeded Wright at Trinity. The younger preacher is known for his own fiery sermons and for likening the backlash against Wright to a "public lynching." The new member of the Obama administration, though, has plenty of ties to Wright on his own. Otis Moss Jr. and Wright shared a mentor in Samuel DeWitt Proctor, who helped give rise to black liberation theology. In fact, it was the radical Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference that sponsored Wright's now-infamous National Press Club appearance in late April 2008--which led to Obama's break with Trinity and Wright. Less noted was the fact that the symposium's guest preacher that day was Reverend Otis Moss Jr. Moss has publicly defended Wright and compared his preaching to that of Amos, Micah, Malachi, and John the Baptist.
Moss's closeness to Wright is expressed most clearly in the 40-minute tribute sermon he preached from Trinity's pulpit on the occasion of Wright's 36th anniversary at the church in February 2008. Of Wright, Reverend Moss said: "All of us who know him and love him have been blessed by his genius, his creativity, his scholarship, his discipleship, his sensitivity as an artist, his boldness as a prophet, and, I agree, his rhythmic poetry." This homage came long after Wright's hit parade of sound-bites: "God Damn America" . . . "America's chickens are coming home to roost" . . . "Bill did us like he did Monica Lewinsky." Poetry indeed.
Even more interesting, perhaps, is Moss's own rhetoric. He is a political preacher and has said, "If you are preaching a gospel that has nothing about politics, nothing about economics, nothing about sociology, you are preaching an empty gospel with a cap and shoes but no body to it." His sermons at Olivet are hard to come by. But from public lectures, one concludes that, while his style is more subdued than Wright's (or his own son's) and his themes more benign, there are still plenty of comments that call into question his suitability for government service. Take, for instance, this observation made at Yale in October 2004:
You have heard that it was said, "God bless America." But I say unto you, Pray for all of the Osama bin Ladens and the Saddam Husseins. . . . I say unto you, Be kind, be as kind to Castro as you are to the Saudi family and the leaders of China and Russia. This, however, is difficult in a society . . . when we are afflicted or infected with hubris. It's almost an incurable disease--incurable not because of despair, but because of arrogance.
A spokesman for Moss explains that he meant his audience to "understand that you must 'pray for your enemies' and those that would do you harm. No more, no less." So in the spirit of Christ's admonition to turn the other cheek, Moss wants us to pray for those who have killed thousands of American citizens within the last decade. Yet he's still holding a 400-year-old grudge against the settlers of Jamestown. In a panel discussion on "the State of the Black Union" with Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, on the occasion of Jamestown's quadricentennial, Moss noted:
When we think of Jamestown, we must see the triple holocaust that came out of Jamestown . . . that African holocaust, that Native American holocaust, that African-American holocaust. And until we deal with that and place it in the collective memories of our own history, and the wider history of the world, we are in a state of denial--often celebrating when we need to be correcting the propaganda of history.
Moss was loudly opposed to American action in Iraq, a theme woven throughout his lectures and writings. In a book coauthored with Jeremiah Wright, Moss explained:
I know where the weapons of mass destruction are, and they are not the ones we went looking for in Iraq. I know where they are, and you know where they are! According to statistics, AIDS is a weapon of mass destruction. Miseducation and no education are weapons of mass destruction. Forty-four million people without health care is a weapon of mass destruction.
Even the experiences of day-to-day life in America draw Reverend Moss's ire. Air travel? "Now when I go to the airport I have to take off my shoes--not because the ground is holy ground, but because of a man somewhere in a cave that we can't find." A long drive? "You can travel from New York to California and listen carefully to radio or media and never get outside of the beam of hate." Not even classic films are safe: In a tag-team sermon with his son, Moss assumed the persona of a 21st-century Moses, then proceeded to declare the Jewish prophet a man of "Afrocentric heritage"--despite "Eurocentric Hollywood movie distortions of [his] Africanness." (Take that, Cecil B. De-Mille.) Moss also seems to enjoy sowing racial discord. At the "State of the Black Union" conference in Jamestown, he accused President Bush of "pimping New Orleans."
Given the enormous backlash he endured over his connections to Wright, Trinity, and black liberation theology, one wonders why Obama tapped Moss to serve on the President's Advisory Council. At least three other members--Fred Davie of Public/Private Ventures; Dr. William J. Shaw of the National Baptist Convention; and Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie, the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church--bring what might be called a black perspective to the council's work. With Wright, Obama could at least argue that his affiliation with the pastor was a personal matter of private faith. Yet by appointing Moss, Obama has given him the imprimatur of the White House and a position from which to help shape public policy. While Moss and other members of the faith-based President's Advisory Council aren't paid, they are entitled to public funds for travel costs, per-diem expenses, and support staff. They can hold hearings and form task forces. And of course, they can guide the work of Obama's faith-based office as it directs public funding to religious and community groups.
Perhaps the quiet installation of Moss is part of a grander design for the faith-based office: to make it a mechanism for nationwide "community organizing." In 1995, Obama told the Chicago Reader:
In every church on Sunday in the African-American community we have this moral fervor; we have energy to burn. But as soon as church lets out, the energy dissipates. We must find ways to channel all this energy into community building. The biggest failure of the civil-rights movement was in failing to translate this energy, this moral fervor, into creating lasting institutions and organizational structures.
By tapping the likes of Moss to help steer his faith-based policies, Obama could be using the White House to "translate the energy" of black churches into "creating lasting institutions" of left-wing political agitation. A look at the other members of the advisory council certainly supports this interpretation. Vashti McKenzie is another proponent of black liberation theology, and another friend and defender of Jeremiah Wright who has preached at Trinity United. Jim Wallis also publicly supported Wright and has even been an inspiration to the reverend. In his National Press Club speech, Wright quoted Wallis as saying "America's sin of racism has never even been confessed, much less repented for." In an earlier life, Wallis once said he hoped "more Christians will come to view the world through Marxist eyes." In recent years he has settled for working through congressional Democrats, helping them make their policies more palatable to people of faith. Wallis has been joined in that task by Rabbi David Saperstein--another prominent liberal and member of the new faith-based advisory council.The council looks like nothing so much as an attempt to build a powerful political grassroots network to advance the liberal causes dear to Obama's heart.
The ironic humor in the whole thing is that back when it was President Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Moss warned other pastors:
Sometimes the king will call you up even out of your dungeon and ask: "Is there any word from the Lord?" . . . If we are tied to the stuff of the king, it is difficult to tell the president--or the king [laughter]--it's difficult. . . . It's difficult if you are tied to a "faith-based grant" [more laughter] and your whole sustaining budget is contingent upon the next appropriation. When the question comes up, "Is there any word from the Lord?" you might have to say, "Wait, let me check with the board. Let me check with the budget committee."
Now that he is in a position to shape where those faith-based grants go, one suspects Moss will be singing a different tune.
Meghan Clyne is a writer based in Washington, D.C.