Glenn Loury: The Missing Voice of Jeremiah

Are we supposed to be hoping that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s hair-raising 15 minutes of fame are over?

The black polymath Glenn Loury and I are puzzling in conversation here about all that the YouTube and network frenzy left out — the blessed insight and fellowship of black church life in America, but also the radicalism of its perspectives.

It’s commonly observed in the black church that the Sunday morning worship time is the most segregated hour in American life. It’s been my white-guy experience, all the same, that the African-American Christian church — with its manifestly, audibly distinctive roots in slave history and modern ghetto experience — lives out the most open and exemplary, all-embracing and anti-tribal God-consciousness I’ve ever imagined.

Professor Glenn Loury of Brown is a child of the South Side of Chicago, well known for his sometimes wayward path toward the mountaintop of university economics. He tells of his own redemptive engagement with the church, and his own searing confrontation with Jeremiah Wright. His disappointment here is that the “prophetic witness” of the black church was so zealously bound, gagged and anathematized in the political and media caricatures of Reverend Wright — as if we could not bear to know how differently the South Side of Chicago thinks and talks about, say, the Middle East, or the fate of Native Americans, or the US Constitution’s long compromise with slavery. “How could those three quarters of a million African-American descendants sitting on the South Side of Chicago not have that history vividly in their minds, and how could it not be reflected in the spiritual witness and inspirational preaching that would come out of their churches?”

The think that worries me, Chris, more than that the black church will be somehow denigrated and lose respect (because I don’t think there’s any keeping the black church down, okay?)… The thing that worries me more than that is that the root of this “prophetic voice” that comes out of the African American church — “America, you’re not as good as you think you are… America, you’re not so high up on that city on a hill that you’ve constructed for yourself that you cannot go wrong…” You know, the capacity to be critical — My fear is that that voice will be somehow rendered unacceptable, that the need for a presidential candidate to establish for the broad mainstream of the American people that he is not some kind of radical… will somehow bring with it the conclusion that the critical context out of which it came was itself illegitimate, ridiculous, absurd, … not worthy to be considered for another moment; let’s move quickly onto the next case.

Brown University economics professor Glenn Loury, in conversation with Chris Lydon, May 16, 2008

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