Today's post is from Peter Eisenstadt, who is currently at work, with co-author Quinton Dixie, on The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man: Howard Thurman in India and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Eisenstadt was editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of New York State and editor of Black Conservatism: Essays in Intellectual and Political History.
The religious and spiritual roots of Barack Obama's worldview have been discussed and debated since he emerged on the political scene. Now that he has been elected to the presidency, these questions have only gained in their importance. Unfortunately, much of the discussion about Obama and the Black Church has concerned the controversy over his one-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If the Wright controversy has no other positive results, it fostered discussion of Obama's religious heritage. One of the most lucid of these contributions was an article by Darryl Pinckney last summer in the New York Review of Books, "Obama and the Black Church," in the course of which he allots several paragraphs to Howard Thurman, surely one of the most distinguished 20th century American religious thinkers, black or white.
Although Pinckney does not mention it in his article, Obama has acknowledged a debt to Thurman. Howard Thurman I think represents some of the best in America. In an interview with filmmaker Arleigh Prelow, Obama said "I constantly refer back to the work that's been done by Dr. King, Dr. Thurman, and others whose shoulders really I stand on." (The film is not finished, but excerpts from the documentary in progress can be viewed at the Freedom Theater at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco.
Although Pinckney's discussion of Thurman is illuminating, it is somewhat misleading to categorize Thurman's best-known work, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), as "an early work of black liberation theology." I suppose this depends on your definition of "black liberation theology," but Thurman's work, while rooted in a consideration of racial oppression and discrimination, is far from a political tract or call for revolutionary struggle (he was a lifelong pacifist), and is rather, as Vincent Harding has described it, "a profound quest for a liberating spirituality, a way of exploring and experiencing those crucial life points where personal and societal transformation are creatively joined."
Jesus and the Disinherited was not, contrary to Pinckney's assertion, a direct response to Thurman's trip to South Asia in 1935 and 1936, when he became the first African American to meet Mahatma Gandhi—Thurman had already outlined the core ideas of the book in articles published before he left—but the trip did have significant consequences on his thinking and subsequent career. He had been challenged, as Pinckney notes, by South Asians who told him that as a black representative of an American Christianity that was profoundly racist and segregated, he was either a hypocrite or a dupe. Thurman resolved to do something about this, and in 1944 left a comfortable position as dean of chapel at Howard University to co-found in San Francisco the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, one of the first religious congregations in the United States explicitly organized on an interracial and integrated basis. Everything about his career as a religious thinker was concerned, as the title of another of his books indicated, with "The Search For Common Ground," and if he never minimized the magnitude and difficulty of the task, he always sought a world in which racial, ethnic, and religious differences could be at once acknowledged and transcended.
As we come to know more about Barack Obama, I hope Obama's roots in the moral philosophy of Howard Thurman will become increasingly apparent, and the work of Thurman will become better known, as he always intended, outside of the confines of "the black church tradition."