In the furor this week over the anti-American comments of Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Barack Obama’s church in Chicago, the one question that’s gotten surprisingly little attention is the most obvious one: Should Obama leave his church?
The terms an economist would use to characterize his options are “exit” and “voice” (based on "Exit, Voice and Loyalty," a famous book by Albert O. Hirschman). When a person is unhappy with the direction of an organization in which she is involved, her principal alternatives are to campaign for change from within (“voice”), or to leave the organization (“exit”). The dynamics of the organization and the person’s stake will often affect her choice. If she is a tiny shareholder in a huge corporation, she may be more inclined to exit (by selling her shares), since the voice of one small shareholder won’t make much difference. If she cannot easily exit, on the other hand, or if she has significant influence over the institution, she will be more inclined to exercise voice, as with a very large shareholder.
In his speech Tuesday afternoon, Obama said that he could no more abandon Jeremiah Wright than he could abandon his own grandmother, despite Wright’s outrageous attacks on America and American policy. With one’s family, Obama was suggesting, exit isn’t really an option, and Wright is like family to him. For this reason, Obama chose voice: to confront Wright both directly and indirectly, and to condemn the statements (a bit late, to be sure, but better late than never).
I personally found this reasoning quite powerful, but it really answers only the question whether Obama should disown his relationship with Wright personally. It doesn’t address the question whether Obama should leave Trinity United Church of Christ, the church that Wright led for so many years. One way to answer this question is in political terms. Here, the most useful analogy (and disanalogy) it seems to me, is to a politician who belongs to a golf course or club that discriminates against blacks, women or Jewish people. In this case, exit is usually viewed as the only politically acceptable option. Why, given the usual reaction in discriminatory club cases, hasn’t Obama faced more pressure to leave the church?
I think there are at least two reasons. The first is that, unlike the discriminatory clubs, Obama’s church hasn’t adopted a fixed, explicit anti-American stance. Indeed, Obama and others have suggested that the pastor’s anti-American comments are at odds with his overall message. This has been hotly debated, but it does suggest that the church’s position is more complicated than with a club that adopts an exclusionary rule. Second, in the discriminatory club situation, a politician who wished to campaign for change would need to do so behind the scenes– after all, private clubs are by their nature private– and over time. But the public isn’t willing to be patient in these cases, which makes exit the only real option. Obama’s church, by contrast, seems to operate in a much more open, public, political fashion. This makes voice a much more realistic option for Obama. He can publicly reject Wright’s comments and, if he chooses to do so, both publicly and privately work for change in the church.
Those are the political options, it seems to me. But for one who has identified himself as a Christian believer, as Obama has, there is a far more important religious question: are the commitments of his church consistent with, or at odds with, the teachings of the Bible? I personally am uncomfortable with churches taking political stands, but even apart from that, it seems to me the church can speak out in favor of the poor and oppressed (a repeated theme in Scripture) without dishonoring the secular authorities (as Paul instructs in Romans 13). This, as I understand it, was a major theme of Martin Luther King’s ministry and of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.
From a religious perspective, Obama’s options seem similar to his political options but the calculus is radically different. If he were to conclude that his church’s posture is inconsistent with Scripture, he would need to decide whether to work from within to change it or to exit. In American Protestant Christianity, the usual inclination is simply to leave. I confess it’s an inclination I share, but it seems to me that the Bible suggests that we should always at least try to work for change from within. (This is the theme, for instance, of much of 1 Corinthians). If Obama remains convinced that his church’s stance is fully Scriptural, on the other hand, he should continue to defend it, whatever the political implications.