A National Media Product

Created: May 01, 2008 08:08 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Mayor Richard M. Daley, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Mayor Richard M. Daley, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.

CHICAGO — When it comes to politics in Chicago, Rev. Jeremiah A.Wright Jr. is a big fish in his small pond.

His parishioners at Trinity Church of Christ obviously revere him, and with their support he’s built a large and thriving South Side church whose 8,000 or so members include several influential black leaders — including, as we all know now, Sen. Barack Obama.

The very traits that have apparently thrown so many white people into a tizzy are what make Wright so popular with his flock.

They love his passion, his worldview, his sense of humor and his powerful and passionate delivery. They get a kick out of the ways in which he uses his mastery of the Bible, music and history to devastate his targets with zingers, wise cracks and mimicry. They embrace his liberation theology and they think he’s absolutely right when he says that America is hypocritical in its foreign policy.

If you’re going to take on bullies – if you’re going to wage battle against the Goliaths – it’s prudent not to fight those who live in your back yard.

But all of this adulation does not make Wright a player in Chicago politics. Quite the contrary. Until the last few months he was largely unknown to most Chicagoans outside of the black community. For better or worse, his current prominence is a result of the national media.

For all of his outspokenness on national issues, Wright largely stays out of the local fray. He’s not been a leader in crusades against police brutality, skyrocketing property taxes, controversial public school promotion policies, affirmative action scandals, the continuing redistribution of anti-poverty money from relatively poor neighborhoods to wealthier ones or any of the other major local issues affecting black Chicago over the last few years. He didn’t endorse anyone in the last mayoral election, even though the incumbent, Mayor Richard M. Daley, had two black challengers.

In this respect, Wright is like most of the other ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and monks in this town. Like Wright, our religious leaders – and you can put Rev. Jesse Jackson in this camp as well – have clearly taken to heart to the New Testament teaching: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

For centuries, theologians have debated exactly what Jesus was saying here. But in Chicago, the local application is clear: Don’t mess with Mayor Daley, and he won’t mess with you.

If you’re going to take on bullies – if you’re going to wage battle against the Goliaths – it’s prudent not to fight those who live in your back yard.

President George W. Bush, as powerful as he is, isn’t going to care much about what a preacher like Wright says – Trinity’s members are not about to vote Republican. But a mayor like Daley has many ways to make life difficult for a preacher — no matter how eloquent. He can send over the building inspectors, pull permits, take away city contracts or do any of the other nasty things the local machine does to keep people in line.

So whether out of convenience or indifference, Wright’s never had much to say about Daley. In this regard, he’s an ideal pastor for a young politician like Obama, who moved up the ranks in part because he also knew enough to stay out of fights with the mayor.

  • Ben Joravsky is a staff writer for Chicago Reader newspaper, where he writes a weekly column about politics.*