Where Jeremiah Wright and the Far Right Agree

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Jeremiah Wright’s name is shorthand, in various parts of conservative media, for a few things: wild-eyed anti-Americanism; the ways in which Barack Obama manages to get off scot-free for questionable affiliations; dangerous black radicalism. The right doesn’t always know the best way to wield Wright as a cudgel (I wrote in defense of the right to do so in 2012), but they know he’s bad news.

But after I went to see Wright speak last weekend at a church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and reviewed his record, I was struck by some strange intersections between him and some conservative thought.

First, there’s the “America got what it deserved” strain of thought—one he expressed when he said that “America’s chickens were coming home to roost” after September 11. How different is this than when another aging man of the cloth, Pat Robertson, wrote after the attacks, “We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, ‘Why does this happen?’ It is happening because God Almighty is lifting His protection from us.” (One key difference: Wright’s is at least based on his understanding of American foreign policy, not guessing at divine motives.)

But Wright shares another strange similarity with some conservatives: wariness of the Enlightenment. Conservatives have voiced reservations about it since Edmund Burke; more recently, voices from the Christian right have lamented that society is too focused on reason and too dismissive of God.

In his talk in Chapel Hill, Wright also criticized the Enlightenment—but for a very different reason. It had cemented a Eurocentric vision of what progress, reason, and rectitude are that clouds out alternative and equally valid, but conflicting, ways of living from other cultures. Perhaps that doesn’t mesh with a conservative movement that rejects multiculturalism so well after all.