The question is worth revisiting now that his ex-pastor is threatening his entire campaign.
I've heard two basic theories since the Wright tapes first surfaced in March. The first is cynical: Obama was a black politician in Chicago with an exotic background and intimidating credentials. He needed a home in a black church to gain credibility with his less educated, less affluent, more parochial-minded constituents. Trinity offered him the requisite cred.
The second, not entirely unrelated, theory is psychoanalytical: Obama, as the product of a racially-mixed marriage, in which the black father was almost entirely absent, had spent his whole life groping for an authentic identity. Wright offered Obama both the father and the identity he never had.
The problem with both theories is that they don't answer the question of why this particular church, this particular pastor. Yes, Wright was a prominent figure with a large congregation. But surely there were other pastors and churches that fit that profile. And, in retrospect, probably distinctly less controversial ones.
Which is where this fascinating passage from David Mendell's Obama biography comes in:
Wright earned bachelor's and master's degrees in sacred music from Howard University and initially pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago Divinity School before interrupting his studies to minister full-time. His intellectualism and black militancy put him at odds with some Baptist ministers around Chicago, with whom he often sparred publicly, and he finally accepted a position at Trinity. ...
Wright remains a maverick among Chicago's vast assortment of black preachers. He will question Scripture when he feels it forsakes common sense; he is an ardent foe of mandatory school prayer; and he is a staunch advocate for homosexual rights, which is almost unheard-of among African-American ministers. Gay and lesbian couples, with hands clasped, can be spotted in Trinity's pews each Sunday. Even if some blacks consider Wright's church serving only the bourgeois set, his ministry attracts a broad cross section of Chicago's black community. Obama first noticed the church because Wright had placed a "Free Africa" sign out front to protest continuing apartheid. The liberal, Columbia-educated Obama was attracted to Wright's cerebral and inclusive nature, as opposed to the more socially conservative and less educated ministers around Chicago. Wright developed into a counselor and mentor to Obama as Obama sought to understand the power of Christianity in the lives of black Americans, and as he grappled with the complex vagaries of Chicago's black political scene. "Trying to hold a conversation with a guy like Barack, and him trying to hold a conversation with some ministers, it's like you are dating someone and she wants to talk to you about Rosie and what she saw on Oprah, and that's it," Wright explained. "But here I was, able to stay with him lockstep as we moved from topic to topic. . . . He felt comfortable asking me questions that were postmodern, post-Enlightenment and that college-educated and graduate school-trained people wrestle with when it comes to the faith. We talked about race and politics. I was not threatened by those questions." ...
But more than that, Trinity's less doctrinal approach to the Bible intrigued and attracted Obama. "Faith to him is how he sees the human condition," Wright said. "Faith to him is not . . . litmus test, mouth-spouting, quoting Scripture. It's what you do with your life, how you live your life. That's far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says women shouldn't wear pants or if you drink, you're going to hell. That's just not who Barack is."
So, if you buy Wright's account--and it rings pretty true to me--it was his intellectualism and social progressivism that won Obama over. Certainly it's hard to imagine that someone like Obama, who came from a progressive, secular background, would have felt genuinely comfortable in a socially conservative, anti-intellectual church. The problem for Obama is that the flip-side of these virtues was a minister with a radical worldview and a penchant for advertising it loudly.
Which, put another way, means that Obama's decision to join Trinity was probably the opposite of cynical. Trinity was the place where, despite the potential pitfalls--and he must have noticed them early on--Obama felt most true to himself.
Update: Just to clarify, by "felt most true to himself" I mean "most true to himself as a worshipper." The point is that the pastor who made him feel most welcome as a worshipper probably also made him pretty uncomfortable politically.