On One Hand

March 15, 2008

How Obama can Gain from his “Pastor Problem”

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:21 pm
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Republican presidential candidates rarely fail to defend their continued relationship with anti-gay, anti-Jewish or anti-Catholic Christian ministers who have blamed the disasters of AIDS, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina on everything from abortion clinics to God’s anger at our tolerance for lesbians and gays.

Just this February, John McCain received a well-publicized endorsement from the evangelical Reverend John Hagee, who said that Hurricane Katrina was God’s justice for a sinful city. Years ago, the Clintons’ spiritual adviser Billy Graham was under fire for his understanding that one of America’s greatest problems was the influence of Satanic Jews – an event that caused the Clintons only a fraction of the political damage that Obama is now getting from the Jeramiah Wright scandal.

Let’s first make an honest comparison between the comments at issue. Jerimiah Wright’s most controversial and oft-quoted phrase is “God Damn America” for tolerating slavery and lynching, for killing hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima, and for other near-forgotten tragedies that all contain a genocidal element. Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell’s beleif and Pat Robertson’s concurrence that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were attributable to the actions of the ACLU, gay rights, and feminists, seemed to damn America for its lack of consensus with their own particular views on sexuality. In one instance, a preacher curses his country with hyperbolic language for social crimes so attrocious and universally condemned that anyone who fails to call them tragic would be reviled in mainstream politics. In another instance, a preacher justifies the slaughter of thousands of innocent people because men and women were falling in love with their own gender.

Robertson, Falwell and Wright, along with Haggee, Graham, Fred Phelps, Louis Farhakkan and countless others are questioned for their views – as they should be – and there is no blatant double standard there. But the Clintons were never asked to distance themselves from Billy Graham, and President Bush was more than willing to link his campaign with Bob Jones University (a dis-accredited Bible college that bans interracial dating and Catholics) when he campaigned for the presidency with a speech he made there in 2000. While the president repudiated some comments made in the wake if 9/11 and Katrina, no one asked him to discuss his relationship with evangelical preachers, no one questioned his judgment in counting them among his friends, and no one asked him to “reject and denounce” their support for his political career except to question their direct power over American domestic policy.

I’m not going to approve of Wright’s comments; they were distasteful and certainly were offensive. Even considering the African-American church traidition of speaking in poetic hyperbole in the pulpit, to make outrageous statements in order to get a rallying cry from the congregation – even then, they crossed a line. Even considering that, if there ever were a good reason to say “God Damn America,” slavery and lynching are probably the best case you could make – certainly superior to the idea that tolerating gays or respecting womens’ rights are the nation’s damning curse. Navy veteran Jeremiah Wright is not racist, is employed in a large, liberal, proudly gay-friendly White-run Christian denomination that understood and approved of his work, while Wright’s prevailing message was neither anti-white nor anti-American. But words, when taken out of context, can be just as powerful as words in context, and a public figure with the prominence of Jeremiah Wright should have known that they could come back to haunt him. For Obama to Remove Wright’s symbolic title as a campaign spiritual adviser was a wise and justifiable decision.

Obama can capitalize on this mess, but it requires him to bite the bullet, resisting the urge to speak the obvious truth that Wright’s comments were on par with comments from other religious leaders, and are in many ways less dangerous than comments made by Evangelicals who are fully embraced by political campaigns on all ends of the spectrum. He must leave it to others to make that argument if they want to. He must also avoid pointing out the double standard, that African American politicians are put under more pressure to distance themselves from their radical leaders who are similar to white Evangelicals saying nearly the same thing in different words to a different audience.

Instead, Barack Obama must state an even more obvious truth: that he is not responsible for every word uttered by everyone he associates with, and that his candidacy is one that celebrates the progress Civil Rights has made before it laments the promises that are yet to be fulfilled. Born to a white woman from Kansas and raised by her and her family in the absence of his father, Obama is certainly not an African-American who holds a grudge against America or Whites, and has clearly never uttered the words or sentiment Wright is being criticized for. Obama is not running as the “Black Candidate,” and no one in their right mind would recognize him as such. If he can publicly say, as he has, that he is running to represent all Americans and not just Blacks, that his goal is to bring both sides to a place of dialog and mutual benefit, and if he can explain his grattitude for living in a nation that tolerates a diversity of lifestyles and opinions even as extreme and troublesome as those expressed by Jeremiah Wright, and if he can say so with the grace and articulation that has been characteristic of his campaign since the beginning, then I beleive, with confidence, that Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States.

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1 Comment »

  1. Belief

    Matt, I had a conversation with one of those so-called Christians from the Assembly of God. He is a former Muslim who insists that Muslims worship the god of the moon and that Obama is a Muslim. I found that rather ridiculous that anyone could beieve such piffle.
    Of course, we know these self-righteous fools will vote for the tired old man, anyway, so I don’t think it’ll hurt Obama much. However, I still intend to vote for Hillary in the Pennsylvania primary. I will vote for the Democratic candidate in the general election.
    As alaways, Matt, I find your views intriguing, going all the way back to when you first posted on Chris M’s site.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 23, 2008 @ 2:44 am | Reply


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