Monday, March 17, 2008

Ridin' Dirty: Obama's Pastor Problem

The anti-American invective of Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor for the last twenty years, has caused an uneasy stir in the U.S. electorate. Videos of Wright's fiery sermons -- in which he blames the 9/11 attacks on U.S. "terrorism" abroad ("the chickens are coming home to roost") and asks God to "damn America" for its sins -- have now aired repeatedly on the cable news networks. Wright is heard dismissing Hillary Clinton as incapable of understanding the black experience ("Hillary never had a cab whiz by and not pick her up because her skin is the wrong color") and berating her husband Bill as one who betrayed the trust of black Americans: "Bill did us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty."

Obama has attempted to distance himself from his minister's most provocative utterances, calling them "inflammatory and appalling," while insisting that he was not in attendance for any of the sermons in question.

Yet, many of the elements of this story have been known for nearly a year. In "A Candidate, His Minister and the Search for Faith," (Jodi Kantor, The New York Times, April 30, 2007), Obama reacted to Wright's provocative post-9/11 statements:
On the Sunday after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Mr. Wright said the attacks were a consequence of violent American policies. Four years later he wrote that the attacks had proved that “people of color had not gone away, faded into the woodwork or just ‘disappeared’ as the Great White West went on its merry way of ignoring Black concerns.”

...Such statements involve “a certain deeply embedded anti-Americanism,” said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative group that studies religious issues and public policy. “A lot of people are going to say to Mr. Obama, are these your views?”

Mr. Obama says they are not.

“The violence of 9/11 was inexcusable and without justification,” he said in a recent interview. He was not at Trinity the day Mr. Wright delivered his remarks shortly after the attacks, Mr. Obama said, but “it sounds like he was trying to be provocative.”

“Reverend Wright is a child of the 60s, and he often expresses himself in that language of concern with institutional racism and the struggles the African-American community has gone through,” Mr. Obama said. “He analyzes public events in the context of race. I tend to look at them through the context of social justice and inequality.”

In The Atlantic, Matthew Yglesias argues that Obama's membership in Wright's church was only for the sake of political expediency and likens it to Hillary's claim to be a fan of the New York Yankees baseball team:
But of course they're right that it'll hurt him electorally because Obama's going to have a hard time explaining that I take to be the truth, namely that his relationship with Trinity has been a bit cynical from the beginning.

"Before Obama was a half-black guy running in a mostly white country he was a half-white guy running in a mostly black neighborhood."
After all, before Obama was a half-black guy running in a mostly white country he was a half-white guy running in a mostly black neighborhood. At that time, associating with a very large, influential, local church with black nationalist overtones was a clear political asset (it's also clear in his book that it made him, personally, feel "blacker" to belong to a slightly kitschy black church). Since emerging onto a larger stage, it's been the reverse and Obama's consistently sought to distance himself from Wright, disinviting him from his campaign's launch, analogizing him to a crazy uncle who you love but don't listen to, etc. The closest analogy would probably be to Hillary Clinton's inconsistent accounting of where she's from (bragging about midwestern roots when trying to win in Iowa, promptly forgetting those roots when explaining away a loss in Illinois, developing a sporadic affection for New York sports teams) -- banal, mildly cynical shifts of association as context changes.

This is why I don't, as an American citizen, worry that President Obama would be objectionable. But Americans take their religion seriously and aren't going to want to hear this story. So Obama's going to have to do some awkward further distancing.

If this is indeed the dilemma that Obama faces, if he must choose between repudiating his faith or repudiating the man he has called his "spiritual mentor," then the foundation of his candidacy will crumble. He can steer between the horns of Yglesias's dilemma, but only if he can truthfully speak to the positive lessons that he learned in his chosen church and the faith that sustains his audacious hope.

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