Pastor Halts Obama's Rise Above Identity Politics

Two of the three big news stories last week – those of Eliot Spitzer and Geraldine Ferraro — are already fading into the dust heap of boneheaded but mostly harmless decisions by people in the public eye. But the third story, that of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, will not go away, much to the detriment of Barack Obama, his supporters, and those who have for years paraded the fiction that identity politics (whether of gender, race, or any other grouping) is a truly uniting force for the Democratic Party.

Reverend Wright, who retired in February from his position as head of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, is Senator Obama’s long time pastor and friend, having presided over Obama’s wedding and the baptism of his children.

The current furor surrounds video clips of sermons given by Reverend Wright in which he makes statements which would be perceived by most Americans as somewhere between hateful and insane.

A few lowlights from Wright’s sermons:

• “US of KKKA”
• “No, no, no, not ‘God Bless America’! God damn America”
• “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”

And, although they haven’t been discussed as much in the media, Wright has controversial statements in print as well — in his church’s publication called “The Trumpet.” These are perhaps no surprise in a magazine whose stated mission includes “highlighting… experiences and beliefs in a racially oppressive society”:

• In the August, 2005 issue: “In the 21st century, white America got a wake-up call after 9/11/01.”
• In the May, 2006 issue: “White supremacy controls the economic system in America, the healthcare system in America and the educational system in America.”
• In the November/December 2007 issue, speaking of Louis Farrakhan, one of the nations’s leading racists and anti-Semites: “He brings a perspective that is helpful and honest.”

And while it is understandable that many black Americans might be angry with the nation’s far-from-perfect history in race relations, the venom of Reverend Wright’s statements go far past civil or helpful discussion. More importantly for today, the hateful and anti-American messages go far beyond what is politically palatable during a presidential campaign. 

Although the Obama campaign is claiming that guilt by association is unfair, Obama’s claims of ignorance and his half-hearted distancing from Wright strike many as neither sincere nor sufficient.

In an interview on Fox News, Obama said that Wright was like an uncle to him, and that Obama had never been in the pews when Wright made statements like “God damn America.” He first admitted to “hearing about one” after he started running for president. Later in the interview, he said he had heard “one or two.” Regarding some of the most inflammatory quotes, Obama said, “Had I been sitting in the church at the time when they were spoken, I would have been absolutely clear to Reverend Wright that I didn’t find those acceptable.” 

Obama went on to say that he would have quit the church if he thought that sort of rhetoric was being in an ongoing basis, but that if it were just once or twice, he wouldn’t have quit because he would have considered it was just “a mistake.”

In his initial attempt to put distance between himself and Reverend Wright, Obama gave a long statement to the left-wing web site, including this key sentence: “Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy.”

Throughout the early days of this controversy, then, Obama has been subtly but clearly doing everything possible to distance himself as narrowly as possible from “the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue” rather than the man himself. However, in this situation, the message and the messenger are very difficult to distinguish, so Obama’s too-clever semi-criticisms are allowing the issue to tarnish Obama in a way that even his possibly more serious involvement with Tony Rezko and Illinois political corruption have not.

Jeremiah’s jeremiads strike at the heart of two critical aspects of Obama’s candidacy: Being a “post-racial” candidate and having better judgment than his opponents.

It is hardly plausible that the Obamas have been a member of Wright’s church for over 15 years (and his friend for longer than that) yet did not realize Wright’s black separatist and anti-American message.

Indeed, it seems an odd coincidence that just over one month after Obama announced his campaign for the presidency, the church altered its “About Us” page on its web site, eliminating the discussion of a “Black Value System,” which included such concepts as “Adherence to the Black Work Ethic,” “Disavowal of the Pursuit of ‘Middleclassness,’” and “Pledge allegiance to all Black leadership who espouse and embrace the Black Value System.”  (Click on dates for web pages:  Page dated 3/15/07 with “Black Value System” and page dated 3/29/07 without that content.)

It is not unreasonable to wonder whether either the Obama campaign or Reverend Wright himself began to suspect early on that such racially charged rhetoric could become a political problem for the candidate.

When some of Reverend Wright’s inflammatory remarks surfaced early in the campaign, Obama then tried the same sort of pseudo-distancing. But once the evidence has become so large and loud, it becomes difficult to understand why Obama does not call on Wright to make at least a pretense of an apology for the worst of his rhetoric. It becomes hard to understand why Obama continues to defend him “like an uncle” when most Americans realize that you don’t choose who is born into your family but you do choose your pastor and your church. In other words, it brings into serious question Obama’s claim to be above and beyond racial politics, a claim which is central to his support among young idealist liberals.

As for Obama’s judgment the same questions arise, and there is no good answer for him: “Did you realize that your pastor was a messenger of racial division and anti-Americanism? If so, why did you stay at that church? If not, how could you be an active church member for 15 years and somehow miss the apparently consistent message of its leader?” Obama either gets painted as having bad judgment about his choices, lying about them, or being blind and deaf to his surroundings, all of which are not only negatives for a candidate, but are particularly negative for this candidate.

Even Obama supporters and black Democratic activists on television acknowledge that Reverend Jeremiah Wright has become a “huge negative” for Barack Obama. It is not about trying to attribute Wright’s words to Obama; that is not necessary in order for their relationship and Obama’s careful parsing of his criticism of Wright to cast strong doubt on Obama’s positioning as the post-racial candidate with superior judgment.