People are complicated. Some people are smart. That second category probably includes both McCain and Obama. Neither are likely to be blindly accepting the words of clergymen, trading the insights of Wright or Parsley for their own thinking. They're smart enough to know better.
Jeremiah Wright, the now infamous pastor at Trinity United Church, seems a little stuck in the past to me. I'm also convinced that all of this attention on Wright and his Church is probably misplaced.
I've heard and seen the various clips that are getting so many people worked up over Barack Obama's pastor. As far as I can tell, he's not doing anything new or shocking. When he goes on what some people would call an "anti-American tirade" he sounds like an old recording from 30-40 years ago. He's a pulpit firebrand preaching a radicalized afrocentric message. He's not breaking new ground, he's comfortably echoing the sentiments of "angry blacks", hanging on to a perspective that was already losing favor when I was a kid in the 70s.
I'm not going to provide a long history of predominantly black churches and civil rights issues. I'm not going to take you on a trip that involves the precursors to MLK, King himself, more radicalized clergymen who competed with King's perspective, Malcom X, black power movements, and what's happened since. I won't bore you with an explanation of the intersection of church and politics within the black community.
Do you know why I'm not going to go through all of that? Honestly, part of it is a matter of my personal laziness. Mainly, though, it's because I don't think most people give a shit. They don't want context and they don't want understanding. I'm guessing that if you entered the magic phrases into Google to land here that you want "red meat"--something to piss you off or to make you feel better about Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright and race in general.
If someone actually tries to make real sense out of this stuff, it just isn't simple, fast and interesting enough to give us the political hard-ons we crave.
Besides, if we did this from the ground up... Well, we'd be looking at a book instead of a blog post and this one is gonna be long as it is.
I'm not completely abandoning hope that someone out there would like to hear something a little more meaningful than "Jeremiah Wright is the devil and his hatred will kill the Obama campaign" crap. I'm skipping some history for the sake of expediency, but I'm not selling out completely.
Here's my take. Understanding why this Jeremiah Wright thing is a bullshit dust-up is easy.
Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright have a relationship. Obama has high regard for much of what Wright has done and the candidate found a home in Wright's church. Wright performed the Obama wedding and one of his sermons became the title for Obama's Audacity of Hope.
The simple-minded will argue that this relationship creates a reason for concern. Wright says stuff we don't like. Obama likes Wright. Thus, by the transitive process of shallow political thinking, Obama is somehow on board with Wright when the pastor says "God damn America". That is bullshit.
Obama himself tried to explain this in a sort of folksy way, describing Wright as a family member who he loves, but with whom he doesn't universally agree. "An old Uncle", Obama called him.
That's a quick takeout of the Obama/Wright link, but the real reason why you don't need to be afraid of Barack Obama based on Jeremiah Wright is a little more complicated. It's something Barack Obama has explained before and it's something that one might not recognize without first having their attention drawn to it.
Obama once gave a speech in which he discussed his religious awakening at Trinity United and his current position on faith. Read this:
And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.
Obama is not a religious zealot. He's not pretending he has all of the answers and he's not willing to claim that his church has all of them either. He remains skeptical and continues looking for truth.
When you actually think about Obama's stance on religion, it mitigates a lot of concerns, doesn't it? He isn't part of Jeremiah Wright's army. He's not taking orders from a pulpit. He understands his faith as an important part of his life and one that has a great deal of power, but he hasn't traded in his critical thinking for zealotry.
I think this is hard for many religious people to understand, because many of us don't approach our faith in this way. Many of us are soldiers for our churches. Many of us take our church leaders' word that "things are the way they say they are". For many people, church membership and the very idea of belonging to a church involves accepting that church's interpretation of the bible and its stance on issues.
That's not Obama's faith. Now, you can argue that he isn't "your" kind of Christian because he's still skeptical and he's still looking to develop a real understanding of truth. You can argue that he's not "Christian enough" for you because he's not a member of your brand of Jesus worship or because he's willing to submit to God's will but not to the will of any individual, absolutist doctrine.
Personally, I think those arguments are meaningless, but you're welcome to make them.
However, when you understand how Obama describes his faith and his understanding of religion, it's very hard to believe that he's taking marching orders from Jeremiah Wright. It's also hard to argue that you can impugn Obama with Wright's zaniness.
Based on everything I've seen of Jeremiah Wright, he's sort of the black ministerial version on Geraldine Ferraro. I don't know his theology, but I know his politics. He's pitching a rather outdated version of angry black politics. It's conspiratorial, it's inflammatory, and it has a big chip on its shoulder about the white man.
As a white man, I should probably feel threatened or should take offense. I don't some of that is because I've studied the history this post skipped. Some of that is because I see it in a larger social context. Most of it is because I recognize that Jeremiah Wright's voice on these political matters is one of the last of its kind.
Olympic athletes no longer give the black power salute and the Black Panthers are probably playing shuffleboard at the senior center right now. The Wright perspective and the Wright language are old and dying. It still has an audience, but it's shrinking and its relevance is in decline.
Jeremiah Wright shares a little bit in common with Geraldine Ferraro. Ferraro seems unable to shake her old-school feminism, clinging to it ferociously even though most "radicalized" younger women have long ago recognized the intersections of race and gender and what they mean. Meanwhile, Wright rants about the White Man and rails against the system in an antique voice. He's not up to speed.
Have a little sympathy and empathy for both of them. They came across their views honestly, even if those perspectives aren't right. They hold to them because they've worked on things very meaningful to them for a very long time. They can't change their stripes and spots that easily. Truth be known, we owe Ferraro and Wright debts of gratitude. What seems stupid, shallow and old today was groundbreaking in different times and under different circumstances.
I don't know about Wright's preaching. I know about his politics, but I haven't heard him preaching in a more traditionally religious sense. Maybe it was in those quieter moments that he touched Barack Obama?
I haven't really heard all that much from Wright, either. I've seen a highlight reel of the moments when he says things that frustrate and upset people. The government made AIDS, the chickens coming home to roost (nod to Malcom X), God damn America, etc.
If you line up all of those "here's crazy Jeremiah" Youtube clips, they comprise a ridiculously small percentage of all the talking, preaching and teaching he's done. We're seeing the Worst of Jeremiah Wright. I don't think it's completely fair to pass judgment based on that.
With respect to Barack Obama, it doesn't really matter, though. I don't think there's any evidence that Obama subscribes to the more incendiary thoughts of Mr. Wright, do you? Nah. But pretending that's the case is a lot more exciting than using your noodle, isn't it?
FOLLOW THE POLITICS
Ask yourself who benefits from making the transitive argument with respect to Wright and Obama. Have you answer? Good. Remember it.
Now, contrast Wright's lunacy with that of John McCain's spiritual adviser and campaign buddy in Ohio, Rod Parsley.
Rod Parsley sells magical healing prayer cloths. He argues that America was founded to crush Islam. He thinks its worth revisiting adultery laws and potentially punishing cheaters with the machinery of the criminal justice system. He's a dominionist who thinks we might benefit from trashing the Constitution in favor of a Christian version of Sharia.
Contrast Wright's bombast with that of McCain supporter John Hagee. You know, the guy who calls Catholicism "the Great Whore" and who wants to nuke Iran in order to pave the way for Jesus' return on a white horse. He's said plenty of amazingly offensive things, too.
For some reason, people are willing to paint Obama with Wright's comments while recognizing that John McCain isn't quite as crazy as Hagee and Parsley. Why is that?
What is it about far-right Christian politics that differs from far-left black Christian politics in these matters?
Here's a clue. The words "far-left" and "black".
I'm not trying to play "that religious guy is crazier than the other religious guy". Personally, I think Wright is silly and Parsley/Hagee are goofy, too.
The more important question, with respect to what's going on in the media and around water coolers today, is how much it really matters in terms of the candidates.
(Remember: The Vatican didn't manage to take over the White House when Kennedy was in office)
I don't think John Mccain wants to throw himself in prison for adultery and I don't believe he's plotting a Constitutional crisis in order to replace the governing principles of the USA with some kind of conservative Christian theocracy.
I don't think Barack Obama believes the government has intentionally spread AIDS or that he plans on singing "God Damn America" instead of "God Bless America". I don't think Barack Obama hates whitey, which would create some problems when it came to his very own mommy.
People are complicated. Some people are smart. That second category probably includes both McCain and Obama. Neither are likely to be blindly accepting the words of clergymen, trading the insights of Wright or Parsley for their own thinking. They're smart enough to know better. Are we?
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