Friday, March 14, 2008

Barack Obama and the Jeremiah Wright "issue"... Truth is duller than fiction...

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?

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?


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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  1. If a person does not agree with the views of their pastor, they do not remain members of that church for 20 years. They also do not donate the majority of their charitable giving to that organization. If this story had Hillary Clinton as the main character, it would be all over the media. Once again, Obama proves to be untouchable. It's a shame.

  2. That's bullshit, Anon.

    How many Catholics practice birth control and have had the same fucking priest for 20 years?

    We're seeing a carefully-selected highlight real of Wright's Greatest Hits, not the whole of his work or a necessarily representative sample of his church.

    Plus, you're assuming that the way Obama approaches faith and church matches your own (or your own assumption of how religion works in individual lives).

    If Hillary was the main character it would be all over the media? Sure it would. People are stupid like that. It wouldn't make it right, but it would happen.

    Guess what, it's "all over the media" now with Obama. He's untouchable? Give me a break. He's getting gored on this one and you know it.

    John Brown

  3. First, it isn't simply "disagreement". Many of Wright's "worst moments are utterly sickening to many Americans. NOONE becomes a member of a church established and later gets married by a man who they find sickening.

    Secondly, you convey how bias you are when you brought McCain into the argument. You say two things that Wright said after giving a whole lot of context, but listed half a dozen things that Parsley and Hagee have said/done without any context. Neither of these figures are anywhere near as close to McCain as Wright is to Obama, are they? They're supporters and neither are part of McCain's campaign, Wright IS part of Obama's.

    Simply because Obama is a US senator doesn't mean he cannot be racist. That's a ridiculous argument, you know history look at all the white US senators/presidents who were racist! I'm not saying he has the views of Wright or farrakhan or HIS WIFE, but I'm not saying I dismiss it simply because words come out of his mouth, either.

    The issue isn't really Obama's views but who he'll put around him if he were president. Americans don't want these "old records" running their nation.

    He's shown very bad judgement by being a 20 year member to an obviously racist church... that's the issue.

  4. nathan-

    You're right in that I didn't provide a great deal of context re: McCain's equally freaking crazy religious backers. That's true. However, I did explain why I thought their nuttiness was no more important than that of Jeremiah Wright.

    I also think the reason some Americans find Wright's comments "sickening" has less to do with alleged racism and more to do with politics. Wright certainly doesn't agree with the political gospel of dominionists and Christian Zionist righties like Parsley and Hagee.

    I think the visceral reaction comes both from the "left" aspect of Wright's positions AND the "black" part.

    Let's be completely honest, Nathan. White people are very uncomfortable, for the most part, with angry black people. There are many reasons why. Some of them are legitimate. Others aren't.

    Can anyone point out a time where McCain said we should imprison adulterers or scrap the constitution in favor of the Bible? Of course not.

    Can anyone point out a time when Barack Obama sponsored a resolution blaming the federal government for AIDS or calling for whitey's head on a platter? Of course not.

    Personally, I question the judgment of 20 year involvement with just about any church. That being said, I'm aware enough to realize there's a lot more to church membership than the political views of a church leader. A lot more.

    Reducing Obama's involvement with Trinity United to the political comments of Jeremiah Wright seems a wee bit superficial to me. That's particularly true when one understands Barack Obama's approach to faith, which may be quite different than the perspectives held by many others.

    Although I disagree with you (and I am biased--just like everyone with a brain is biased for something or someone), I appreciate your perspective.

    John Brown

  5. oh my god, a rational blogger with historical perspective and sense. thank you so much for being a sane voice to calm my anger after reading...well, everything i've read so far on this issue.

  6. Yeah, I can't say I'm terribly impressed with Obama for having this guy marry him any more than I'm impressed with McCain taking up for some fundamentalist nutball.

    I do have to say that, for both of them, it does demonstrate a side of them that makes me much less comfortable with both of them. I do understand that people are complicated and that they change slowly. But part of that mix of slow change that bothers me is two pastors who clearly demonstrate the evils of ignorant, ugly chauvinism being treated as some truth test for what it means to really be a conservative or really be a liberal or really be down with black people or white people or whatever bullshit that people have conjured up this time for why their uglier motivations really are more noble than they are. Wright sounds pretty racist (though I haven't read any of his stuff, myself), Hagee sounds like a really particularly fucked up fundamentalist, and both of them are treated like spiritual leaders by these candidates. That's a little bothersome to me. I have to agree that I could never let someone like that marry me. So I do find it kind of disturbing.

    It concerns me because a lot of nice folks treat such hateful hangers-on as those who hold the "true faith" to their more moderated versions. And I always think, "Moderated versions of what? Hatefulness and sanctimony? Why should a I prefer a moderated version of hatefulness and sanctimony? Shouldn't I just expect someone to think and behave better and not be some moderated version of some asshole with an opinion? Hey, at least she's not as Nazi as her dad. You should have seen that asshole. Why should that be some kind of consolation to me? I think I can and should be able to expect something better."

    Now, I hope that's not the case, here. Hopefully, this dude really is just an uncle or some crazy minister guy that's a close family friend. Hagee could be the same for McCain. It's hard to know, exactly. I do find it a little strange that these guys would turn to such people for any serious function in their lives. Seems a little fucked up to me. And it definitely makes me skeptical of both of them with power, as it should, I think.

    The reason why the story would be different for Clinton is because Clinton really is closer to someone like Wright in her leftism than is Obama, generally. What's amazing is that Obama came out of such dirty waters and still represents a much more hopeful, less race-conscious, more thoughtful message than Ms. Clinton.

    You know, speaking of cross-sections of religion and politics, John, it is crazy to me that so many religious folks and ministers/leaders will drink so much of the propaganda of their times (or help create it) and then perpetually think that it means more than it does. This is the reason why critical thought is so necessary. Without secular or other theologians trying to make some reasonable sense of religious questions, they would and are often lost in this gobblety-gook of religious romanticism and rationalization of ugly attitudes and behavior.

    I guess, today, we're just seeing that this has been true of leftist religious folks as much as right-wing religious nuts. Which, of course it has. Marcus Garvey isn't someone embraced by conervatives, that's for sure. And he's closer to Malcolm X than Jerry Falwell.

    What bothers me, John, is why is it so hard for people to see that indepedent, reasoned, secular, skeptical thought is so important? Why are we so satisfied with being a world of dumbasses? Because the pride of each generation that being a dumbass doesn't matter is constantly putting up roadblocks for the next generation, that's why.

    We do get better. We do make progress. We do have more people with more education, today, than any time in our history. We do have more opportunity than any time in our history.

    But that is definitely not because people were forced to do it, that's for damned sure. You ever seen people who are in school because they're forced to? I do. Every day of my life. And if you aren't convinced, yet, that forcing people to take education seriously is not a winning idea, I suggest people work with some of these kids for about a day.

    I think people could learn to take such ideas more seriously. I was feeling cynical, yesterday, John, because I'm tired of pretending that that can happen in an institution that tries to force people to do so. There's a reason that Martin Luther left the Catholic Church when they operated more in that way. And it wasn't because their doughnuts sucked. There's a reason why the whole fuckin' history of liberal democracies is to move away from that shit. And it's not because the water is warmer on this side of liberal democracy. It's because force is the heart of the problem for liberal democracies, not some kind of solution, for God's sakes. It's just that we're like every other generation, stubborn and stupid and constantly romanticizing our beliefs like they mean more than they do because we think it insulates us against an uncertain world that doesn't offer such easy, safe answers as we would like it to divine for us.

    What bothers me, John, is that our whole fuckin' history points us in a clearer direction and well all just collectively say, "I'm too scared. Let's go back." Like it actually offers us anything.

    That's why concerns me about Hagee and Wright. They both represent that impulse by people. And I, personally, could never ever be a part of a church where the spiritual leader thinks like that. In it's more extreme forms, it is the source for religious extremism and terrorism.

    And it all boils down to the same instinct: in the face of a world that seems unclean, I must clean it with my sanctimonious efforts to control it and force it to do so. And what Wright should demonstrate more clearly to secular liberals is that that tendency has always been true of the left as much as the right and neither has either a monopoly on wisdom or on folly.

    There are just better ideas and worse ideas.

    And if this campaign can't get focussed on better ideas and stays mired in our worst impulses, I think I'm gonna slit my wrists. Because all of the focus on our worst impulses is all about getting power. The power, these assholes rationalize, is designed to eradicate all those worst impulses. Does it ever work? Obviously fuckin' not if you look squarely at the situation with any level of honest and thought. But people keep doing it. Because it's easier than thinking.

    The reason why I want to go into the market, John, is because I can let all such assholes reason however badly they want to and they have marginal effect on my day-to-day existence. Reason is given the breathing space to win out, more, in the market. But in any political system, like public education, people can constantly use power to circumvent reason. And it makes reasonable efforts somewhat futile.

    Ironically, that is, to some degree, what my radical, postmodernist advisor argued about my field. He identified many of the right problems and basically came to the conclusion that there was nothing that could be done (which is really kind of stupid, really; if your problem involves stupid choices by human beings, you can't change all their choices but you can certainly change some of their choices, why else you would fuckin' teach?)

    The problem is not that there is no solution. The problem is the power and how people romanticize it and overlook all of the ways that it impedes and undermines solutions rather than facilitating them. The market allows more room to do so because it's freer.

    I just want to get out from under a system where people just can't get that straight if it fuckin' fell on their fuckin' heads.

    If people are going to be stubborn and stupid and not give me any other options, leaving is not selling out. Leaving is a more rationale choice until they can get their shit straight. And the only way to get this system straight is to decentralize it and allow more freedom and choice for everyone involved. Everything else is bullshit. Leftists just can't get over that their government utopias were just utopias and didn't offer the solutions they thought they offered.

    I don't know why people so perpetually get fucked up on this question of power and doing good in the world. I suppose because we confuse good intentions with doing real good and offering more substantial value to peoples' lives, I guess.

    All I know is that it does reflect something we should be concerned about in these two candidates, I think. They're just the best options for now, I suppose. But, longterm, we need to expect leaders of liberal democracies to be more genuinely liberal and to take the freedom that is the basis for strength in our cultures as seriously as it deserves and the thinking and values it supports more seriously as well.

    Anon is wrong to suggest that Hillary is a better option. She's not. She's more Wright than Obama, and that's the problem. That kind of radical posturing needs to be called out for what it is: useless and hateful sanctimony. And I certainly don't want it in my President, nevertheless in his preacher.

  7. "Reducing Obama's involvement with Trinity United to the political comments of Jeremiah Wright seems a wee bit superficial to me. That's particularly true when one understands Barack Obama's approach to faith, which may be quite different than the perspectives held by many others."

    That is also true, I think, John, and should offer us some perspective on both Obama and McCain and these respective stories.

  8. I'm think what I'm getting figured out, John, is that most people, I think, have more hate in their hearts, than I do.

    I hated people controlling me in school, too - which is the source of most of my kids' anger and frustration, I think - but I forgave it all the time because my education was more important than any petty feeling I might have towards schools or teachers.

    And the only time when it finally poisoned that relationship in a serious way where I wanted to leave was when that control got rationalized as the central focus of my teachers' efforts. It's so bizarre and ironic for me to see liberal insitutions and people who call themselves liberal rationalize, en masse, such clearly illiberal impulses. But that's what finally did it for me, and so I left.

    My kids, I realize, aren't willing to offer that kind of grace to schools and teachers. They just hate being forced to be here. And they behave in every way to make that clear to teachers. But because teachers cannot even conceive that controlling people, even young people, might be a problem, they can't even imagine that kids might have such feelings and that they might be feelings and attitudes they choose rather than functions of some involuntary disability or mental illness. Hate is definitely irrational and very bad for mental health, I completely concede. It's just that so is control. That's why we call it a control issue in mental health circles. Because it circumvents peoples' need for self-determined lives. That's why there's a political focus to that part of my work. Because there must be some outer limit to that that doesn't allow people to hurt each other physically or kill each other or whatnot with impugnity.

    Most people, even people who say they take Jesus seriously - whose central message and an idea that changed the Western world and had become the most powerful idea in Rome 100 years after his death - was one of love and compassion and forgiveness. I always wondered why so many churches and religious people had such a hard time facing that fact of his legacy. But now I understand it better. Because most people are kind of hateful, even as they may talk a good line about Jesus and love and compassion and all kinds of shit that they only half believe in.

    And that, as much as anything else, is probably what fucks up so much of our lives and has our families in such disarray. We know it's bad for us. We just do it anyway. Because we can't find it in ourselves to give it up.

    It's kind of sad and bullshit. And the more I think about the more sad and bullshit it seems.

    And the only way through it is if we face that bullshit more honestly. Politics, I guess, for all of its faults, allows us to do that more honestly than church might. Politics is all of our ugliness out in the open, rather than the romanticized version of ourselves that religious leaders offered humanity most of its history.

    This is the reason it took so long for us to make the shift. Why, we've got to ask ourselves, did it take millions of years before we figured out that freedom and liberal democracy offered us a way foward - enlightenment from the darkness - and why do we constantly get tripped up on that journey? And the answer, maybe, is that without a more open, honest reflection of who we really were and people to point it out, the more we could pretend that we were better than we really were. It's only in hindsight, after many people to make clearer to us just what assholes we were that we can see it more clearly.

    And the hubris of the current political moment is that we think that somehow we've escaped that historical trend. Somehow we thought that we had finally arrived and figured out how to circumvent that whole process with enough force and rule of law.

    Good luck with that, I say. But, really, it's just more of the same.

    There's a way out. But it's found in our more genuine liberal impulses and not this bullshit that we've been rationalizing and settling for. It's not found in the Reverend Wrights or Hagees of the world, but it's also not found in the Hillary Clintons and only marginally found in the Obamas and McCains of the world. Their both smart guys, they just haven't figured this one out, yet.

    Because this problem is a matter of the heart as much as a matter of the mind. And somehow we've got to get that figured out.

    All I know is that I need a beer. I've got a date to do some writing, tonight, John, with a friend of mine - we're working on a play/screenplay - which you are totally welcome to join, if you want. We'll probably just end up watching a movie. But I've got a little less than a 12 pack of some cheap beer if you want to hang out, at some point, this weekend.

    I'll talk with you later, bud.

  9. Muslims Against Sharia call on Senators McCain and Obama to cut all ties with their racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic supporters.