The Barack Obama / Jeremiah Wright controversy's narrative is reaching its denoument for most of the world, although some of the more fearful and fear-mongering among us may continue to pound the story for a while longer.
Although the story isn't yet 100% complete, we can skip ahead just a few pages to study the lessons it teaches.
The Moral(s) to the Story
1. We don't understand religion in America very well.
The Unitarian and the evangelical Christian have very different views of what religion is all about. The Hassidic Jew and the cafeteria Catholic have very different outlooks on faith and membership to a religious group. Rod Parsley and anyone who embraces Islam are on very different wavelengths. You get the idea.
Unfortunately, a lot of the "Obama's militant preacher" crap is being offered with a certain perspective in mind. We hear from fundamentalist Christians who "can't understand" why a guy would stay in a church with a pastor "like that". We hear from more moderate, and predominantly protestant, voices who have a vision of what church membership means that probably doesn't mirror the way many people think. The outcome? The Wright stuff gets twisted into something it isn't, blown a little out of proportion, and still isn't treated seriously.
The religious perspective divide includes a black/white dimension, too. If you read anything more about Obama and Wright, check out these two articles. It may change your perspective on why Wright says the things he says, the context in which he says them, and why a parishioner might not consider them all that inflammatory.
Charles Coulter at the KC Star has a great piece on the topic. His little First Amendment argument at the beginning is silly, but the rest of the article is a great read. Here's an excerpt:
Rev. Wright has not said anything that has not been said or is not being said in bars, poolrooms, barber shops, hair salons or anywhere else more than three black people gather.
And don't fool yourself. It's not just the black urban poor, those without jobs, education or hope, who express these comments. Many members of the black middle class have the same sense of history; the same sense of anger.
Deborah Mathis at BlackAmericaWeb provides some interesting perspective, too. In part, she writes:
In a fair world, Obama would be able to elaborate about the black perspective and thereby give some context to Wright’s comments and the facts of black expression.
But, then, in a fair world, there would be no racial divide to bridge. Of course, Obama’s detractors would never consider that.
These two articles are the part of the Wright controversy you aren't hearing about from most news sources. Even if you don't agree with Coulter and Mathis, they're worth reading.
2. Race is still a big deal.
A few short weeks ago, it almost felt like the USA was proving that it had a great deal of progress in terms of race, racism and race relations. We had a black guy of mixed heritage leading in the polls and no one was saying anything about it.
Yeah, we obviously still had our issues with those of Latin origin and those darned Muslims, but it was starting to seem like we had that whole black/white thing resolved.
Not quite. The Wright thing is a HUGE reminder of the black/white divide. Not only are whites "not getting it" with respect to black churches, many people are expressing reactions that don't seem to understand the nation's racial history. You have those who foment racism without saying the "n word" pretending as if they're colorblind while they intentionally hit the right buttons to make white folk just a little bit nervous, if you know what I mean. Meanwhile, you have hypersensitive folk on the other side of the table finding racism where it probably doesn't even unintentionally exist.
Then you have the outright crazies, but that's another story. They're definitely out there, but I think their most influential days are long behind them. Nonetheless, they're stirring the shit pot so everyone can get a whiff.
We've got a long way to go when it comes to race. The Wright stuff proves it and you're gonna see a lot more of it in the coming months after Obama officially gets the nomination. I'm not just talking about McCain-backers coming down on Barack, either. This is going to cut both ways and no one is going to be able to pretend that we're running around inside the MLK dream.
3. Barack Obama isn't perfect.
I liked Obama's responses on the Wright question, for the most part. In fact, a lot of what he said wasn't much different than my own perspective on the matter. However, he did do one thing I didn't like. He acted like a pretty traditional politician.
First, he denounced all of Wright's "controversial" statements. That's a sensible thing to do when you're on a hot seat, but I don't think it's completely honest. Many of the "controversial" Wright statements aren't really, at their core, all that horrible. Sometimes, it's more about "how you say it" than it is about "what you say". Explaining the difference, however, isn't always politically feasible (or at least easy enough to justify when your objective is winning an election). I think Obama copped out a little bit in his across-the-board reaction to those who disagreed with Wright's sentiments.
Second, Obama parsed his language like a pro. He made sure we knew he wasn't in the pews when Wright was yelling "God damn America", but he sort of left some wiggle room when it came to the "did you know the guy said this sort of thing" question. That's because he probably DID know about Wright's more "radical" harangues but didn't want to concede it because of the nature of the media coverage. He probably felt it was too challenging to explain why those comments might not have been all that controversial within the walls of Trinity United.
So, he took the easy out: Repudiate while leaving room for interpretation. It's probably smart in some ways, but it's also very old school from a guy who's running on a "new politics".
Barack isn't perfect. Usually the recognition of massive personal imperfections comes long before anyone runs for the office. In Obama's case, however, it's hitting him late, so it feels like news. Me? I'm still backing the guy, though I wish he would have been willing to take the harder and more intellectually honest route on this one.
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