Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Different Visions of Rev. Wright

The New Republic attempts to explain what might have attracted Obama to Rev. Wright. Presenting a passage from David Mendell's biography of Obama,
Wright remains a maverick among Chicago's vast assortment of black preachers. He will question Scripture when he feels it forsakes common sense; he is an ardent foe of mandatory school prayer; and he is a staunch advocate for homosexual rights, which is almost unheard-of among African-American ministers. Gay and lesbian couples, with hands clasped, can be spotted in Trinity's pews each Sunday. Even if some blacks consider Wright's church serving only the bourgeois set, his ministry attracts a broad cross section of Chicago's black community.

* * *

But more than that, Trinity's less doctrinal approach to the Bible intrigued and attracted Obama. "Faith to him is how he sees the human condition," Wright said. "Faith to him is not . . . litmus test, mouth-spouting, quoting Scripture. It's what you do with your life, how you live your life. That's far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says women shouldn't wear pants or if you drink, you're going to hell. That's just not who Barack is."
The article suggests,
So, if you buy Wright's account [as given to David Mendell] - and it rings pretty true to me - it was his intellectualism and social progressivism that won Obama over. Certainly it's hard to imagine that someone like Obama, who came from a progressive, secular background, would have felt genuinely comfortable in a socially conservative, anti-intellectual church. The problem for Obama is that the flip-side of these virtues was a minister with a radical worldview and a penchant for advertising it loudly.
That interpretation would help explain why Obama might accept Wright, warts and all, into his life. And why he would give Wright a chance to redeem himself, rather than issuing the renunciation some demanded from "day one" of this petty scandal.

The Washington Post in an unsigned editorial (and it seems almost cowardly to say this without attaching an author's name) opines:
We didn't join the renewed and growing chorus calling on Mr. Obama to renounce the Rev. Wright after the minister's all-about-me rant at the National Press Club on Monday, but the candidate's motivation is pretty obvious. The Rev. Wright praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, said it was plausible that AIDS was a genocidal tool of the U.S. government to kill African Americans and proclaimed that attacks on him were an attack on the black church. He also delivered a deliberate poke in the eye to his former parishioner, suggesting that Mr. Obama's conciliatory Philadelphia speech was nothing but politics. With each defiant utterance Monday, the Rev. Wright dug a deeper political hole for Mr. Obama.

Did Mr. Obama climb out of that hole yesterday? It seems to us that the whole sorry episode raises legitimate questions about his judgment.
You can't pat yourself on the back for supposedly not calling for further repudiation of Wright while insisting that Wright's comments raise questions about Obama's judgment - the two go hand-in-hand. Moreover, do try for some internal consistency. Yesterday's similarly unsigned editorial proclaimed,
None of this is helpful to Mr. Obama, who could face more calls not only to denounce such inflammatory comments but also to renounce his longtime pastor. We will not join in that chorus. In his address on race in Philadelphia last month after video of the Rev. Wright's fiery sermons burst onto the national scene, Mr. Obama condemned, "in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy." The candidate credibly explained how he could understand his minister's anger without sharing or approving of it. Having had a closer look at the Rev. Wright, voters will have to decide for themselves how much weight to give Mr. Obama's long association with the pastor. But it is the Rev. Wright, not Mr. Obama, who yesterday chose to further discredit himself.
So yesterday Obama had given a credible response to attacks over Wright, and today he has insufficiently responded to "legitimate questions about his judgment"?

The saddest part here is that Wright had a choice to make. He could have stepped up by presenting himself as a solid, Christian leader who had been misunderstood in one sermon. He could have engaged in a gentle dialog on race, discussed the difference in style between his style of preaching and the more restrained version many Americans are used to. He could have deflated the use of the out-of-context "G-D America" clip by Obama's opponents. But no, he instead chose to act the part of, in Jim Sleeper's words, a "wounded, raving, preening narcissist". It has to be painful to have your career reduced to a caricature, to have your good works ignored, and to have the Washington Post suggest that anybody who would voluntarily associate with you is unfit for national office. But Wright needs to take responsibility for the fact that he just made that pain a lot worse.


  1. 1. Wright said. "Faith to him is not . . . litmus test, mouth-spouting, quoting Scripture. It's what you do with your life, how you live your life. That's far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says women shouldn't wear pants or if you drink, you're going to hell. That's just not who Barack is."

    From the quote above, not only doesn’t Wright feel “bound by scripture” when it disagrees with his own world view, he doesn’t even feel “bound” to be accurate when he talks about scripture. To the best of my knowledge, there is not scriptural prohibition against pants or drinking . . .

    2. “The Washington Post in an unsigned editorial (and it seems almost cowardly to say this without attaching an author's name) . . . “ – Wrong, it isn’t almost cowardly. The very act of a newspaper, much less the Washington Post, publishing an unsigned editorial is not only cowardly, it is hypocrisy. Particularly when it makes personal attacks against a candidate . . .

    3. Without necessarily disagreeing with your assessment of Wright’s performance and motivation, what does the cheering response and unwavering support he continues to receive in certain quarters say about the state of the union?


  2. Yet there are people who contend that the scripture does contain a prohibition against women wearing pants. And historically there have been "temperance ministers" who preached against consumption of alcohol (although it's hard to see how that comes from a legitimate reading of the New Testament).

    I can see supporting Wright's right to defend his style of preaching, or to give context to the snippets of his sermons that his detractor like to present. But that's not what you're talking about and, in his most recent speech, is at best a tiny part of what he chose to do.

    If you want to understand why so many people will embrace leaders who teach and preach ideas and behavior that ranges from questionable to repugnant.... well, I am sorry, but I don't have an answer for you, other than suggesting, "That's the way our brains are wired". That seems to be something that all humans are at times inclined to do, and that pervades human history.

  3. The point I was trying to make wasn’t whether or not some hypocrites or morons made the arguments in the past. The point was that the Revered knew better when he used at best dubious (and since it’s a pretty safe bet that he knew when he chose them that they were dubious but would sound good one might argue that the examples were more than dubious . . . ) examples to support his argument.

    Given that no one (male or female) in the time frame in question was wearing pants, and that the passage in question doesn't refer to pants . . . and don't get me started on people who want to pretend that there isn't any wine being drunk in the bible, I stand by my point. I'm not disputing that people have made the arguments in question in the past, I'm pointing out that they were hypocrites for doing so as was the Reverend Wright when he chose examples that aren't supported by a literal reading of scripture (which is what he was railing against).

    He was either making a straw man argument, or he was lying to justify his decision to claim to be a religious leader while ignoring the portions of his “chosen” religious text that he didn’t like. If he wanted to pick a factually supported example he could have gone with usury or something. For that matter, if he wanted to make a point about how he “rises above the bible when he preaches” he could have used the passage you cite as an example of why despite scripture he supports the rights of cross-dressers and transvestites . . . but those examples wouldn’t have worked as well for “sound bites” to play to his audience, so he went with the less than honest examples that “played better.”

  4. First, some people do exactly what Wright described. Giving all due to the fact that Wright could also have said, "and those people are wrong on what the Bible says", doesn't his point nonetheless stand? Perhaps you have more information than I do about Wright, that might justify the inference that Wright believes the literal language of the bible forbids women from wearing pants or forbids Christians from drinking alcohol. But without that additional information, to me, he seems to be distinguishing what Obama actually does with religion from what certain other people actually seek to do.

    Wright's goal, to me, was to be to depict Obama as somebody who seeks to learn and grow from religion, as contrasted with people who instead derive a narrow worldview and seek to control others - and if that is the context, why should we be surprised that Wright would pick examples where the control freaks have weak support in the Bible? Had Wright thrown up strong examples of Biblical proscription, he would have made himself and Obama look absurd. ("That's far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says you shouldn't cheat on your wife, worship other gods, steal from your neighbor, or murder people.")

    David Broder offers something of a glimpse into how (the positive side of) Wright's theology may tie into Obama's approach to politics.

    "But he insisted that the preacher most Americans met through TV clips this past month was not the same man who brought him into Christianity 20 years ago. Voters who do not find that persuasive are not likely to accept Obama's current words as anything more than political positioning."

    I think Brock elides something important here, which is that our society seems to have a much easier time separating the man from the preacher when we're talking about a parishioner and his white, Christian preacher. (Race aside, the conflation would probably be much worse if we were talking about a Muslim candidate's relationship with his imam.)

    The media coverage of the Wright story seems to be feeding the perception that Obama and his preacher cannot be distinguished, but of course there's no reason for McCain - who knowingly and eagerly solicited Hagee's endorsement - to distance himself from the radical preaching of John Hagee.

  5. Possibly, or possibly Obama is paying the price for being in the lead and in the media's spotlight.


  6. There's an element of that, sure. But there's an element of this as well: We make broader generalities about people who are "not like us" than people who are "like us". The undercurrent of this "debate" as advanced by the Gerson/Krauthammer/Rove set, to me, seems to be "'We' can excuse McCain for sucking up to Hagee, or Reagan for sucking up to Falwell, because 'we' can associate with a 'radical preacher' while maintaining 'our' objectivity and independent views; but 'they' cannot."


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