Ron Paul received a campaign contribution from a neo-Nazi. Mike Huckabee made a public visit to the church of evangelical pastor John Hagee, known for his anti-Catholicism. After Huckabee freed himself of the mess, John McCain landed in it with Hagee’s endorsement. Now, Barack Obama is struggling to do damage control following his decades-long association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has made any number of controversial and inflammatory statements from the pulpit.
As I watch the coverage of all these entanglements come rolling in, I can’t help but wonder, So what? Ours is a nation that grows increasingly pluralistic as more world religions find their way here through massive immigration. We are obsessed with diversity — of ethnicity, lifestyle, and opinion. We parade the freedom of speech around like it’s going out of style. For a presidential candidate to try to cobble together a majority vote in America, he must court and cater to an ever more disparate audience. How can a candidate build a support base without offending one group by embracing another?
Obama attended Wright’s church for 20 years, and for those of us who have heard or read what Wright had to say, this is an obvious source of concern. What we don’t have, however, is 20 years of video or audio from Wright. The clips that we have, while featuring race-baiting, inflammatory rhetoric, crass references, and bizarre insinuations, do not give us any sense of proportion. We simply have no context to tell us how often Wright said these things. Was it only during these recorded incidents, or was it more frequent? I also wonder how different Wright’s preaching is in this regard from what one would find in any other predominantly black, urban church. Isn’t his style compatible with the sort of racial propaganda that keeps Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in positions of leadership within the black community?
Wright’s rantings are not reflective of Obama’s views on anything. Why did he stay in the church? Because he’s a black Chicago politician who comes from a mixed marriage and went to Columbia and Harvard. Suspected of not being black enough or sufficiently tied to the minority community, he needed the networking opportunities Wright afforded him in his church to get elected. If he had not risen to the top of Chicago black politics, we would never have heard of him. But obviously, he can’t say that. So what should he say?
He needs to get out of this mess with subtlety, the kind Bill Clinton should have used to escape the Monica Lewinsky scandal — but didn’t. As the controversy continues, Americans will gradually realize that Obama stuck by Wright as part of a need to get ahead. They will chalk up to pragmatism why he was so close to such a preacher. As they come to realize that Obama doesn’t agree with Wright but used him to get started, they will be more forgiving.
Morris says that Obama needs to distance himself from Wright — and, of course, this is the politically expedient thing to do. Obama himself, it’s worth noting, gives no indication through his actions or speeches that he agrees with Wright’s more outrageous comments. In his speech given on March 18, “A More Perfect Union,” Obama went so far as to condemn those egregious comments of Wright which have been played over and over again for us to hear. I find no reason to doubt Obama’s sincerity. Neither do I agree with Morris’s cynicism that it was necessarily opportunism that led Obama to join the church in the first place.
In a country where our first and only Catholic president believed that the separation of Church and State was “absolute,” and that his faith would not form his public policy, is it really shocking that Obama would, over the course of time he spent in the church of Reverend Wright, simply shrug off whatever he disagreed with as irrelevant?
We are cafeteria religionists in America. Politicians make their careers out of carefully balancing unholy alliances. If Obama’s policies weren’t already so manifestly wrong and his candidacy so obviously one that orthodox Christian Americans cannot support, there might be some merit to the level of scrutiny that this incident has drummed up. On the other hand, I’m not at all convinced that the increasingly popular tactic of guilt-by-association has any merit beyond the emotional response it so easily brings.