Thursday, May 1, 2008

It's Not Race, Nor Religion, It's Politics.

I would think that any longtime church-goer would be rattled by the notion that he or she might be called to account for some nutty thing the pastor might have said from the pulpit some Sunday. Have you ever listened to a sermon and thought, "gee, I hope no one thinks I believe what he just said just because I'm sitting here." If you go to church, has such a thought ever crossed your mind? Exactly! It didn't cross Obama's mind either.

My golly, some of the things Monsignor Hebbler used to say about Protestants. I didn't understand a lot of them, but I'm sure they wouldn't look good on YouTube.

For that matter, if you go to church, can you remember what was taught last week? The week before? Especially when the sermon gets symbolic, how closely do you really pay attention?

None of this is racial. It has nothing to do with the Black Church or Liberation Theology. It's politics. It's what has been dubbed the politics of personal destruction. It is one of the practices Obama decries. The particular variety at work here is guilt by association. The trick is to concentrate all attention on the nefarious traits of the associate, not on the nature of the association. Explanations of the nature of the relationship are irrelevant. The inference, accepted as fact, is that knowing all about this bad other person tells us something crucial about the principal, in this case, Senator Obama, when in fact it may tell us nothing at all.

In 1995, I attended a law school class in which Bernardine Dohrn was a guest speaker. Does that mean I endorse everything she said that day? Does it mean I endorse everything she has ever said and done? How does that differ from what is being attempted with Obama? I say "being attempted" because I don't think it's changing any minds. The people stoking these fires oppose him for other reasons. Like I said, it's just politics.

And, as politics, it smacks of desperation. Is that all you've got? A nutty old preacher and two aging student radicals from 40 years ago? Please, here's a free one. Go back to Rezko. That's the interesting story. Of course, that's also a story of high-level bi-partisan looting of the public treasury. Why would we want to pay attention to that?

Remember 7th grade civics? That's the last time I believed that the way people ran for office was they stood up, gave a true account of what they believed and what they intended to do if elected, and then the voters chose the person whose ideas and proposals appealed to them the most. Obama seems to be doing exactly that. I say "seems" because I haven't consumed all of the Kool Aid yet, but what would be so bad about having a president who is young, idealistic, smart, sensible, articulate, well-educated, thoughtful, handsome, a good dancer, and not from privilege but from a modest and very diverse background?

Calling one of today's few major national political figures who is not from privilege an out-of-touch elitist is politics. Also irony and, quite possibly, parody.

But back to Jeremiah Wright. It is in the nature of symbolic speech for individuals to read it differently. You read the American flag one way, someone else reads it a different way. When you condemn that person, what are you really condemning them for? Not thinking like you? How has their different reading harmed you? Or has it benefited you by showing you a way to read the symbol that you hadn't considered, a way you may ultimately reject, but how has being exposed to another person's thought process, maybe part of that person's experience, an experience that is different from your own, harmed you?

By the same token, the meaning you attach to the words "God damn America" is personal. It may not be the meaning another person takes away or what the speaker intended. As I interpret it, all Wright was saying, in the context of a teaching and pastoring address to a voluntary audience, was that God may, in fact, have a harsher judgment in mind for America's behavior than a blessing.

Pat Robertson, among others, has expressed similar sentiments, that America deserves to be punished, not praised, for some of its actions. He would cite different reasons than Wright does, but it's the same idea. "Don't be so proud of yourself, America; you ain't all that."

I'm not saying I agree with the sentiment, I'm just asking what is so shocking or damning or dangerous about it, especially if all the real target of this did was sit in the room with a lot of other people while it was being said?


Ethan Prater said...


I generally agree with your sentiment. Because my barber shares a political belief with me, does that mean I must share it? What about the clerk at KMart?

But I think where people are hung up on the Wright stuff is that Obama didn't passively sit in the congregation and listen. He integrated Wright more deeply into his life, as a personal friend, officiant to his marriage, and baptizer of and mentor to his children. Starts to skirt the line - if Obama found Wright's beliefs so repulsive, would Obama have engaged as deeply and personally with him?

Regardless, while Wright's beliefs certainly seem to me like those of an angry wack-job, I don't think it's reasonable to assume Obama shares them or has some sort of secret policy agenda based on them.

But it's a bit disingenuous to characterize Obama's relationship to Wright as someone who just showed up and listened at church every so often - it was much closer than that.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Agreed. So let's look at it from another angle. I always enjoyed listening to William F. Buckley Jr., even though I rarely agreed with him. During this political season I have enjoyed Pat Buchanan's commentary because his analysis is usually sound, but he can also say things that infuriate me. In my personal life, I can think of people I know, people you might even say that I'm "close to," but I wouldn't want anyone to believe I share that person's political beliefs. Senator Obama has been clear about where he parts company with Reverend Wright, so what's the problem? Is the concern that he secretly agrees with the pastor?