Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Wright Stuff

THE WRIGHT STUFF ...Sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, otherwise known as Barack Obama's pastor, are circulating wildly around the internet the last 24 hours. They show Wright passionately denouncing racism against blacks in America, in sometimes sharp language, and pointing out the ills of American foreign policy pre-9/11. Fox News and the right-wing blogosphere are outraged, the mainstream media is eagerly amplifying the selected sermons and the Clinton campaign is delighting that Obama's Chicago ties are receiving serious scrutiny.

Before delving into the specifics, there's a bit of irony here. Democrats have been told over and over that they need to get religion. And then when a candidate like Obama comes around--who regularly attends church and speaks about his faith in an inclusive, authentic way--he's attacked for which church he attends. It's a lose-lose situation! Before the primary Obama was accused of not being black enough. Now he's too black. To the right-wing and much of the media, Rev. Wright is just the latest evidence of Obama's radical black nationalist past. (See my latest Nation article, "Smearing Obama," for an anatomy of the smear campaign hatched against Obama.)

Wright has always been an outspoken maverick and some of his words will likely turn some voters off, although these are probably people who would never vote for a Democrat anyway. You'd expect that, in the heat of an election, he'd be a little bit more tactful about what he says, though he did retire last month. Yes, Obama borrowed the title of one of Wright's sermons, "The Audacity of Hope," for his most recent book. But Wright's words, by and large, are not Obama's.

Their connection is a personal one, not political.

And, by the way, how come righteous Republicans are rarely asked about the views of their spiritual advisers? Or why wasn't George W. Bush (and the presidents preceding him) forced to distance himself from the anti-semitic comments of Billy Graham?

Over at TPM Cafe, MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum makes a great point about the separation that should exist between congregation and congregant:

I've been a member of a conservative Jewish congregation for 25 years. I love the rabbi but not his sermons on Israel and the Palestinians. He is a total Israel hawk. To put it mildly, I am not. I am all about the two-state solution (the so-called Clinton plan).

Even worse, the congregation has become the favorite of Washington's neocons including the worst warmonger of all: Douglas Feith. The idea of communing with God together with a thug like Feith is sickening to me. Then there is Charles Krauthammer who, in 2001, disrupted Yom Kippur services by bellowing at the rabbi for expressing, in the most general terms, the desire for Middle East peace. The worst moment I've ever had at my congregation was when a visiting rabbi from Europe (he comes every year for the High Holy Days) devoted an entire sermon to the value of hate. "To everything there is a season. This is a season for hate." He was talking about the Palestinians. I almost puked.

And yet I am a member of this congregation and will remain one. Why? As I said, I like the rabbi (the regular one, not the annual visitor) despite disagreeing strongly with many of his views. More important, this is the congregation that my kids grew up in. This is where their Bar Mitzvahs took place. The people there (not the war criminals though) are kind of like family. It's home. Probably how Obama feels about his church.

The bottom line is that I am not discredited as a strong supporter of a Palestinian state and the end of the occupation because my rabbi has a different view. Pro-peace Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs do not refuse to work with me because I go to the "neocon" synagogue. My writings on Israel/Palestine are not disregarded because my rabbi is a Likud guy.

Of course, not. My rabbi's views are his views. He is my spiritual adviser not my political adviser.

What Wright is saying, moreover, is not particularly radical. The legacy of racism in America--and its existence today--can't simply be ignored or washed away. As one of Wright's church members says of his sermons near the end of a highly skewed ABC News "investigation" into Obama's Chicago church, "I wouldn't call it radical. I'd call it being black in America." Amen.

Posted by Ari Berman at 03/14/2008 @ 2:45pm Email This Post

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