Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Faith, Race, and Barack Obama

OK, so let's for the sake of argument assume the worst case scenario. Somewhere a witness or, worse yet, a film clip exists verifying Barack Obama's presence in church at the moment his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, said something controversial and angry. Maybe even something along the lines of "God damn America".

Obviously, this would be devastating to Obama's campaign for president. It might even constitute a death blow. Indeed, the fact that this story has dominated the cable shows for nearly a week has already damaged the senator badly (Obama must wish that Eliot Spitzer had decided to tough it out for a while, rather than resigning immediately). The fallout from his former minister's remarks has been so great that Obama has been forced to schedule a speech today to address the one issue he had hoped to avoid: race in America.

But leaving aside the political consequences, consider what this incident says about Barack Obama the man. The answer, of course, is nothing, or at least nothing bad. Rather, it means that the senator is like a few million other Americans who regularly attend Sunday services and maintain their affiliations despite finding some of their preacher's words to be shocking, disappointing, or irritating.

Imagine that you are the Obamas and that Jeremiah Wright is that man who married you, who baptized your children, and who made the gospel relevant to your lives. Week after week, he inspires you with the teachings of Jesus Christ, emphasizing peace, brotherhood, and forgiveness. Once in a while, however, a brief streak of anger shows, and Wright's disappointment with how the United States has conducted itself spills over into his sermons.

Do you really get up and walk out? Even if you are deeply offended by Reverend Wright's suggestion that God condemns America for its treatment of African Americans (which is, after all, what "damn" means in this context), do you actually break your ties with a community of faith that has sustained you through some of the most difficult times of your life? Or do you shake your head, grit your teeth, and wait for your pastor to return to his day job, understanding that these sorts of diversions, however unsavory, are generally rare?

The notion that one's church can be changed as quickly and effortlessly as a pair of socks is contrary to everything we know about faith and worship. Indeed, the fact that Obama stayed with his church, even knowing how Reverend Wright's words might someday help derail his political ambitions, suggests that the senator's religious devotion is real and not just some convenient political accessory meant to appeal to the faithful. For a man whose authenticity often comes into question, Obama's stubborn unwillingness to abandon his house of worship provides testimony that he is more than just the sum of his ambitions.

There is a larger truth here, too, though it is probably one that Senator Obama, the candidate who supposedly transcends race, cannot tell us. Reverend Wright is in his seventies, meaning that he spent his formative years in the 1940s and 1950s, a time in which African Americans were subject to regular indignities and constant insulting reminders of their second class citizenship. Violence against black men and women was an all-too-common feature of life in many parts of the country, and juries routinely allowed white perpetrators to get away with their crimes. Even a man of God remains a human being, and few could endure such an experience without at least some residual bitterness. And if some of that bitterness occasionally bubbled to the surface during a Sunday sermon, his parishioners, including Obama, no doubt knew how to place it in the proper context and ignore it.

Other Americans, including political candidates, do this all the time without public awareness or condemnation. Many Catholics defy their Pope, practicing birth control and supporting the U.S. war with Iraq. Some protestants attend churches in which homosexuality is condemned as an unforgivable sin, then return home to provide aid and comfort to their gay and lesbian friends. Jeremiah Wright is hardly the only preacher in America ever to have uttered offensive words in a sermon without seeing his flock bolt en masse for the door.

Several weeks ago, John McCain's 95-year old mother made some statements that revealed a clear prejudice against Mormons. The story made the news, of course, but nobody expected McCain to renounce his mother and cut her out of his life. For years, people of faith have insisted that their churches and ministers are part of their spiritual family. If they really mean that—and I think most of them do—then expecting Barack Obama to walk out on Reverend Wright would be little different that asking John McCain to cut ties with his own mother.

The comments made by Jeremiah Wright may well doom Senator Obama's presidential candidacy. But if they do, then the people who caused this to happen—his political opponents, the usual media gasbags, and, indeed, all Americans who turned against him on this basis—should no longer speak about the depth and centrality of faith in their own lives. Not after telling Barack Obama that he is somehow obligated to leave his own church home of twenty years over some gratuitous and offensive expressions of bitterness by an imperfect man of God.

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