US elections 2008: As Obama must address the controversial remarks made by the former pastor of his Chicago church, Jeremiah Wright
Wright, who just retired (not a moment too soon!) as pastor of Obama's Chicago church, is, there isn't much doubt, something of a black nationalist-radical. He says all the things you'd expect from such a worldview, on American sin and guilt, white crimes, Israel and so on. In an unusually nimble, if that's the right word, trifecta, he visited Libya and Muammar Gadafy with Louis Farrakhan back in the 1980s, thus efficiently combining a rogue state, a terrorist supporter (in those days) and a raging antisemite into a mere one week's work.
Video footage of some of Wright's sermons have just started surfacing on YouTube. His church, having clearly decided that its financial fortunes are worth a few blots on the escutcheon of its most famous parishioner, has begun selling videos of Wright's sermons. The Clinton oppo people, usually a seemingly overtaxed lot, evidently didn't have to lift a finger.
Wright's single most incendiary remark, at least among those so far revealed, was delivered from the pulpit - did I mention, too, his showman's sense of timing? - the first Sunday after September 11:
"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and the black South Africans, and now we are indignant. Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yard. America's chickens are coming home to roost."
We can debate the factual merits of Wright's arguments, but let's leave all that aside. The issue here is the political problem this represents for Obama, which should be obvious enough.
Obama says he didn't attend church that day (a demerit in the eyes of some in and of itself, I suppose) and so did not hear the offending words. This takes off the table the question of whether the candidate should have stalked out and risen to challenge the thunderous orator, assuming no other parishioner comes forward and suddenly remembers that Obama was indeed there.
His initial responses to questions about Wright have not been forceful or thorough enough. Wright married Barack and Michele Obama and baptised their two daughters. He has to do more to explain why he wanted his children baptised by this man.
In my years covering New York politics, I got to know black radical preachers and others. I've sat in numerous pews at black churches and heard, several times, words that would shock your average white American, words met with cheers and whoops and hollers.
These experiences taught me to think of the black church as a kind of release valve for African-Americans. During the rest of the week, they're in white America, and they have to behave according to our rules. Above all or at least most else, they can't seem like angry black people and expect to get job promotions and so forth. But if you're black, you must have some degree of anger about life in the United States, and it has to get out somewhere. I've always felt the churches played that role.
I should hasten to add that that isn't the only or even the major role black churches play in parishioners' lives. The sweet, begloved and behatted old ladies I've met at black churches are just like the sweet, begloved and behatted old ladies at the Episcopal church of my youth, and gorgeous little children marched off to Sunday school just as the less-than-gorgeous I once did. So black churches play the normal role that all churches play, and of course a very constructive social-justice role.
We know, from Obama's own testimony from his first book - written, remember, before he was in politics - that it was the more positive social-justice element of Wright's teachings that first attracted him. Obama writes in Dreams From My Father that Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, had just died.
Obama, like all of black Chicago and a good chunk of white and brown Chicago, was prostrate in remorse. He attended Wright's church, just sort of wandering in as he tells it, and Wright that Sunday delivered a sermon urging his parishioners not to be sad but to celebrate Washington's life and carry on his work. The sermon was called The Audacity of Hope, which of course is the title of Obama's more recent (and more political) book. So Wright made Obama a church-going man, and Obama has stayed loyal.
From what we know about Obama, which by now is a lot, it seems pretty clear that he doesn't have a hating bone in his body. And we should remember that we're basically dealing with a number of quotes that, compared to the number of sentences Wright has written and spoken in a 40-year career, probably amount to a small percentage of the total output. So it may be that Wright preached affirmatively the majority of the time, and in a hateful way from time to time, and to Obama it was a case of, "Oh, it's one of those weeks again, is it? All right, get it over with."
But that is not the impression white Americans will get from the 9/11 sermon video, in which parishioners are cheering Wright's words. Having attended maybe 25, 30 or so black church services as a political reporter, I think I have some understanding (I'm not claiming expertise, just some understanding) of what it's like and why views like Wright's controversial ones get aired.
But your average white American will not understand this at all. The image projected by the Wright of these videos is completely at odds with the image Obama puts forward of himself. Voters' confusion in the face of that contradiction is completely fair game, and Obama must address it more convincingly than he has. I expect that sooner or later, he'll have no choice.
Update: Shortly after this article appeared online, Obama published a piece in the Huffington Post responding to Wright's comments and explaining in more detail his relationship to his former pastor. You can read it here.
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