Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday in Philadelphia was eloquently written, and at times moving. It is getting rave press reviews and may put away the Rev. Wright controversy for the duration of the Democratic primaries. But it should be noted that Obama deployed his formidable talents to try to minimize and excuse Rev. Wright’s rants.
At least the Illinois senator was more candid than he had previously been about what he heard from Rev. Wright in the pews: He mentioned that he had heard “remarks that could be considered controversial” and that he “strongly disagree[d] with many of his political views.” As soon as these words were uttered, though, the minimization began: “I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”
Perhaps. But not many of us have heard our religious leaders ask the congregation to pray for God to “damn America.” So Obama then tried to draw a distinction between Wright’s videotaped rants and his typical preaching (which could merely “be considered controversial”). Those rants, he said, “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”
But that distorted view of the country is at the heart of Wright’s “black-liberation theology”; it is one of the foundations of his ministry. For Obama to pretend his videotaped statements were an aberration is a dishonest evasion.
That was not the only slippery portion of the speech. Obama repeatedly compared Rev. Wright to Geraldine Ferraro, who recently made an essentially true but poorly formulated remark about how Obama’s race has helped his candidacy. For that, she is the moral equivalent of a man who preached that the 9/11 attacks were “chickens coming home to roost”? We would have thought Obama was above this.
Obama wanted to steer the conversation toward race, or toward a generation gap among blacks. But the Rev. Wright controversy is not really about either of those things. Anyone can see on the Wright tapes that members of congregation of all ages applauded his venom. Wright’s hatefulness and anti-Americanism are not justified by America’s past racial sins. Surely, there are plenty of black pastors in the country who have suffered more than Wright but do not let a left-wing racialist ideology taint the Christian message of love and mercy. Obama says of Wright, “I can no more disown him that I can disown the black community.” Obama’s premise here is Wright’s racialism: Instead of judging the man on his own merits, he has him stand in for all blacks.
At first in his speech Obama said “race is an issue I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” Later, he suggested we need to get beyond race to focus on America’s “crumbling schools” and “shuttered mills.” Whichever it is, the answer is — as always — Obama in all his gloriousness. He embodies a successful grappling with race issues, or a complete transcending of them, or whatever political quality (change, hope, etc.) he is talking about at a given moment. It’s a presidential campaign as solipsism.
Obama likely stayed at his church out of a mix of motives: out of gratitude to Rev. Wright for bringing him to Christ, perhaps; out of respect for the church’s charitable work; out of the sense of belonging he got from its community; or — more cynically — out of ambition, knowing the credibility it gave him as an aspiring politician. Nothing he has said in the campaign indicates he agrees with Rev. Wright’s outrageous views. But his long association with the pastor has raised questions about the qualities on which his campaign has thrived: his soothing transcendence of race, his judgment (which is supposed to make up for his lack of experience), his honesty.
Obama’s speech may quiet those questions in the near term. But they will continue to fester, and inevitably be revisited in a general election.