Politics & Policy

The Wright Stand

Judgment, character and Barack Obama.

Several years ago my wife and children attended a Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C. We liked and respected the senior pastor, we had close friends in the congregation, and we felt spiritually nourished by the congregants and the worship. Two of our children were baptized there.

Not long after the attacks of September 11, my wife and I heard two different visitors — one in remarks during a church service, the other while teaching an adult Sunday-school class — that were derogatory of and inflammatory toward Israel.

Upon hearing the words of these two people — which I found both shocking and disquieting — I immediately raised concerns with the senior pastor. He tried to reassure me and then put me in touch with an associate pastor who was in charge of a ministry to Palestinian Christians (one I had been previously unaware of). I engaged in conversations and written correspondence with the associate pastor and the head of the board of elders over this issue; in the process, I discovered that our church hosted an annual conference which featured only speakers who were highly critical of the state of Israel. For the first time it became clear to me that the church we attended was deeply biased against the Jewish state. When what we deemed to be adequate counter steps were not taken, we left the church, in good measure because of this matter and how it was handled.

I thought of this episode in our lives in the aftermath of learning about the bigoted and vicious anti-American statements by Barack Obama’s pastor, friend, and spiritual adviser, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. of United Trinity Church of Christ.

I don’t for a moment believe that Senator Obama shares Wright’s manifold and manifest hatreds. What bothers me — particularly as one who has had good things to say about Obama in the past — is why Obama apparently never raised any concerns with Wright about his rhetoric or the black liberation theology being practiced at United Trinity. This was the obvious and appropriate thing to do.

Reverend Wright clearly preaches from a particular cast of mind, one with which Obama was surely familiar. If Obama isn’t willing to voice his concerns and objections with Wright and stand up for his country as it is being slandered by his pastor, what can we expect from Obama when he is asked to stand up against some of the world’s worst dictators?

The options aren’t particularly good for Senator Obama. He either agreed with the views and core beliefs of Reverend Wright, which would essentially disqualify him as a serious candidate for the presidency; or he didn’t agree with Wright but for decades sat passively by and accepted Wright’s teaching and rants. Didn’t Obama consider, even once, pulling Wright aside and pointing out — as any true friend would, in a civil but forceful way — that hailstones of hate simply have no place in a church and that the “social gospel” is not synonymous with preaching bigotry and anti-Americanism?

Beyond that, Senator Obama’s speech on Tuesday, for all the praise it has garnered in many quarters, created additional doubts about Obama’s candor and his willingness to speak up and speak out against a charismatic, forceful, and pernicious figure.

ABC News reports that earlier this month Obama, at a community meeting in Nelsonville, Ohio, said, “I don’t think my church is actually particularly controversial.” Obama went on to say, “[Wright] has said some things that are considered controversial because he’s considered that part of his social gospel; so he was one of the leaders in calling for divestment from South Africa and some other issues like that.”

Last Friday, as Senator Obama was making the round on cable TV trying to explain Wright’s remarks that were being replayed over and over again, Obama indicated that he had never heard his pastor of 20 years make any comments that were anti-American until last week. But in his Philadelphia speech two days ago, Senator Obama seemed to change his explanation:

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country.

This is where things begin to get sticky for Obama. In half-a-month we’ve gone from Wright and his church being essentially non-controversial; to Obama implying that the venomous statements by Wright came as news to him; to admitting that he was in the pews when Wright spoke as a “an occasionally fierce critic” of American domestic and foreign policy. Those remarks were so fierce that even Obama, himself an orthodox liberal who has scorched the Bush administration, was clearly made uncomfortable by what Wright said.

It also begs the question: What exactly did Wright say that Obama strongly disagreed with? Was Wright in fact presenting a “profoundly distorted view of this country”? The odds are a good deal better than even that he was. But Obama has yet to answer those questions — and he probably won’t, at least with any specificity, unless he’s forced to do so. This story, which seemingly changes in every re-telling, is beginning to resemble nothing so much as Bill Clinton’s evolving explanation about his draft notice. It was then that most of America was introduced to “Slick Willie.”

Senator Obama’s speech on Tuesday was a brilliant effort to deflect attention away from what remains the core issue: what did Obama hear, when did he hear it, and what did he do about it? The answers, as best we can tell at this stage, is that Obama heard some very harsh things said from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ; that Obama heard them said a long time ago and probably repeatedly; and that he did little or nothing about it. This from a man who tells us at almost every stop along the campaign trail that he has the “judgment to lead.”

One always wants to be careful about making sweeping conclusions about any individual, particularly one as interesting and compelling as Senator Obama. All of us, in replaying our lives, would change certain things. We would all hope to show more integrity, more courage, more honor. Nevertheless, in a presidential campaign we have to judge based on the available evidence. And given his deep and long-standing association with Reverend Wright, it is fair to ask whether Senator Obama — a gifted writer and speaker and a man of obvious intelligence and appeal — has the appropriate judgment and character to lead this nation. Spending 20 years at Trinity United Church of Christ under the leadership of Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about Barack Obama — but it may well tell us enough.

— Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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