The Corner

The Old Uncle Problem

It is amazing how little Senator Obama has so far felt compelled to say about Rev. Wright, and how dismissive and basically silly what he has said has been. That Wright is “on the brink of retirement” as Obama said today (see Rich’s post below) hardly helps explain why the Obamas would for years sit through (and want their kids to listen to) some of the sermons we’ve now been hearing and seeing, and would have Wright marry them and baptize their children etc.

But by far the most absurd response has been the “crazy uncle” answer. Wright, Obama said, “is like an old uncle who says things I don’t always agree with.” But the key to the crazy uncle scenario is that you have no choice but to put up with him—he’s your uncle, so he has to be at family gatherings and you do too. None of us chooses our family, and the unchosen family sometimes comes with unavoidable attachments we would never willingly choose, but must abide. Even if the uncle is your uncle by marriage, you didn’t choose him. That is decidedly not the case with one’s pastor—particularly in a church Obama didn’t grow up in from childhood, and a church so thoroughly defined by the personality and appeal of a particular pastor. He chose it willingly, and he has remained a member willingly. In discussing his decision to join Wright’s church in The Audacity of Hope, Obama himself says “It came about as a choice and not an epiphany.” (p. 208) It seems from that book, in fact, that Wright was much more than just a pastor at the nearest church to his house; he was the man who brought Obama to accept the faith and be baptized. He didn’t just baptize Obama’s kinds, but Obama himself. Hardly a crazy uncle.

As more of what Wright has had to say comes out, it’s hard to imagine how this problem goes away without a much more assertive explanation or response from Obama.

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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