Published March 17, 2008
A few thoughts on the widely played excerpts from the sermons of Barack Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago:
1. This is the worst crisis the Obama campaign has faced. It has done deep and perhaps long-term damage by calling into question the judgment and credibility of the junior senator from Illinois. And it badly undermines Obama's claim that he is a figure who can bind up America's racial wounds.
2. Senator Obama, whose campaign only last year said that he was “proud of his pastor and his church,” is now saying that he wasn't aware of the angry, reckless, anti-American, and racially divisive comments by Reverend Wright. But that claim stretches credulity. Reverend Wright, after all, is not a stranger who is offering up a presidential-year endorsement. Wright has instead played a pivotal role in Obama's life — including marrying Barack and Michelle Obama, baptizing their two children, and inspiring the title of Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope.
Senator Obama has been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since the early 1990s. Are we supposed to believe that the kind of venom and vivid hatred that we have all seen on display — that God should damn rather than bless America, that this country created AIDS in an effort to foster genocide, that we had 9/11 coming to us, that America is the “U.S. of K.K.K.A.” and that Israel is a terrorist state — is an anomaly for Wright? That the overwhelming majority of his sermons are expositions on the love of Christ and the need to break down the dividing walls between us? That Obama was utterly shocked to see Wright's words strung together on cable TV? That he has seen a side of Wright in the last week that he never knew existed?
This is a pastor, after all, who traveled to Libya in 1984 to visit Muammar Qadhafi with Louis Farrakhan and presented a lifetime achievement award to Farrakhan only last year, calling the Nation of Islam leader a man of “integrity and honesty” and referring to him as “one of the 20th and 21st century greats of the African-American religious experience.”
The odds are a good deal better than even that Wright's hatred is on regular or semi-regular display at the pulpit of Trinity United. The question now becomes: What did Senator Obama hear, and when did he hear it?
3. Reverend Wright's toxic comments may help us better understand the remarks by Michelle Obama that she is proud of America for the first time in her adult life only now that her husband is running for president and that she considers America to be an “outright mean” nation.
If someone admires Reverend Wright as much as Michelle Obama seems to — and she has spoken very well of him in the past — then it's reasonable to assume that they share some common values. People who attend the same church for a quarter century often share key attitudes and outlooks of their minister. That's not always the case — but it's more often the case than not. And it is very rare that people who attend a church for more than 25 years hold views that are fundamentally at odds with their pastor.
It sounds like clashing cymbals to hear Obama's rhetoric — at once calm, reasonable, and unifying — and then to hear the comments of two people who play among the most important roles in his life: his wife and his minister. People are right to wonder: What the heck is going on here? Did Obama embrace Wright and his church in an effort to gain legitimacy during his Chicago years — and now wants to jettison Wright and his church in an effort to gain legitimacy during his run for the White House?
4. Senator Obama and some of his supporters have made the plea that he not be made “guilty by association.” What people are asking for is not guilt but responsibility by association — especially an association this long, this deep, this important.
And on the matter of “guilt by association,” here's a thought experiment. Assume that the spiritual leader and pastor of the church George W. Bush or John McCain attended was, say, a white supremacist or an anti-gay bigot. Do you think that there would be any hesitancy among the press to push the “guilt by association” storyline? I rather doubt it.
I ask because on Thursday CNN's Anderson Cooper and some of his commentators were visibly unhappy that they were forced to spend valuable time talking about the Wright issue rather than, say, health care or education policy. Anderson and the others clearly viewed it as distasteful and a distraction from a full airing of policy issues. (To Cooper's credit, by Friday he had changed his tune and was making the case for why the story was relevant.)
5. We actually have an example of how the MSM plays the “guilt by association” card when it comes to certain political and religious figures. In the 2000 campaign George W. Bush spoke once at Bob Jones University; it was an event used to bludgeon Bush with for the rest of the campaign and into his presidency. And, of course, Bush did not attend Bob Jones University, financially support it, or consider Bob Jones to be his spiritual mentor or close friend for 25 years. Yet these things mattered not at all. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University — and so to many in the press, he was joined at the hip with it. The association between Reverend Wright and Senator Obama is far deeper in every respect.
Until now Barack Obama has run a remarkable campaign and has shown himself to be a man of apparent grace and class, an apostle of hope and unity. But recent events are starting to eat away at the image of Obama. Nothing has done more damage to him, however, than the comments of his pastor Jeremiah Wright. What Obama has said by way of explanation is neither reassuring nor persuasive — and before this story plays itself out, much more damage to the reputation of Barack Obama may be done.
The words of Jeremiah Wright are acidic — both in their own right and in what they are doing to the Barack Obama's presidential campaign. For his next sermon Reverend Wright might consider meditating on the words of James: “the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” To these words Senator Obama may simply say, Amen.
— Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.