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Don't Blame Me, I Just Pray Here!
Every time his foes think they've got Sen. Barack Obama in a tight spot, he turns to his strong suit: the ability to communicate complicated subjects in a way that combines high-toned eloquence with a common touch that makes it feel as if he is speaking to every one of his listeners as individuals.
When the Democratic Party's presidential front-runner began to speak here in Philadelphia at the Constitution Center on March 18, by quoting the preamble to the Constitution, the hot topic was why Obama chose to belong to an institution that promoted toxic hate for America and Israel. When he finished, the discussion had, as he intended it to do, radically changed.
By disassociating himself from the positions of Rev. Jeremiah Wright while attempting to place them in the context of the history of American racism, Obama performed a rhetorical form of jujitsu, whereby the onus of the discussion fell upon those who questioned his connections to a hate-monger, not the association itself.
Our Original Sin
As Obama rightly pointed out, racism is America's original sin. Slavery still haunts us -- and it should. But has any American politician ever skillfully touched all the bases of America's various hurts and grievances as the senator from Illinois did?
Obama asked us to view race not as a spectacle, but as an opportunity to genuinely bring the country together in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while acknowledging that we have made great progress toward that goal.
It was, as writer Timothy Noah wrote on Slate.com, "about rejecting identity politics while honoring the nobler aspirations of the identity politicians." He did this while, as Noah added, "without displaying an ounce of false piety, or bitterness, or sentimentality, or denial, or self-righteousness."
Thus, it is little wonder that many were soon lauding it as if it was the best speech given in this state since Abraham Lincoln began a cemetery dedication with the words, "Four score and seven years ago."
But before the text of the Constitution Center speech is etched in stained glass, it behooves us to ask whether, in fact, the premise of this grand and beautiful summary of American race sensitivity is the issue we should be discussing instead of some more mundane queries.
Such as, for instance, why the heck someone as obviously as thoughtful as Obama would choose to belong to a place that thinks Hamas manifestoes are suitable fodder for their church newsletter, or employ a pastor who blamed the 9/11 attacks on American support for Israel and disseminated lies about the U.S. government being behind the scourges of AIDS and inner-city drug use. It's all well and good to condemn these things, as Obama has done, but why would he choose to raise his daughters in a place that has promoted such libels?
He tells us that he can no more disown Wright and the church than he would his white grandmother, whom he claims has uttered comments about blacks that made him cringe.
Leave aside his willingness to throw, as many have noted, the grandma who helped raise him under the bus, or the false analogies between her or former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and Wright.
The salient point here is that, for all of his eloquence and rectitude, Obama simply can't draw a bright line between himself and those who hate because "these people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love."
It's a nice turn of phrase, but still a problem since as, Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman noted, by giving Wright and Trinity a pass because of past injustices, what he was doing was "excusing and rationalizing bigotry."
Many of Obama's defenders have said, with justice, that anyone who raises these issues should look not only at the things their own priests, pastors and rabbis say but the presence of other divisive figures within the ranks of supporters of other candidates.
Have we held the (mostly Republican) candidates who cozied up in the past to Rev. Pat Robertson or the late Rev. Jerry Falwell accountable? Both political evangelicals who have uttered scores of screwy pronouncements on world events and other faiths.
Republican Sen. John McCain, who will oppose Obama in the fall if he wins the Democratic nomination, hasn't rejected the support of Rev. John Hagee, a pro-Israel evangelical who thinks the pope is the anti-Christ.
In other words, the critics of Obama's connections to Wright and his Trinity Church are being told that they should shut up or face condemnation for being, at best, politically motivated, or, at worst, racist.
But are these fair analogies?
McCain, who condemned Hagee's anti-Catholicism, isn't a member of Hagee's church nor is he the Arizonan's mentor. And it is doubtful that any presidential candidate who belonged to, say, Falwell's Liberty Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., for as long as Obama belonged to Wright's would escape condemnation.
Which brings us to the key word about religious affiliation in 2008: choice.
A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey published in February showed that nearly half of all Americans have either left the faith of their childhood or switched denominations. Even more are likely to jump from one church or synagogue to another depending on the circumstances, including a distaste for the politics or theology of their religious leader.
That is not to say that Americans won't attend a church or synagogue whose spiritual head says things they disagree with. But it does illustrate that dropping out of a religious community because of issues far less weighty than Wright's hateful (and not merely "controversial") sermons is quite common.
We have all, as Obama said, "cringed" when we heard some in our own community say awful things. But if we called the people who said these things our mentors, and if we refused to join another house of worship once it was clear that it was a place where racially motivated lies were disseminated, then people would have a right to ask us why.
Obama doesn't believe in Wright's "liberation theology" and appears willing to condemn the man's statements about Israel, his ties to Louis Farrakhan, and anything else he has ever said as often as anyone likes. But his responses about his choice of Wright and his church are ultimately unsatisfactory.
Race is a good answer to many questions that can be posed about America. But it was not an apt reply to those put to Obama.
The senator has flawlessly jumped through the hoops set for him about support for Israel and other issues. But those who seek to hold a man who might be president accountable for ties to a professional demagogue are not all racists or even die-hard Republicans. Even after an undeniably brilliant speech, we are all entitled to a better answer than that.