Martin Peretz: Why Obama was right in not repudiating his pastor

Posted by Kendall Harmon

TThe power of the preacher is an unmeasured force in American life. Of course, now that it has become an issue in a political campaign, we are focusing on the one minister and the one candidate whose lives at church have been intertwined both in fact and in the public eye. The two men are each charismatic in their own ways, different ways, as anyone who has seen them speak (if even just on television or on syncopated and, thus, distorted YouTube clips) can attest.

Barack Obama speaks in a professorial manner in which the logic of his argument, calmly laid out, is the drama of the oration. I have my own analogy. Of course, I never heard Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. speak. But I read into his addresses and opinions the moral and legal ganglion of more than seven decades of our national history, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. And I hear in Obama's cadence not only what makes him attractive to audiences but also something very much like Holmes's disciplined thinking, and it is this that makes this presidential aspirant truly eloquent. In only a decade in public life, he has become the (oh yes, gangling) ganglion of our hopes for a post-racial country. It is ironic--isn't it?--that we should have come so quickly to the dawn of post-racialism while still lumbering clumsily through the miasma of a misnamed multi-culturalism.

We are all linked to the places from which we came, though some of us have moved very far from them....

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchRace/Race RelationsReligion & Culture* Economics, PoliticsUS Presidential Election 2008

Posted March 27, 2008 at 6:40 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Newbie Anglican wrote:

If the shoe were on the other foot, if a Republican candidate attended and supported a church which preaches hate against Blacks, I doubt Peretz would write a similar column.

March 27, 9:23 am | [comment link]
2. physician without health wrote:

I realize that I disagree with many on this blog when I state that I think that Obama has handled the Wright situation well.  Having said that, I find this author’s arguments weak.  If I were in a church where the preaching was as bad as that of this author’s rabbi, I would shake the dust off my feet and high-tail it out of there.  I can tolerate alot of latitude in worship style, etc but the sermon must be rock solid.

March 27, 9:25 am | [comment link]
3. Br. Michael wrote:

I too am troubled by the double standard.

March 27, 9:34 am | [comment link]
4. evan miller wrote:

Unfortunately, it’s a double standard that permiates American life.

March 27, 10:25 am | [comment link]
5. Charley wrote:

The dancing, swooning, and swaying in the aisles was enough to turn me off before pastor Wright ever opened his mouth.

It’s amazing to me that we’re still considering electing a man to the presidency who has spent the last twenty years in a church whose central message seems to be ‘let’s get whitey.’

March 27, 10:25 am | [comment link]
6. mathman wrote:

My late wife and I left four churches during our 34 years of marriage. If what comes from the pulpit is not the gospel, go elsewhere. It is really very simple.
All that has been said about Pastor Wright sidesteps the central issue: he believes, teaches, and confesses a version of liberation theology which has its roots in the Marxist dialectic. One part of that dialectic is class warfare. Now this particular ideology is but one of thousands of mis-, mal-, and non-readings of Holy Scripture. To follow such an ideology is to begin with the framework and attempt to fit Scripture into the framework. The fitting, of course, involves lots if excision and trimming (think Bowdler) as Scripture does not fit any human framework.
One does much better to let Scripture be itself, and take it for what it is: God’s way revealed to humankind. No prior framework (except for the ability to communicate) needed.

March 27, 11:17 am | [comment link]
7. Gone Back to Africa wrote:

#1 Newbie Anglican wrote:

If the shoe were on the other foot, if a Republican candidate attended and supported a church which preaches hate against Blacks, I doubt Peretz would write a similar column.

Why do we take the easy ‘analysis’ and say this is simply a race/Republic vs Democrat issue. To be sure, it is much more complicated than that. Certainly race is a factor, but there are others as well. What is disapointing is that not many persons (thank God for Mathman) seem to be willing to put all this in a theological framework and condemn Liberation Theology for what it is. This election cycle is merely the presenting forum for this to be played out.

5 Charley wrote:

It’s amazing to me that we’re still considering electing a man to the presidency who has spent the last twenty years in a church whose central message seems to be ‘let’s get whitey.’

Certainly you realize how over-simplified that statement is Charley. I disagree with the theology behind it, but to write it off as “‘lets get whitey’” is to entirely miss the heresy. Mathman has it more right than you do, in my opinion.

March 27, 12:25 pm | [comment link]
8. Branford wrote:

#7 - I think because we can look at this in two ways - as a political situation (like Newbie Anglican and Charley) and as a theological debate (like mathman). There is no doubt that Newbie Anglican and Charley are correct vis-a-vis the political reality - just think Trent Lott - but I don’t see them as necessarily addressing the theology. Both politial and theological ways are valid since Obama is a politician and a churchgoer. Believe me, any conservative or Republican politician with a close and spiritual connection to someone on the far-far right like Obama has with Rev. Wright would be a *major* problem and they would be called on to absolutely repudiate any message from that pulpit. So #4 is very correct - it is a double standard that permeates American life, to our detriment.

March 27, 12:36 pm | [comment link]
9. magnolia wrote:

#7 in my opinion, sometimes things are that simple, especially in the public arena, except i don’t agree with the republican vs. democrat angle. if that stuff had been screamed out by an anglo (republican or democrat), he would have been kicked out of his job, and ostracized by society, shamed publicly. the difference is that white america is quite willing and ready to turn against whoever is perceived to be a white racist, whereas i have rarely seen the reverse true in the black community or even in the white community towards black public figures who are perceived racists. but again, this is just my perception.

March 27, 1:05 pm | [comment link]
10. Jason M. Fitzmaurice wrote:

As for the “shoe on the other foot” argument let us not forget how many Republicans spoke at Bob Jones - when it banned mixed race dating - and “got away with it”. I say this as a Republican BTW. It seems to me that there is no particular black “free pass” here

March 27, 3:10 pm | [comment link]
11. libraryjim wrote:

Speaking at a university, no matter how controversial it is, is not the same as sitting at the feet of a pastor for 20 + years.

March 27, 3:26 pm | [comment link]
12. Katherine wrote:

This is both a political and a theological problem.  Peretz, in the article, seems to think that Obama should get a pass on the political implications.  As to theology, people running for office can believe what they want to, and it’s not my business unless there is some connection to what they might do if elected.  Because Pastor Wright’s theology is political, it does have implications for what his dedicated parishioner would do as President.  This is really not the same as Peretz’s rabbi giving a dumb sermon on a Bella Abzug speech.

And Peretz’s idea that this is about the black worship style is rather offensive, isn’t it?  There must be lots of majority-black churches in Chicago with the same active style whose pastors preach something other than black liberation theology.  I know of some Anglicans who wave their hands in the air at church.  So what?

March 27, 3:59 pm | [comment link]
13. Jason M. Fitzmaurice wrote:

In some ways it is worse. The words from his pastor were words. Inflammatory words, but words.
The University was taking specific actions in furtherance of a belief. That strikes me as much worse.

March 27, 4:03 pm | [comment link]
14. John Wilkins wrote:

For most of church history people did not leave churches if they disagreed with pastors.  It’s part of the church as store mentality.  The economic analysis is “voice” vs. “exit.”  Churches were once “voice” communities.  People engaged each other.  They disagreed with each other. But they stayed.  But over the last 40 years, the church has become an “exit” community, like a shop.  If you don’t like it, you go to another store. 

It would be pretty typical for a politician to deny his friends.  If anything, it would just demonstrate the Obama’s like all the other politicians.  Everyone tries to get away.  But if Obama had tried, it would have been dishonest.  He chose the honest route.

One problem is that people don’t really understand what Pastor Wright says.  His “chickens” sermon was a sophisticated pacifist sermon that examined the entire psalm 137.  In prophetic preaching, an Israelite critiques Israel:  that’s the nature.  In the end, God urges us to self-examination so that we will not kill innocent people.  That was the sermon on that day. 

The God “Damn” America speech wasn’t much different than reading a prophet.  In fact, Israel gets damned by God in the prophets.  That’s pretty important.  And its used by other preachers as well. 

A double standard?  Well, there are whites in the congregation.  In a White Supremacist church you won’t find blacks welcomed.

March 27, 5:22 pm | [comment link]
15. Bob Lee wrote:

The emperor has no clothes.


March 27, 5:24 pm | [comment link]
16. Branford wrote:

John Wilkins - Obama was not born into this church - he didn’t grow up at Trinity and therefore might be given some leeway in staying with a church that has become so extreme. He chose this church, a church which honors Louis Farrakhan and publishes anti-Israeli anti-semitic letters in its bulletin, a church which published in its bulletin that the Israelis and South Africans were working together on “an ethnic bomb that kills Blacks and Arabs.” I know a lot of liberals are pinning a lot of hopes on Obama and I, too, as an independent, thought his speaking was inspirational and eloquent, even if he didn’t seem to be saying much specific. But, please, don’t tell us that this is all in the style of black churches, etc., etc. Many blacks I know are very insulted at the platitudes of excuses that others are making for Rev. Wright instead of addressing his words and his attitude. Yes, Obama is not responsible for what Wright is saying, but he is responsible for supporting this church and, in my mind as a parent, in exposing his young children to this rhetoric.

March 27, 5:45 pm | [comment link]
17. Katherine wrote:

Thanks, #16, I agree with you, and I have often thought the same about exposing young children to teaching that leads them to distrust the character and motives of the majority of people around them.  One of my daughters had a black roommate in college who was convinced that black people were always treated differently than whites in any commercial transaction.  One day she worked herself into a tizzy getting ready to go to Sprint to get a new phone, convinced that she would be ill-treated.  Why not, said my daughter, just go there expecting to be treated like anyone else and get upset only if something bad happened?  This was not well-received; the young woman’s philosophy, while not as negative as the Rev. Wright’s, required the assumption that race dominated every interaction and transaction in her life.  (In fact, she got service at Sprint with no hassles at all.)  The dark heaviness of believing that everyone’s got it in for you must be spiritually debilitating.

March 27, 6:40 pm | [comment link]
18. libraryjim wrote:

And then you have Trent Lott, who only made an offhand comment to Strom Thurman that if he had been elected president the US would be a different place.  Look what happened to him!  Forced to apologize and hounded from any leadership seat!  Fortunately, he was able to regain his seat.  And that was just a passing commet, not even made in public.

You say there is no double standard?

March 27, 7:09 pm | [comment link]
19. John Wilkins wrote:

Branford, correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand that you think that Trinity is primarily a church whose identity revolves around anti-semitism and supporting the Nation of Islam.  And if I were to read Fox news, well, I’d probably agree with you.

But as someone who lived in the South Side of Chicago, the daily work of Pastor Wright was with community activists who were, for example, Rabbis, clergymen, Daley Democrats and Muslims.  I’m not going to defend his honoring of Farrakhan (although people’s view of him in the South Side of Chicago is a bit more complex than in the rest of the country).  Of course, this offended people.  but I know lots of people who do foolish things occasionally.

But, um, if you can find me a phrase where Wright says he hates Jews, I’ll stand corrected.  Anti-Israel?  Well, his view of Israel isn’t much different than several of the Rabbis I know.  But I don’t think you’ll find the evidence of anything that attacks Jews.  I could be wrong, and I’m open to evidence.

I think Obama was brave for choosing to be commited to a church at all.  He didn’t have to be.  Personally, I think it is the community, not the pastor, that’s important.  FWIW Obama was looking for a spiritual Father.  Now you might describe Wright as, “anti-American, anti-semitic” or a host of fairly negative characterizations.  But for lots of people (including white people in the South Side), we would have a different list.  You have the list given you by Fox News (although, perhaps you did live in the South Side of Chicago, and I stand corrected), and then there is the list we have: Marine, organizer, biblical scholar, academic, church builder. 

It’s interesting all the misinformation that is going around. I heard one gay man say, he would never vote for Obama because Wright is homophobic.  Alas - pastor Wright is one of the few black pastors who is completely inclusive - beginning one of the most effective HIV services in Chicago.  It’s just interesting to me how people get wrong information. 

It’s also interesting how people accuse him of being a racist given that his denomination is… white.  Why is it that most whites who are in his denomination don’t feel the black racism that he supposedly represents? 

Honoring Farrakhan was a mistake.  Wright’s statements about AIDS were… ignorant (although, given the Tuskegee Experiments…).  But after living in the South Side of Chicago, I suggest that Trinity should be known not by the one single event but by the numerous other ministries they offer.  One event honoring Farrakhan vs. the thousands of hours making life better for people and bringing people to God - it seems ot me that in practice, one is far more important - especially given that people are deliberately interested in bringing Obama down through Pastor Wright. 

I admit, however, Peretz charity is startling….

March 27, 7:15 pm | [comment link]
20. Padre Mickey wrote:

I can’t believe people are still going on about this. As John Wilkins has pointed out, Pastor Wright’s actions speak louder than words. John McCain sought the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee, a man who has been known to preach all manner of crazy stuff. Perhaps someone should discuss the connections of the Republican Party and George H.W. Bush and Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. However, as we all know, IOKIYAR.

March 27, 7:24 pm | [comment link]
21. Branford wrote:

Wow, John Wilkins, how claivoyant! Because I disagree with Rev Wright, I must watch Fox News! Who knew? Actually, I do watch Fox - and CNN, CBS, MSNBC, NBC, (don’t like ABC) and others. I also read the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and many others as well. I don’t think Rev Wright’s church identity revolves around the Nation of Islam - I think, from what I’ve read including info on Trinity’s website, that the church’s identity revolves around African/Black supremacy. That’s fine - it’s not my church so I don’t really care, but don’t act as though this is all so nuanced that unless we’re from Chicago, we don’t understand. We understand fine - this has broken along liberal/conservative lines but life is rarely so divided. I’m sure Trinity has done great things in the community, but people can do great things and still be racist and bigoted, etc. And that’s what I see in some of the literature from this church. And I think the pastor is usually a reflection of the community - you can’t cleanly split the two. From a voter’s point of view, it’s a question of judgment on Obama’s part. And we each make up our own mind about that.

March 27, 7:39 pm | [comment link]
22. libraryjim wrote:

Yes, but McCain never called Hagee “my mentor” nor sat under his pastoral leadership for 20 years.

March 27, 8:09 pm | [comment link]
23. Padre Mickey wrote:

But libraryjim, the Republican party has been receiving financial support from the Unification Church, and the Washington Times has been spreading rightwing lies for ages. But that Pastor Wright, what a Bad Man!!!

March 27, 9:33 pm | [comment link]
24. Dave B wrote:

Barack Obama speaks in a professorial manner in which the logic of his argument, calmly laid out, is the drama of the oration.  Really, here is one of BO logical arguements ” America is the greatest nation on the earth now help me change it!”

March 27, 10:12 pm | [comment link]
25. Words Matter wrote:

L-Jim -

There’s always been a double standard in this country when it came to black and white. Most of the time, it’s gone in favor of white people, this time not.  Is the treatment of Obama/Wright fair, compared to Trent Lott?  No. But as one white guy to another: get over it. And, btw, I would say that to Wright about his complaints, except that it would just prove that white people don’t understand and feed his sense of personal rectitude. 

OTOH, I’ve been listening to CNN tonight and it’s all Jeremiah Wright. Apparently, some really offensive racist remarks have come out, plus more of Wright’s bizarre beliefs. I’m not sympathetic, but it certainly seemed a case of piling on worthy of the Trent Lott business. 

I lost interest in the Reverend Mr. Wright’s racial views when I learned about his Porsche. The Angry Black Man (Religious Type) schtick has been very very good to Wright. For my money, he’s just another religious huckster, no different than Pat Robertson or Robert Tilton.  Yeah, he did some good social work things. Well, I could show you some white segregationists (not supremacists) who do good social work, too, including true kindness to black individuals.

And then there is Obama’s $2 million house.  Now, I don’t begrudge anyone what they have, but it does sort of raise questions about his “oppressed status”. As Stokely Carmichael said: the difference between a liberal and a radical is what they see when they wake up. Obama sees a big house in a fancy neighborhood.

Finally, if you haven’t seen this   Peggy Noonan column , it’s probably one of the best things I read on the subject.

March 28, 12:57 am | [comment link]
26. Dave B wrote:

I think, as some pundits have mentioned, Wright’s church is a political power house in Chicago.  If Obama threw Wright under the bus he might not be electable in Chicago. After this presidential election there will be a tomarrow This may be a political calculation as much as a loyalty issue.

March 28, 6:18 am | [comment link]
27. Larry Morse wrote:

Jim is still right, contrary examples notwithstanding. This was Obama’s mentor and he is a bad man, if vicious, irrational attacks mark a bad man. Not everything is subtle, nuance, convoluted and byzantine. This is straightforward: Obama gave passive acceptance to a man preaching a virulent racism and has tried to use the Let’s-speak-calmly-about- racism as a deflection, hoping that moving to the general from the specific will cover his pusillanimity. If Wright were white, he would have been drawn and quartered. LM

March 28, 9:09 am | [comment link]
28. Dave B wrote:

Obama’s foreign policy advisor, who was fired for the Clinton monster comment, said there is no way that Obama could pull troups out of Iraq in one year.  The Wright controversy has deflected hard questions about policy from Obama to the detriment of the electorate.

March 28, 9:49 am | [comment link]
29. Chris Hathaway wrote:

The issue is simple: Obama is a lying hypocrite.
1. He claims he didn’t know about the worst statements of Wright. How is this possible? He attended for twenty years. Did he have no contact with others who went there? Would he not have heard about these great sermons Wright gave? The video shows that the church he preached to ate up what he was preaching so these most offensive remarks cannot be uncharacteristic or shocking to the congregation. How is it possible that he did not hear from someone else in the church what his pastor preached on the Sunday after 911?

2. He claims that he accepted Wight for the good that he preached and would not condemn him or reject him for isolated comments that he found offensive.

Yet..he was not reluctant to condemn Don Imus and say that he would never have a place in his campaign, even after all the good Imus did for children at his ranch.

Hypocrisy. Pure and simple. What he says cannot be trusted. What he really believes cannot be known except by looking at his associations. He calls as mento a man who preaches “God damn America”. He hires a staff member who hangs a Che flag in her office. His wife claims that Obama’s candidacy makes her proud of America for the first time in her adult life.

This is what we know, and for me it is enough to conclude that his line about wanting to unify and heal the wounds is all a bunch of lies.

March 28, 2:14 pm | [comment link]
30. John Wilkins wrote:

Chris:  you think Obama is different than other politicians in being a lying hypocrite, if he is? 

Obama might have known quite well what the sermons said, but I think that what he heard (violence begets violence, the people of faith are damned if they don’t help the poor) might be different than what you seemed to hear (the US deserves what it got, God Hates America).  I think Obama knew that people hear different things in the same sermon (as a priest, I get that all the time) - and he’s said as much.  He has also said he disagreed.  If Obama had heard what you heard, I think he would have made different choices.  But I’m guessing you are white - and we each have our own lenses with which we see.  I don’t think I can convince you otherwise as your lens is pretty strong - and I don’t think you quite hear what the black people in that church hear.  Nothing wrong with that.  We’re all caught in our own bodies.

Black supremacy (say the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam) is different than afrocentrism.  It’s a church that cares about black people.  AND whites often go there (as I’ve said - and as several whites have attested), without any feeling of being uncomfortable. 

Branford, you picked up that I don’t know where you get your information from:  but you say you get information from the MSM, but I don’t know what you get.  EVERYONE just picked up that one video. 

My point is that the idea that this is racist church is more of a media construction than one that is empirically true.  Most of the whites who know the church would not call it racist.  But yes, if I had read only what the MSM said (which does get things… wrong), I would agree with you 100%.  Fortunately, I’ve been there.  I’ve listened to the sermons.  And I disagree with him myself (I think class is more crucial than race these days). 

As far as driving a Porsche: the nice car owned by the pastor is common in the black churches.  The parishioners want their pastor to be taken care of.  I’m not sure how to judge it.  So I won’t.

March 28, 7:26 pm | [comment link]
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