I imagine this presents something of a dilemma for Barack Obama’s detractors and political rivals: what should be said about The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obama family pastor, who has made incendiary statements about the September 11 terrorists attacks and about Hillary Clinton and John McCain?
So far, political discourse in the presidential campaign has been infused with suggestions that Barack Hussein Obama, that son of a lapsed Muslim, that graduate of an Indonesian junior high school that isn’t a Madrassa, that senator from Illinois who looks funny in traditional Somali garb might secretly bow toward Mecca when no one is looking. The American fear of Islam and of Muslims is as irrational as it is harmful to the American pluralistic ideal—both Clinton and McCain know this—but pandering to those fears is one of the few tactics that has worked against Obama so far.
Now some of the political views and opinions of the Rev. Wright are being exposed as radical and off key. As a result, Barack Obama has felt the need to distance himself from the man who officiated at his wedding, baptized his kids, and who, for twenty years, served as his spiritual mentor. It should be a great opportunity to make political hay, but in order to use the remarks of his pastor against him, Obama’s rivals would have to acknowledge that he has a pastor—that he is a dedicated Christian, that he was a member of a Christian congregation before he had political ambitions, that he has promised, through baptism, to teach the Christian faith to his children. All this would be impossibly strange behavior for a Muslim.
One way or another, I’m guessing Barack Obama will have to answer further questions about his long-standing relationship with the man who only recently retired from the pulpit of the Obama family’s church, and as clergyman, it seems both credible and good to me that Barack Obama has found himself disagreeing with his pastor from time to time.
If there’s one thing we don’t want as a nation, it is politicians incapable of independent thought and unwilling to differentiate themselves from the opinions of their spiritual leaders. After all, in healthy religious communities, lay people and clergy disagree all of the time. It is entirely natural for a person to have great personal and spiritual fondness for a pastor, a priest, a rabbi or an imam, while disagreeing entirely with that religious leader’s political inclinations. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes a clergyperson is admired politically but is disliked theologically, spiritually or personally.
Men and women of the cloth are complex. It’s very possible to like how we preach while at the same time disliking how we vote. If this weren’t true, I’d be out of a job. A good spiritual leader does not try tell her or his congregation what to think but rather she or he gives tips on how to think. In a healthy congregation all kinds of different opinions are expressed and welcomed. It gets messy, but we really wouldn’t want it any other way.
It’s too bad that Barack Obama has had to condemn the remarks of his pastor in so public a way. No doubt the whole episode has been painful both for Obama and for Jeremiah Wright. Nonetheless, it’s a good day for America when a prominent politician is able to demonstrate what a healthy clergy/congregant relationship looks like. I suspect many religious communities—both at home and abroad—could learn a thing or two from the relationship between Obama and Wright.