Barack Obama’s Pastor

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on March 17, 2008.

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.

12 thoughts on “Barack Obama’s Pastor

  1. Pingback: Barack Obama News » Blog Archive » Barack Obama’s Pastor

  2. As a pastor who has served a very conservative agriculturally oriented congregation, followed by a very liberal Hippie influenced congregation, followed by a staunch-Republican, economically-blessed congregation, the Pastor is seldom comfortable with his/her congregation. There have been John Birch and Sal Alinsky supporters in the same pews. When there are three candidates for President, some votes go to all three from the same pews. This tells me something: Those pew-sitters are self-directed, perhaps some would say….Spirit led.

    I, for one. sympathise with Jeremiah Wright. I, too, see the chickens that came home to roost on 9/11. I, too, realize that God will not bless America if it continues on it’s Imperialistic persuits. We cannot go on arming Israel, indescriminatingly killing Iraqis and alleged terrorists in Iraq, and threatening Iran with extinction. Sense 9/11 we have used the Terrorist Card too many times, while we terrorize the Middle East in pursuit of oil and an American-like democracy.

    Speaking Truth to Power has never been easy and seldom is done in Protestant pulpits.

    It has been my experience that the Black churches allow their preachers more lattitude to “tell it how it is”, than their white sister churches.” The Black Church knows its American history, warts and all, and has not forgotten slavery, the struggle for personhood, Jim Crow, the struggle to integrate our society without reference to race, and the ongoing quest for social justice. They know what percentage of black Americans are incarcerated even today.

    Obama is a Dark horse…..and he just might bring us together!

    I wonder what Hillary’s Methodist pastor and John McCain’s Baptist pastor believe. They are very quiet.

    Then I wonder where God is in all of this? I’d like to be on God’s side.

  3. heck yea! Good article and thanks for reading my blog too! it’s cool to see that you stopped by.

    See you around april 5?

  4. I applaud your response to this “crisis” which has been completely blown out of proportion in another attempt to discredit Obama. Obviously the pastor was not really calling for the damning of America…but acknowledging how far we stray from God’s love in the way we treat our fellow human beings. It gives me great hope that Barack Obama has the faith connection that he does, with a background of critical thinking as opposed to dogmatic belief. Obama did a great job responding in his speech today. He acknowledged the emotion that evolves from the differences in our experiences, while honoring those experiences and pointing out the necessity of talking about them openly to move beyond segregation and anger. I loved his line about segregation in churches. My esteem for him has grown through his measured, yet honest response to this whole issue. I don’t know how he managed to keep his cool through all this, but he sure seems more and more presidential to me! We cannot move beyond issues we cannot verbalize. I’m ready to work for the man’s election!

  5. Thank you for your responses. This has been an interesting moment in American history, and if you haven’t seen Obama’s speech, go check it out.

    Incidentally, I had lunch with Jim Bennett, a dear friend of mine who teaches American religious history at Santa Clara University. His specialty is the history of race and religion in the United States, and I’m hoping to have him write something for this blog around this issue. One thing he mentioned over lunch is that Jeremiah Wright’s condemnation of America place him in a long line of African American preachers that includes Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas; it also places him within the kind of prophetic tradition that included the early American Puritans. In short, it’s not so shocking.

    Hopefully, Jim will be a guest commentator for this blog so that you can read his thoughts yourself…

    Ben

  6. I hope Obama will have to answer a lot more questions about a long-standing relationship with a clergyman who is a despicable race-baiter. It is refreshing to see this man, who has said essentially nothing concrete about any serious topic through the course of the campaign thus far, be forced finally to step forward and say something — anything — of real substance about his positions, himself, and his relationships with those of influence around him.

    And it is only fair that he be forced to do so — unless you are a believer in a double standard that says a Jerry Falwell, a Pat Robertson or a Mike Huckabee rightly may be called out for lunatic statements (would-be candidate Huckabee, for instance, does not believe in evolution), but a Barack Obama should, because of who and what he is, get a free pass.

    And Obama really has some explaining to do, I think. We may blabber on all day about pastor-parishoner relationships, but at the end of the day, we all have choices.

    In Obama’s case, his choice was for a pastor who has goofy views about HIV/AIDS (it’s a white plot against black America); who routinely refers to Clarence Thomas as “Clarence Colon”; who has made sexually crude remarks and gestures from the pulpit in the matter of the Bill Clinton and Monica; who calls the Secretary of State “Condamnation Rice”; who says we should sing not God Bless America but God-damn America”; and who seems to believe that 9/11 was the fault of the US, and the deaths of 3,000 innocents was only “chickens coming home to roost.” Such antics from the pulpit are not “harldy controversial,” as Obama asserts, nor do we have to “cherry-pick” to find examples.

    I want to hear Obama tell why he, the son of a white woman, continued for 20 years to be a member of a black nationalist church in which neither his own mother nor any other white would feel either comfortable or welcome. I want to hear why he has been a fellow traveler with hate-filled black nationalism, in this church, for most of his adult life. And I wonder what it says of his potential presidential judgement that he has exposed his two daughters for all of their lives to a pit-toilet of hatred.

    It is not “too bad that Barack Obama has had to condemn the remarks of his pastor in so public a way.” It is in fact too bad that we are only now having an opportunity to see what this man really is about. It isn’t pretty. But if it is the truth, it doesn’t have to be.

    Bill

  7. Well Bill, there’s a lot her to put in my pipe and smoke. But as you speak of double standards, I’ve never heard any politician distance himself from a pastor as much as Obama has distanced himself from some of the remarks made by Wright. A friend of mine, Jim Bennett has pointed out that No conservative rejected comments made by Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or even Bob Jones to the extent that Obama has rejected the statements made by Rev. Wright.

    Second, I’d be interested to know where you get your primary source material. I’ve looked around a bit, and I haven’t seen things like Black Nationalism or sexually crude remarks. I’m not saying they’re not there. I’m just saying I haven’t seen them. Send a few links on your next post.

    Third, I think you’re painting a reductionist view of Obama’s church. I’m inclined to take him at his word–that it is an empowering, uplifting congregation that does a lot of good in the community despite some stuff that could be considered offensive coming from the pulpit. I don’t think that you or I is in a position to contradict Obama’s own words–not until we hear from someone who actually knows the church first hand.

    Fourth, (and away from the issue of Rev. Wright) I think that if you compare the web pages of Obama and McCain and Clinton, you will see a similarity in depth of dealing with issues. Obama is often criticized for not speaking about matters of substance. I think that’s Obama playing with his strong suit–that is being inspirational. It’s working for him. Clinton and McCain just aren’t as inspirational when they speak, so they make up for it by being thoughtful and articulate (if a bit boring) in the issues. They’re doing what Obama is doing: using their strengths in an effort to get elected.

  8. Re: citations on Wright and Obama —

    Check Google under Jeremiah Wright. Tapes of his various sermons and rantings are all over the net.

    The Wall Street Journal has been particularly good in its coverage of the matter. You might try accessing it online, then doing a content search under the appropriate names. (I believe the online version costs money, however; I don’t go to it online since it arrives in my front driveway every morning.)

    The WSJ, further — Dr. Shelby Steele, a scholar at the Hoover Institution, had a longish and particularly insightful piece on the op-ed page of the Tuesday, 3/18 Journal. I will provide you a copy if you wish. And the journal’s editorial take on the Obama speech about Wright also is worth a look. It was in the Wednesday, 3/19 Journal. I will also provide a copy of that if you wish.

    Investor’s Business Daily, which is hardly a right-wing Yahoo publication, had a very interesting takeout on Obama on Jan. 15. Google it online.

    Finally, you might want to check out what Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, an internationally recognized classicist and a Hoover scholar, has to say about Obama and the entire election primaries process. Read it here: http://pajamasmedia.com/xpress/victordavishanson/

    Bill

  9. Bill,

    Thanks for your source material. It’s Maundy Thursday and I’m needing to focus upon Holy Week. But I did read Hansen’s piece and I’ll say this: Victor Davis Hansen is at his best when he’s talking about ancient Greece. I don’t think that his analysis does enough to explore the historical or cultural context of Wright’s preaching. Like everything I’ve read by White conservatives, Hansen is reactionary in his analysis of Wright.

    Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, I think that Jim Bennett does a much better job of looking at the historical and cultural and religious context of Jeremiah Wright’s comments in his piece in the Merc this morning. Everyone should read it before condemning Jeremiah Wright or Barack Obama.

    Ben

  10. Thanks to Ronn Garton for sending me a link to your blog. Here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth: Jeremiah Wright’s theatrical preaching and fondness for outlandish conspiracy theories probably made for an entertaining Sunday morning. And, there was always the chance of an Oprah sighting. God knows most sermons I suffered through would have bored a turnip. At least with Jerry at the helm, there was always a chance of an unintentional laugh-line to puncuate the tedium of a three hour service. And the 300 hundred-person choir must have lifted the roof off the church on Sundays. I imagine Obama attended the service because it was an entertaining way of keeping up his street cred, networking with other Chicago pols, and keeping Michele happy. Anyway, that’s my opinion. Before I sign off, allow me to predict that at least one of the following three items will come to light in the next few weeks: 1) Jerry has a girlfriend; 2) Jerry has a lavish lifestyle; 3) Jerry did a lucrative albeit unsavory business deal with Tony Rezko.

  11. Ken,

    Welcome, and thanks for your note. You raise a good point: Church is much more than a sermon. I’m sure the Choir is a hugely important part of the worship experience. Oprah probably didn’t hurt things either.

    And if any of your predictions come to pass you will get credit in the Lions’ Den!

    Ben

  12. Well, it only took 6 days to make one of my predictions come true: turns out The Right Reverand is building a $1.6m 10,000 square foot home. I think that qualifies as a lavish lifestyle, right? Hmmm, I wonder where the money came from ……

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