Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ruminations on Obama's preacher

Left: The Hierophant, from the Rider-Waite tarot deck.

Ah, yes, religious authority. Incredible this is all happening during Holy Week--irony, anyone?

Today, Senator Barack Obama addressed the issue of his preacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. The preacher gets exercised and says things, as (God knows!) preachers are wont to do.

As pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, he is the Christian servant responsible for bringing Senator Obama to the Christian faith. I doubt very much he could have succeeded at this goal by delivering boring and well-mannered sermons, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

Last night, I attempted to make a list of outlandish things I have heard priests say. I have kissed the relics of (Maronite) St Rafka, as well as St Francis Xavier. I own a 3rd class relic supposedly touched to the tomb of St Philomena, who may or may not have existed. I have heard of saints levitating, eating vomit* and everything else. I heard one priest lambaste Jews at every available opportunity, usually honing in on various bad acts in the First Reading at Mass (always from the Old Testament) and then going on something of an antisemitic rant. I used to cringe if the First Reading had any "bad Jews" in the passage, usually those Jews partying while Moses is trying to tell them how to behave properly. Golden calves, disobedience, lack of faith! Oh no, I thought, here it comes. And he never missed a chance, in this regard.

And yes, there's more. I've heard priests trash-talk the sacrosanct USA, usually starting with the mortal sin of abortion (extremely few priests challenge birth control or divorce; hey, the collection plate might suffer, okay?) and moving on to the usual suspects, porn and gays. They often quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV), which states:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Heal it? Is it sick? Is America sick?

And then there is that perennial favorite, which I am also quite partial to, from Deuteronomy, Chapter 30:
Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom.

If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin on you today, loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.

If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen, but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,

I tell you now that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy.

I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.
This passage is used by the right and the left, with clockwork regularity. The right sees abortion and wild sex; the left sees war, poverty and genocide (as Rev. Wright also does). This is basic Christianity, people. And besides that, the traditional concept that people will pay for their sins is common to most major faiths.

Why are conservatives allowed to say this, but liberals are not? Is it the diagnosis that we are disagreeing about? Reverend Wright has frightened the horses, announcing from the pulpit "God damn America!"--actually using the term in it's proper context, not as profanity... he meant America's acts lead to damnation in the Christian sense. Why is this any worse than the fundamentalists who warn that unbelievers who are ruining the country will all be swept up in the Great Tribulation, and will not be Raptured with the Righteous?

The last person expected to carefully separate himself from his faith was Mitt Romney. "How Mormon is he, anyway?" seemed to be the operative question. Catholic politicians and presidential candidates are not expected to answer for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, known to make extremely controversial statements on both the right and the left. Why not?

If I am 50 years old, and I've heard these outlandish and possibly unpatriotic homilies, as hit-and-miss as I am in attending church--what do you suppose other politicians and presidential candidates have heard in their respective churches? I assume they have heard as much or more than I have. Does anyone care? No. They care if you are Mitt Romney. And they care if you are Barack Obama. Why?

I think we all know the answer to that, don't we?

All of us who have attempted to be devout and faithful at any point in our lives, have had arguments with spiritual advisers, preachers, priests, rabbis, etc. We do not necessarily agree with everything they say, and we ask ourselves (if we are thoughtful and intelligent, as the Senator certainly is)--how far can we go with this? What is demanded of us? Can we deliver? Can we be good Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus? What does it mean to be devout?

The same priest that might electrify us when speaking passionately of injustice, can drone on like an old boring puritan about abortion. The same preacher who inveighs against lack of charity and lack of volunteers for the soup kitchen, can suddenly turn petty and draw already-sullen teenagers aside and hiss disapprovingly at them, that they are dressed like gangstas... (PS: this is not helpful when they are already looking for an excuse to stay home!) Spiritual leaders are human beings, and they err. Does this truly shock anyone, that most people decide for themselves what they believe, their pastor being only one of many factors that influence them? Indeed, I think this is taken for granted among affluent white people. Well, of COURSE you choose. And yet, Barack Obama is expected to disassociate himself from the person who brought him to the faith??????

Why is he being put through the ringer, because he has a big-mouthed pastor, as many (most?) of us do?

Lotus offered the wise opinion that he couldn't see what the big deal is about, since most of what Rev. Wright said was true anyway. (Spoken like a true lefty!) Bonnie Erbe, holding forth on CNN this afternoon, announced that Obama's speech today had not properly distanced himself from Rev. Wright; the so-called Reagan democrats won't be convinced, she said. Convinced of what? Why is Obama expected to answer for his pastor, when probably every single presidential candidate has some pastor in the background, saying otherworldly, disturbing things?

I think we all know the answer to that, don't we?

When asked why I don't leave the Catholic Church, I reply it would be like leaving the United States. I wouldn't know how. It is part of who I am. And why am I expected to leave? Why can't I stay and fight for what I want the Church/the USA to be?

Why is Barack Obama expected to show his mettle by disowning his one-time spiritual mentor? Worship style in the African-American community is all about a radical appreciation of justice and the cultural custom of fiery rhetoric and music that dramatizes and underscores this appreciation and attendant spiritual knowledge. This is an established American tradition, and it is not for CNN, FOX NEWS and MSNBC to judge whether that tradition is expressed "correctly" or not, just as I really don't care if anyone objects to my relic of St Philomena. I don't own it for your approval, I own it because of what it means to ME, thanks.

The fact that one tradition is accepted as a given, regardless of how outlandish it might be, and one is still being judged and picked apart, speaks volumes.

Last month, I wrote a post about religious bigotry, and obviously, I spoke too soon.

Or is this really about something else?
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24)

*The Autobiography of St Margaret Mary Alacoque


LarryE said...

See, I told you that you didn't need my good luck wishes!

ArrogantWorm said...

I'll take your blatant irony and raise you a specific hypocrisy for those people who meander out and listen on their own days of worship when most probably don't agree with their own religious speakers all the time, yet are willing to believe Reverent Wright speaks for Senator Obama.

I've been to a lot of Christian churches. The only one that didn't deviate from the text in the bible and didn't put their own thoughts of that and contemporary life into the sermons was the Catholic church on the closest hill. Straight from the many times translated book, that guy, and not a word out of place. Funnily enough, it was the only type of service I got any enjoyment from since I was little, but that might be because of the structure of his sermon never deviated. And damn, was he a punctual fellow.

But yeah, acting as if the pastor is an identical extension of the congregation, especially a specific member that's running for a political office, isn't fair. That the Senator should have to address views that his church's priest espoused is a bit ridiculous, as he wasn't the one saying it in the first place. Guilt by association = really sketchy concept. I can't hear the Rev. Wright's or Sen. Obama's snippets on Utube, so I can't speak to that, but I do hope Sen. Obama gets the presidency.

Octogalore said...

Daisy -- Obama is lucky to have someone with your oratorical skills in his camp.

Certainly, a lot of what Wright says is great and inspiring and some of his more problematic statements have roots in his experience and era.

But Obama is not you or me, he's a politician. His camp has attacked Clinton for things you and I wouldn't be judged on. And this exposure isn't coming from the Clinton campaign. His statements about what he knew and when he knew it are contradictory and unlikely at best.

This is not someone who just attended some sermons. This is a presidential candidate who named a book after one of those sermons and appointed the preacher to a campaign-related group.

Wright has mentioned Barack in his sermons and made inaccurate and misogynistic comments about Hillary. His speech about race, well-delivered and well-written as it was, was given too late and written by someone else.

I'd love to join you in just about anything else, but not on this particular bandwagon, my friend.

Daisy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daisy said...

Octo: This is not someone who just attended some sermons. This is a presidential candidate who named a book after one of those sermons and appointed the preacher to a campaign-related group.

Honestly, I just don't see anything wrong with that. LBJ, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had plenty of preacher-friends they worked with politically. Mike Huckabee IS an ordained Baptist preacher.

What exactly is the difference, is my question.

And the only answers I can come up with:

1) he doesn't look like they do.

2) his church doesn't behave the same way theirs does.

In short, race.

Anonymous said...

His speech about race, well-delivered and well-written as it was, was given too late and written by someone else.

The last claim appears to be false. Marc Ambinder writes: "This wasn't a speech by committee... Obama wrote the speech himself, working on it for two days and nights.... and showed it to only a few of his top advisers."



Octogalore said...

Sorry, not sure that Obama camp workers or bloggers' assessments of his efforts towards the speech can be taken to the bank. Not mine, at any rate. I respect the guy, and he probably writes a nice speech and a good law review article, but I prefer the horse I've got in this fight.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any actual reason to doubt Ambinder? (As you no doubt know, he's pretty universally held in high regard as a careful reporter. Not just some random "blogger.") What specific evidence initially led you to state that BHO hadn't written the speech?


John Powers said...

You wrote: "When asked why I don't leave the Catholic Church, I reply it would be like leaving the United States. I wouldn't know how. It is part of who I am."

I'm agnostic, I don't go to church. But your statement resonates with me. I once told a Jewish friend, similarly agnostic, "I'm not a Christian." He shot back, "You can no more change being a Christian than I can being a Jew." The logic train got a bit convoluted when he admitted that he couldn't choose not to be a Christian either. The point is we're products of our culture.

I'm not equating my spiritual path with yours; after all you choose to be a part of a church community. But I look at my religion rather like a home language that shapes my thinking mostly unconsciously. And when I think about things, the system of religious symbolism is the way I can make out the shapes of my thinking.

A very moving part of Obama's speech was talking about his grandmother. It's absolutely credible that she's referenced racial stereotypes that made him cringe. It's also absolutely credible that he loves her very much.

Obama said:

"[W]orking together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."

I'm down with that!

Octogalore said...

"What specific evidence initially led you to state that BHO hadn't written the speech?"

Common sense and knowing people connected to his campaign and the fact that he has speechwriters doing a lot of his work. I do not know for a fact whether he wrote that particular speech. I'm willing to believe he worked up an outline or draft and likely the advisors massaged it into shape. That's pretty much Politics 101.

Anonymous said...

So in other words, no specific evidence for such a definite statement.


Octogalore said...

KH, with respect, this is a blog, not a court of law. I could address a number of points made by Obama supporters the same way. Yeah, I'd stake my 2008 paycheck on him having had significant help on the speech. As I haven't bugged his house, of course I don't know for sure. I do know enough speechwriters to know they earn their keep, however.

Daisy said...

Keith Olbermann also just reported that Obama wrote the speech himself and "was up till 2am polishing it"--so the plot thickens! ;)

Anonymous said...

Sorry if my questions put you off. I fully understand that there are no rules of evidence here, & that people are free to present ambiguously supported speculations as if they were established facts.

(I don't know anyone at the top of the Obama campaign, but I've live & work among staffers & speechwriters since Reagan was in town, & know they aren't responsible for every deeply considered personal reflection that comes out of their principals' mouths.)

Please don't be irritated that I asked you if you had any specific warrant for what you'll grant, after all, was stated as a definite fact, not some defeasible hunch. I think it was a fair question (or questions).

Your argument maybe ultimately is with Marc Ambinder (& now Olberman), who you'll agree understands Politics 101 as well as you or I do. You can reach him at the above URL, & perhaps persuade him to retract.

Otherwise, if you can specify what you mean by "significant help," I'd be inclined to take your bet.

Anyway, even if Ambinder's reporting were wrong, the speech stands to be a fairly notable event in the evolution of American racial discourse, & it'd be a shame if, looking back, we had to admit that our response to it revolved around trifling over who wrote it.


Octogalore said...

KH, it's certainly fair to ask questions and you can certainly put an IMO in front of my statement if that helps assuage your concerns about how solid my backup is.

Ambinder and Olbermann (whose "special comment" about Clinton made fairly clear his biases) are Obama supporters and not likely to be legally rigorous either. I certainly don't care to engage with them on something none of us can prove and which was frankly a tossed-off comment that I've long since ceased to care about.

As a reformed refugee from the legal biz and fairly adept at making a case do somersaults, I could traipse all over the left wing blogosphere to find "ambiguously supported speculations [presented] as if they were established facts" in support of Obama or going negative on Clinton, but life is way too short. The point is, let's be consistent with our blogular standards, or the suggestion of bias might rear its ugly head.

Especially since "deeply considered personal reflections," while eloquent and worthwhile for blog and campus discussions, aren't really campaign cornerstones.

Anonymous said...

One last wad & I let it go.

I think you’re unfair to Ambinder – I carry no brief for Olberman –, who, to repeat, is pretty universally regarded in DC as a fair & rigorous reporter, not any kind of partisan operator. (I’ve got no personal attachment to the guy, but met him once in a large gathering; he presents as a bright drab grind, prematurely middle-aged, not a partisan so much as someone who likes to watch, who just wants to be the best political analyst in town.) Do you mean to claim that he’s so naïve or so in the tank that he’d just pass along false Obama campaign spin as fact? Nobody around here would begin to buy that. How many times now you’ve expressed skepticism about his item, & it begins to strike me your reasons are ideological, not epistemic. Have or would you express the same skepticism about the many items he’s posted that’ve inured to the Clinton campaign? I doubt it.

As for the tu quoque, I don’t doubt that there are bad, bad-faith Obama supporters afoot, & God knows Clinton's been subjected to some nasty shit, but what has that got to do with you, here, now? What does it justify? Make it less fitting to ask for the warrant for dubious factual claims that tend to derogate Obama?

Last, I gotta disagree w/ your judgment that Obama’s speech & what I called its deeply considered personal reflections aren’t really campaign cornerstones. This speech is an important event in the primary, & whatever its ultimate effects, & whoever wins, it will & deserves to be remembered. He says some needful things about a profoundly serious subject, & it’s faintly uncharacteristic of you to trivialize it as mere fodder for blog & campus discussions.


Octogalore said...

"He says some needful things about a profoundly serious subject, & it’s faintly uncharacteristic of you to trivialize it as mere fodder for blog & campus discussions."

Well, if I'd said it was mere fodder, that might be uncharacteristic. I don't disagree that he said some worthwhile and profound things.

I believe that governing is more than just having a profound view on serious issues. That certainly is an impressive contribution, no doubt. But governing involves politics, experience, compromise, knowing where the bodies are buried, nuance, boring details, angling, implementation.

As good as the speech was, it's not uncharacteristic for me to point out its applicability.

And as for "Do you mean to claim that he’s so naïve or so in the tank that he’d just pass along false Obama campaign spin as fact?" Well, how else would he know it was self-written? Is he a fly on the wall of every room Obama is in? He clearly heard it from someone else whom he trusted (who maybe heard it from someone else whom s/he trusted) and passed it along.

I still like the post, and I think we should agree to disagree about some of these issues at this point.

Octogalore said...

PS -- this speech was pretty damn good too, with less of a political expedience necessity even: http://www.afn.org/~dks/race/clinton-e6.html/