Foul Play

By the time this column hits newsstands, readers will have heard more than most of them ever wanted to hear about Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremy Wright. So I apologize in advance for belaboring the subject, but I remain steamed.

Why, you may ask, is a white Jewish grandmother (a demographic to which Hillary considers herself entitled) brooding over the coverage of an African-American Christian pastor? I’ll tell you: because I come from a tradition that is all about Justice. On matters of faith, any three Jews will hold at least five different beliefs; we’ll argue into the wee hours about politics, public policy and whether nice Jewish boys should attend medical school or law school. But most of us imbibed the Talmudic injunction “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” with our mothers’ milk. And the brouhaha over Reverend Wright has been unjust on so many levels.

First—and most obvious—is the highly selective nature of the clips being shown endlessly on cable television. As many columnists and reporters have pointed out (notably, Anderson Cooper on his own blog), all of the Reverend’s hundreds of sermons are digitally available. Very few of them contained inflammatory passages. Indeed, even the statements that have aroused so much anger don’t sound nearly so incendiary when shown in context, as part of the larger message. (I shudder to think how I would sound—not being the most temperate person around—if someone selected the least reasonable statements I had made and presented them as representative.)

Second, there are the pious statements from people who were shocked, shocked, that Obama didn’t leave his church. How could he stay if he really disagreed with portions of his pastor’s sermons. Oh, yeah—as a Catholic friend of mine wondered aloud, how many of those people are Catholics who left the Church over the predatory priest scandals? As a student of mine remarked, “I’m a conservative Christian. I don’t agree with everything Pat Robertson says. But I agree with a lot, and I don’t stop being a Conservative Baptist just because there’s stuff I disagree with.”

Third—and perhaps most telling—where is all the righteous indignation about the homophobes and anti-Semites whose endorsement John McCain has actively sought?  Whatever the Reverend Wright’s positions on responsibility for 9-11 or AIDS in the African-American community, he has, according to the Washington Blade, “largely supported gay rights and welcomed gays into his 8,000-member congregation.” According to Equality Illinois, “Trinity [Wright’s congregation] has been among the strongest supporters of LGBT rights.” The church has a gay and lesbian singles ministry, and Wright has spoken up in defense of gay pastors.

Contrast that with pronouncements by Televangelist John Hagee, the virulently anti-gay, anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic Religious Right figure whose endorsement was actively sought and publicly welcomed by John McCain. (Hagee calls the Catholic Church “the great whore.”) Or with McCain’s acceptance of support from radical right leader Janet Folger, who—among other charming sentiments—has declared that “Anita Bryant was right.” Or the Reverend Ron Parsley, who McCain calls his “personal spiritual advisor.”  According to People for the American Way, “You won’t hear Parsley rail against Catholics, but you will hear him rail against gays, abortion, Islam, judges, and People for the American Way.” In Ohio, Parsley has built a political machine of “Patriot Pastors” who turn their churches into get-out-the-vote campaigns during elections—undoubtedly the “spiritual” element that most appeals to Mr. McCain.

If we are going to obsess endlessly over Rev. Wright’s less elevated pronouncements,  we might expect the media to give equal time to the considerably more florid and consistent positions of these “spiritual advisors.” If you have somehow failed to notice prominent reporting about the positions taken by Mr. McCain’s spiritual gurus, however, you aren’t alone—The Carpetbagger Report ran a Lexis-Nexis search to see just how many stand-alone articles were written about “McCain’s outreach to a bigoted and nutty televangelist” in the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. The total? Zero.

Will this focus on handpicked passages from Reverend Wright’s sermons sink Barack Obama? The answer is no. If Barack Obama loses, Reverend Wright may be the excuse; he won’t be the reason.

Obama has frequently said that this election is a choice between the past and the future. The use of Reverend Wright’s sermons to stir up racial resentments is consistent with the politics of the past. It remains to be seen whether Americans will vote for a different, fairer future.