Friday, April 25, 2008

Obama's Pastor

I watched the entire hour of Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, being interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS tonight, and have a few observations.

In conversation with Bill Moyers, who is notably low-key and was basically friendly, he doesn't seem all that radical. I can understand the things he had to say about building an African-American church in an African-American community in south Chicago, one that is in contact with the community not just on Sunday throughout the week. While it seems to be race-conscious and even race-oriented, I accept his saying that it wasn't racist, that he doesn't preach the superiority of one race over another or hatred for another race. As a lifelong church-going Christian (mostly Episcopalian) myself, I found much of what he had to say familiar and to my ear authentically Christian.

I still found some of his sermons, even in context, a little over-the-top and tinged with a certain secular leftism. Not surprising. Just as some pastors tinge their sermons with secular rightism, some tinge them with secular leftism. I find both confused and somewhat troubling. I don't see much warrant in Jesus's life and sayings for either. I find him radically apolitical, aware of principalities and powers but urging people to understand that God is above and beyond any mere earthly powers. "If my kingdom were of this world ..." he told Pilate. But it isn't.

As it happens, I got to know Ed Peck, former chief of mission in Baghdad and a career diplomat, to whom Wright referred in his September 12 sermon (in which he said "God damn America"), a little bit in the days leading up to the Iraq war. He spoke at the Orange County World Affairs Council, of which I was a trustee at the time, and I talked to him on the phone numerous times. He was the one who used the phrase about "America's chickens coming home to roost" that Wright repeated. I agreed with him then and do so now. He's very experienced and very thoughtful. The United States has intervened in and occupied other countries for decades, and it's hardly surprising that people overseas are resentful. That's not a "blame America first" statement, it's just a fact.

In his sermon, a fair amount of which Moyers showed, he mentioned other governments that had failed -- the Roman empire, the British empire -- referred to Old Testament prophets admonishing Israel and recounted slavery a number of the ill-advised interventions the U.S. had undertaken before he went into his riff. So he wasn't just saying America was uniquely evil, but yet another in a long line of governments that had done dubious and immoral things. He almost got to what I think is an authentic understanding -- that from a Biblical perspective all human governments are imperfect and often evil.

Nonetheless, I thought the "God damn America" bit was unnecessary and unduly provocative. It had a little too much specific hostility to suit my taste. I think I understand (though of course I can't do so fully) that African-Americans have reason to have more specific hostility toward the U.S. government than most Americans, but I also think focusing on that hostility is self-defeating for reasons people like Tom Sowell and Walter Williams and Shelby Steele and John McWhorter have explained better than I can.

Wright also has what I see as an unresolved contradiction in his attitude toward government that many or most leftists share. Too many see government as simultaneously a great evil and a potential saviour. They haven't fully thought through whether an institution that takes money and other resources by force and lords it over the rest of us can also be the embodiment of societyand a force for genuine good. He equated not sending "enough" to Africa to fight AIDS with attacking other countries. Not the same thing at all. Demanding that an institution founded in force and violence help us and save us while recognizing that much of what it does is dubious or evil just seems very confused to me.

I suspect I would like Jeremiah Wright if I had a chance to sit down and talk with him one-on-one or in a small group, and that we could have fruitful conversations, getting to understand one another better.

All that said, I suspect that his media prominence after six weeks of relative silence in public is likely to be more harmful than helpful to Obama. He did say the stuff about Obama having to speak "as a politician," which subtly (perhaps inadvertently) casts doubt on his sincerity, and that's the soundbite that will be featured. Too bad, but during a political campaign people inevitably get absurdly partisan rather than focusing on civility. After all, as Mencken put it, an election is an advance auction of stolen goods.

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