Barack Obama has spend the last couple of days responding to some of the controversy surrounding him. As I’ve noted many times before, including in the previous post, my choice to support Obama is not out of the belief that he is perfect but because of finding him to be the only remaining major party candidate who does not have negatives which make me unable to support them. Barack Obama was not my first choice, but I do find him to be a good choice whose negatives, which do exist, are far less serious than those of Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Obama’s infusion of religion in politics was one major reason why he was not my first choice from the start. I would much prefer a candidate who responded to questions on religion with an answer like that of Arnold Vinick, the fictitious Republican candidate for president on The West Wing:
Unfortunately this is not realistic in the United States, at least this year. I’ve been able to support Obama despite his mingling of religion in a political campaign to a degree far more that I would like due to his strong support for separation of church and state. This, along with his views on civil liberties, is one of the benefits of his experience as a professor of Constitutional Law (and one of the reasons I consider Obama to have more meaningful experience to be president than Hillary Clinton).
In the past few days Obama’s specific church affiliation has also become an issue. Of all the nonsense we’ve heard the last few months, this is one which actually does have at least some substance behind it. As Steve Benen wrote, “questions about Barack Obama’s church pastor had, oddly enough, suddenly become the one political controversy that stood to do the most damage to his campaign. The Rezko story seems pretty thin, NAFTA-gate turned out to be much less than met the eye, the ‘madrassa’ story was complete nonsense, and the ‘plagiarism’ flap was just silly.”
Obama responded to the controversy in the video above and at The Huffington Post:
The pastor of my church, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who recently preached his last sermon and is in the process of retiring, has touched off a firestorm over the last few days. He’s drawn attention as the result of some inflammatory and appalling remarks he made about our country, our politics, and my political opponents.
Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it’s on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue.
Because these particular statements by Rev. Wright are so contrary to my own life and beliefs, a number of people have legitimately raised questions about the nature of my relationship with Rev. Wright and my membership in the church.
Obama proceeded to discuss his relationship with Wright and later addressed the controversial statements from Wright:
The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments. But because Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community, where I married my wife and where my daughters were baptized, I did not think it appropriate to leave the church.
Let me repeat what I’ve said earlier. All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country.
In addition to answering these concerns in this post Obama made similar statements in interviews with the major news organizations. His words were accompanied by action with the removal of Wright from his ceremonial position on Obama’s African American Religious Leadership Committee.
Steve Benen compared how Obama has handled this situation to John McCain’s courting of religious leaders from the extreme right and found that, in contrast to McCain, Obama has handled the situation correctly:
I’m cognizant of the opportunity for hypocrisy. To be intellectually honest, I’ve been thinking about how I’d react if Obama were a Republican with a far-right pastor with a record of inflammatory rhetoric. Under the circumstances, I’d expect (and probably write a great deal about) the need for the candidate to repudiate the comments, disassociate himself with the pastor, and explain the association in some detail. As far as I can tell, Obama has done all three.
Matthew Yglesias also placed this in perspective:
I’m unsure, in general, of what the standards we’re supposed to apply to the political views of politicians’ favored clergy. I have no idea what the rabbis at Temple Rodef Shalom (where I’ve gone to synagogue the past few High Holy Days) or at The Village Temple (where I had my bar mitzvah) think about political issues, but I assume I don’t agree with them about everything, and certainly it’d be odd to drag up old statements made by any of the relevant rabbis about this or that and then ask me to either endorse the statement or repudiate the entire congregation.
By the same token, we don’t assume that a politician who goes to mass wants to ban birth control nor do we ask Catholics who favored preventive war with Iraq to repudiate the Pope in order to prove their hawk bona fides. In short, we generally assume that a politician’s stated political views express his or her position on political topics, and that affiliating with a religious congregation does not constitute an endorsement of everything the leaders of that congregation have ever said.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that I see this as a basically trumped-up issue. Obama’s enemies have put this Wright stuff out there in bad faith, not because they’re genuinely uncertain as to what Obama thinks, but merely because they think it can hurt him electorally.
Matthew is correct that this issue is being raised primarily because political opponents believe it can hurt Obama, and not because of any of Obama’s actual views. I must still place Obama’s relationship with Wright as a somewhat of a negative. However, as with his overall negatives related to religion, these remain rather trivial. Looking at the actual viable candidates in the race, these issues would not prevent me from voting for Obama while many more serious issues prevent me from supporting Clinton or McCain.
Update: For a more humorous take on this controversy, see Andy Borowitz’s post “announcing” that Obama Concerts to Judaism:
Buffeted by criticism of his controversial Christian pastor while continuing to quell rumors that he is a Muslim, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) took a bold step today to settle questions about his religious faith once and for all.
“I am converting to Judaism, effective immediately,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a press conference in Scarsdale, New York, adding that he would change his middle name from “Hussein” to “Murray.”
As a sign of commitment to his new faith, the Illinois Senator said that he anticipated being Bar Mitzvahed sometime between now and the crucial Pennsylvania primary and that he would no longer campaign on Saturdays.
In a subtle sign of the shift in his religious affiliation, Mr. Obama’s signature catchphrase “Yes, we can,” was nowhere to be found in his speech, replaced instead by “L’Chaim.”
While some political observers praised Mr. Obama’s conversion to Judaism as a shrewd tactic to put the issue of his religious identity to rest, the move raised the ire of one of his harshest critics, former Rep. Geradline Ferraro.
“Barack Murray Obama wouldn’t be in the position he’s in if he wasn’t Jewish,” said Ms. Ferraro to herself.
Update II: Gerald Posner takes a similar view in still supporting Obama but also being troubled by this.