Obama Responds to Controversy over Wright

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.

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12 Comments

  1. 1
    janet says:

    This whole thing is driving me nuts. Why is it that this minister is being scrutinized so closely and associated with Obama while the “out there” ministers who support McCain are not? Is it because Wright is more of a spiritual advisor and not a mere endorser? Why weren’t Huckabee’s sermons spread all over the newspapers with quotes. He said some outrageous things, too. This is why religion needs to be left out of politics.

    My spritual advisor, my Episcopal priest, has said things I do not agree with. I would not like to be held accountable for some of his statements. But I am not planning on switching churches. It is not all about the priest.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Janet,

    Agree the argument against Obama here looks pretty ridiculous when placed in perspective.

    If we were to compare Obama to an ideal perfect candidate, this might be a problem. However compared to the religious ties you mention with McCain and Huckabee, as well as some of Hillary Clinton’s quite conservative religious ties, this means very little.

  3. 3
    Clarity says:

    It is not the fire and brimstone of Jeremiah A Wright that caught my attention as much as the tone of the media after the extraction and reduction of Jeremiah Wright’s 30 years of religious service into several hand-picked quotes. What Hannity and Colmes started at the beginning of Obama’s bid for presidency is tossed into the spotlight again.

    No other candidate in this race has been grilled as much as Obama has been — just in a 24 hour period on religious affiliation/association.
    This is truly manufactured news for a desired result– “let’s get Obama.”

    Obama is running for president, not Rev. Wright.

    Looks like the media conglomerates have a plan to ride Obama for his pastor’s comments. McCain’s John Hagee, condemns Catholicism — The media didn’t even blow this up half as much as the Wright controversy. Rod Parsley said America is hell bent on destroying Islam– no media outlet has grilled McCain on either one of these statement.

    Why all of the heavy handed treatment toward Rev Wright? Nothing fair and balanced– no equality being shared on the subject of religion by the media with all of the candidates.

    Our founding fathers got it right– Separation of Church and state- religion is too personal and it should not be on the table unless all candidates are being grilled on their pastors’ take on Christianity.

    “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. . . . America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

    – Sermon, September 2001

    “What goes around comes around.” All Rev Wright was expressing in his 9/11 sermon is what many people agree with. One cannot continue to destoy and kill and it won’t reciprocate. I love my country but our history is steeped in wars and killing. We were blessed to have only had 2 attacks on American in recent history; Pearl Harbor and 9/11. We are a blessed nation we are a blessed people.

    As we debate Rev Wrights words there is a war of ignorance being waged in Iraq fueled by a lie– Weapons of Mass Destruction.
    Here we are killing people again. Why?

    We may all have different takes on war but we all know that it is not good and not the will of God no matter what name your religion gives your God. Whether your God is called Jesus, Allah, Buddah or Elohim we all know “Thou shalt not kill. “

  4. 4
    Beka says:

    Real Americans would ask why are these folks so upset and what can I do to help them, my fellow Americans?

  5. 5
    TC says:

    This is a test of leadership for Barack Obama, and it’s a test of determination for his supporters:

    Link

  6. 6
    joe in oklahoma says:

    1. McCain backer Rev. Pat Robertson said America is damned by God because we allow feminists and queer people to live here.

    2.McCain backer Rev. John Hagee says America is damned by God because we tolerate Muslims. He has inferred more than once that the only good muslim is a dead muslim.

    3.Obama supporter Rev. Jeremiah Wright says America is damned because we neglect the poor and practice bigotry.

    My money is on the third, given my knowledge of the Bible, democratic values, and a sense of human dignity, Yet the mainstream media tells us we must tolerate hate: Hagee & Robertson— but not those who don’t believe we should tolerate hate — Wright.

  7. 7
    Wayne says:

    Joe,
    The question is, has John McCain ever described Pat Robinson or John Hagee as his “spirtual mentor?” Are (or were) either of them on his advisor commitees? No to both. Rev Wright is not just a suporter of Obama, he is a trusted confidante and advisor to Obama. This is more like the neo-nazi’s that Ron Paul attracted (and was attracted to) in my view.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    There are also other questions to consider if we are to compare the relationships of Obama and McCain to extremist religious figures. While Obama is now working to separate himself from Wright, McCain is working to appeal to the religious figures of the extreme right.

    Another question is whether this will affect public policy should Obama or McCain be elected. Obama has made his position on separation of church and state quite clear. I’m also less bothered by Obama referring to Wright as a spiritual mentor than as a political adviser.

    In contrast, McCain is working to get closer to figures from the religious right who have a definite political agenda and a desire to use the power of government to impose this upon others. We also know the politics behind this as McCain needs to get out the vote from the religious right, which isn’t all that fond of him. Once he is in office what will he do in return for this political support?

  9. 9
    Angelight says:

    WHAT MEDIA IS NOT REPORTING: RE: TRINITY CHURCH!
    Rev. Thomas (Pastor of Mainly White Congreation of UCC) denounces e-mail smear campaign against UCC’s largest congregation – Written by J. Bennett Guess, Jan. 11, 2008

    Obama, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has been a member of Trinity UCC for 20 years.” “Trinity UCC is rooted in and proud of its Afrocentric heritage,” Thomas said. “This is no different than the hundreds of UCC churches from the German Evangelical and Reformed stream that continue to own and celebrate their German heritage, insisting on annual sausage and sauerkraut dinners and singing Stille Nacht on Christmas Eve. .” While Trinity UCC is predominately African American, it does include and welcome non-Black members. The Rev. Jane Fisler-Hoffman, Illinois Conference Minister, who is white, has been a member of the congregation for years.
    “Trinity is a destination church for many members of the UCC, a multi-racial, multi-cultural denomination that is largely Caucasian,” Thomas pointed out. “When in Chicago, many UCC members flock to Trinity to share in and learn from its vibrant ministries, dynamic worship and justice-minded membership. Contrary to the claims made in these hateful emails, UCC members know Trinity to be one of the most welcoming, hospitable and generous congregations in our denomination.” […]

    Rev. Steve] Gray, a member of First Congregational UCC in Indianapolis (mainly caucasian), has worshiped several times at Trinity UCC and is most impressed by the overflowing sense of welcome it extends to visitors. “When you’re Euro-American, (White) the people [at Trinity UCC] are so exceedingly gracious, warm and welcoming. They hug you and say, ‘Welcome to our church!'”

    This ramped-up smear campaign against the UCC’s largest congregation and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s home church — Trinity UCC in Chicago — has raised the ire of the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC’s general minister and president, who called the e-mail-driven claims “absurd, mean-spirited and politically motivated.”
    The Main Stream Media has been filled with images and video of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s controversial statements for the past four days, 24/7, which Obama has strongly condemned. My concern, however, relates to equal time. When Senator Obama, who, after all , is actually the Candidate, gave a speech in Indiana, addressing his faith, diversity, and unity, and Invoking Robert Kennedy, it has gotten such a tiny percentage of coverage in comparison to Rev. Wright’s controversial statements shown every hour in the hour. The main stream media has asked the questions how is Obama to deal with this controversy and when he does they give very little air time to his Answer, which he spells out beautifully in this Indiana Speech. This is just not Right.

    On the Other hand we have an Interesting article on Huffington Post describing how a right-wing preacher is treated with similar contoversial remarks:

    When Senator Obama’s preacher thundered about racism and injustice Obama suffered smear-by-association. But when my late father — Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer — denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr. Every Sunday thousands of right wing white preachers (following in my father’s footsteps) rail against America’s sins from tens of thousands of pulpits. They tell us that America is complicit in the “murder of the unborn,” has become “Sodom” by coddling gays, and that our public schools are sinful places full of evolutionists and sex educators hell-bent on corrupting children. They say, as my dad often did, that we are, “under the judgment of God.” They call America evil and warn of immanent destruction. By comparison Obama’s minister’s shouted “controversial” comments were mild. All he said was that God should damn America for our racism and violence and that no one had ever used the N-word about Hillary Clinton.
    Link

    May be this is part of Obama’s mission, since he is a Unifying Force. In order to be a Unifier, one must get the people talking about those issues which stand and impede unity and discuss those issues so one can understand and overcome these issues.

  10. 10
    Steve Shor says:

    What some seem to be missing about the Rev. Wright’s vitriol is the vitriol itself.

    The Rev. Wright seems to think wrapping his hatred’s in a Christian blanket makes them less intemperate than they are.

    If you can fill up a Church in Chicago with five thousand human beings unable to parse your hatred it is a profound and sad commentary on the City of Chicago.

    The Rev. Wright no more speaks for Senator Obama than he speaks for the long dead construct of “American Blacks”.

    The Rev. Wright has his head fully planted in the past. Locked into historic hatreds.

    The next President is going to be the President of all of us, or none of us.

  11. 11
    Wayne Parsons says:

    As a full-blooded European-American, I strongly agree with Barack Hussein Obama’s condemnation of Pastor Wright’s statements and encourage others to vote for Senator Obama, who after all is 50% European-American let’s not forget. He CAN be and WILL be everything to every people!

  12. 12
    Ron Chusid says:

    And he’s most impressive when we look beyond race and pay attention to the individual.

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