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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKBJJ3Kh5Q4]

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.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFbDpTPd0ac]

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.

Fact Checking “Wall of Separation”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has reviewed many errors in the religious right propaganda film, Wall of Separation, which I also commented on last week. Following are some of the specific errors found:

Claim: Thomas Jefferson supported seminaries at the University of Virginia.
Response: Just the opposite is true. Jefferson opposed having a divinity professor at the university, asserting that religious groups could provide services in the town of Charlottesville. UVA is generally regarded as the first American university to separate religion from higher education.

Claim: Jefferson supported using the Bible in Washington, D.C.’s public schools.
Response: During his presidency, Jefferson served as president of the local school board in a largely ceremonial post. The board adopted a proposal to include the Bible in the curriculum in 1812 – three years after Jefferson left the board. In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson opposed teaching the Bible to children, arguing that their minds were not mature enough.

Claim: James Madison approved chaplains in Congress.
Response: Madison did so early in his career. He later admitted his mistake, writing, “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.”

Claim: Jefferson wrote the Northwest Ordinance, which called for government funding of religion.
Response: Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Northwest Ordinance, and his language was wholly secular. A congressional committee later added language stating, “Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The document does not endorse government funding of religion.

Claim: “In God We Trust” is inscribed in the House and Senate chambers and appears on U.S. currency, thus proving that the framers supported mixing religion and government.
Response: These are modern developments, dating to the 1950s. “In God We Trust” was adopted as a national motto in 1956. (“In God We Trust” first appeared on some coins during the Civil War. Its use was not mandated on coins until the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Its use on paper money was mandated by Congress during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.)

Claim: Benjamin Franklin called for prayers during the Constitutional Convention.
Response: True, but “Wall of Separation” fails to tell the rest of the story: The delegates did not act on the request. Franklin himself noted, “The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.” Why would a convention determined to forge a society based on “biblical law” open its deliberations without even a nod to a Supreme Being?

Claim: The Supreme Court applied the Bill of Rights to the states in 1947’s Everson v. Board of Education.
Response: The 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, applies portions of the Bill of Rights to the states. During the debate over the amendment, Sen. Jacob Howard (R-Mich.), a primary advocate, said the amendment’s purpose was to apply the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights to the states. “To these privileges and immunities,” he noted, “should be added the personal rights guaranteed and secured by the first eight amendments to the Constitution….The great object of the first section of the amendment is therefore to restrain the powers of the state and to compel them at all times to respect these fundamental guarantees.” The Supreme Court recognized this as early as the 1920s and fully embraced “incorporation” in a 1940 ruling, Cantwell v. Connecticut.

Claim: In 1963, the Supreme Court struck down “voluntary Bible reading” in public schools in Abington Township School District v. Schempp.
Response: There was nothing voluntary about it. Pennsylvania state law mandated that ten verses of the King James Bible be read aloud every day followed by recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Schools were not required to excuse students, and some punished those who would not take part.

Claim: Article VI, a constitutional provision that bans religious tests for public office, was actually designed to preserve religious tests in the states.
Response: This is an absurd argument. When Article VI was announced, it sparked a firestorm of opposition from conservative religious leaders, who supported religious tests for public office. They did not perceive Article VI as helpful to their cause.

Emails Show Political Motiviation For Firing Prosecutors

The scandal over the firing of federal prosecutors on political grounds is showing the significance of the Democratic take over of Congress and the value of restoring checks and balances on the Executive branch as envisioned by the founding fathers. The current Congressional investigations would not have taken place if Congress remained under GOP control

For Richard Nixon the smoking gun was the tapes. For George Bush the smoking gun might turn out to be a more modern form of communication–email. McClatchy has posted copies of email communication between the White House and the Justice Department which show the plans for this politicization of the Justice Department:

Internal memos between the Justice Department and the White House show that administration officials were determined to bypass Congress in selecting replacements for eight U.S. attorneys who were forced to resign. The memos include a five-step plan for executing the dismissals and dealing the anticipated political firestorm.

“We’re a go for the US Atty plan,” White House aide William Kelley notified the Justice Department on Dec. 4, three days before seven of the eight U.S. attorneys were told to step down. “WH leg, political, and communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes.”

“WH leg” refers to the White House legislative affairs office, which works closely with members of Congress.

Members of Congress have expressed outrage over the dismissals for a variety of reasons. Some suspect that the ousted prosecutors were fired as part of an effort to exert political influence over federal investigators. Others resent the administration’s efforts to install new prosecutors without Senate confirmation hearings.

Still others accuse the Justice Department launching an unseemly smear campaign against the ousted prosecutors.

While U.S. attorneys are political appointees – all of the ousted prosecutors were appointed by Bush – they are supposed to carry out their duties without political interference. White House officials have acknowledged that Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political adviser, served as a conduit for complaints about U.S. attorneys across the country.

“The attorney general has a responsibility to put up a fire wall to keep politics out of the Department of Justice,” said former U.S. Attorney H.E. “Bud” Cummins, who was forced out to make room for a Rove protege. “There are political people in politics who are an inherent part of the process. There is no place for them at the department of justice. When things like this happen it costs the department its credibility.”

The internal administration documents, which were released by the House Judiciary Committee, show that Rove’s office also arranged for two New Mexico Republicans to deliver their complaints about former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias directly to the Justice Department in June 2006

McClatchy has more here, with more at The New York Times and The Washington Post.

While Congressional investigations may be necessary to obtain all the relevant information, it was the liberal blogosphere which kept this story alive. Jay Carney at Time attributes the blogosphere with proving he was intially wrong in underestimating the importance of this story. He wrote, “The blogosphere was the engine on this story, pulling the Hill and the MSM along. As the document dump proves, what happened was much worse than I’d first thought. I was wrong. Very nice work, and thanks for holding my feet to the fire.”

One sign of the lack of a good defense for their actions is that Republicans are falsely claiming that Clinton did this too. The Carpetbagger Report reviews this claim.

The Doctrine of Dick DeVos III: Wife Betsy DeVos

by Hector Solon

As Republican candidate Dick DeVos runs for Michigan’s governor, why has his campaign been so careful to keep his GOP “Super Ranger,” political wife Betsy out of sight?

Not enough has been said in Michigan’s 2006 gubernatorial race from either side about the political and ideological background of Dick’s more experienced and politically aggressive wife, Elizabeth (Betsy) (Prince) DeVos.

The DeVos campaign does not want the outcome of the vote to come down to a donnybrook over the kinds of issues and statements for which wife Betsy is so well-known and famous.

“A woman must be a learner, listening quietly and with due submission. I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man; she should be quiet.”
— II Timothy 2:11-14

“The greatest menace to genuine Christianity in our day is not found in the attack of the atheist, the naturalist, and the outspoken unbeliever, but in the compromising stand of those who claim to be Christians, yet are in reality the champions of principles alien to the Christian faith.” — Clarence Bouma as found in “Dutch Calvinism In Modern America” by James D. Bratt, published by Eerdmans Books, Grand Rapids, Michgan, 1984

Betsy DeVos’ Lips Are Zipped

Despite record spending and an extensive ad and media campaign, the Dick DeVos for Governor Campaign can now be best described as: “A businessman without a business, a politician without a party, a “Christian conservative” without a conscience, and now a husband without a wife.” (more…)