Saturday, March 15, 2008

Some thoughts on Barack and his church

I was just reading this op-ed written by Cass Sunstein, and I think I had an insight into why Obama might have stuck through some 20 years of services at Trinity UCC in Chicago with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even when he didn't agree with everything that might have been said at any given moment. I think this whole thing strikes us as so politically foolish, and we think it's hard to understand how Obama could have let this happen at all. The problem with this perspective, however, may be the difference between the kind of politics we're used to seeing from our politicians, and the new kind of politics that Obama claims to (and very well may) represent. I don't think any of us believe that Obama holds political views that are similar to that of his pastor, although the political problem for him now is that people may start to think that he does. The root of the problem, speaking for myself (and perhaps for others), though, is why he didn't foresee this as an issue? Is he really not as politically smart as he's been cranked up to be?

The context that Obama's tried to put forth is one in which Wright is a hugely popular preacher (his is the largest congregation in the entire UCC denomination) and is someone who clearly speaks to the heart of the African-American community in Chicago -- the same community where Obama got his start as a community organizer, and which he represented in the Illinois State Senate. Wright married Obama and Michelle, he baptised their daughters, and he "brought Obama to Jesus." Yet, Obama must have heard Wright say some controversial things from time to time. But if that was the case, would it not have been so much easier for Obama to conveniently move on to a less controversial church -- to one that might not end up becoming a thorn in his political side should he ever seek higher office, say, that of U.S. Senator, or beyond? If Obama is such a smart a politician (which I think he is), or if his ambition is so great (something which I think any presidential candidate must have), why then did he not long ago take what was clearly the more politically expedient path, and move on to another church at the slightest hint of potential future controversy?

I don't want to reduce his spiritual motivations to that of pure political calculation, but think about the current situation as you read the op-ed from Sunstein that I link to above. Think about the Obama that Sunstein describes here -- fiercely independent, not afraid to listen to the deep beliefs of those who think differently -- and you'll see that he's not someone who's always going to take the politically correct or "safe" path to success. (Of course, one could also explain his remaining in Wright's church as a sign of pure loyalty -- but his public distancing of himself from Wright over a year ago, just as he announced his candidacy for the presidency, as well as his recent statements, surely underscores the limits to that hypothesis.)

So what strikes me about Obama's sticking with his church is that, given where Obama came from, I can imagine that he felt it was important not to lose touch with this Afro-centric perspective -- he wanted to be challenged, not just uplifted, when he went to church. And given his general inclination to think for himself, perhaps he got caught up in his own self-confidence, not thinking that he was going to have to "denounce and reject" the political views of someone from whom he had received a great deal of spiritual insight and comfort. Is this really all that inconsistent for a guy who's made a point of saying that he would sit down with dictators as a means of resolving political tensions!

So let's call him wildly naive, politically stupid, or unreasonably loyal, but we might also entertain the notion that he's actually practicing what he preaches -- namely, that the idea of accepting "the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point" is not something that you toss aside on your way to political power, rather it's what you embrace as the only possible way to get there.


At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The article you cited is quite good, but in my opinion, Wright's comments were hateful and indefensible. I've heard homilies written and delivered by some great theologians of the reformed church, and Wright is clearly not in their league, and not in Obama's league intellectually. I see no excuse for Obama remaining in that church, regardless of other factors in Wright's favor. Adding this to Obama's characterization of his grandmother as "a typical white person" and his wife's comment that she is now proud to be an American for the first time in her adult life, and now his seemingly condescending thoughts about the "bitter" residents in small town America, one can reach some troubling conclusions regarding the character of an otherwise inspirational leader of profound intelligence.
That said, I think it's irrational to expect perfection in our leaders any more than we can expect it in ourselves. In the end, voters should judge Obama and McCain on the merits of their policies rather than on the quirks of their personalities. Clinton and Bush were both polarizing presidents, both made huge mistakes, and both made huge contributions. America has become an uncivil society, a country obsessed with personality and celebrity, where sarcasm is a cheap substitue for sincerity, respect, and reason.
I hope that Senators McCain and Obama can elevate the debate, but I'm skeptical that our spoiled nation is ready for serious introspection.


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