Thursday, April 3, 2008

'Wright strategy'? Wrong

What defines a church? Is it the pastor at the pulpit or the parishioners in the pews? The answer to those questions may strengthen, or utterly destroy, the one vulnerability both Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain think they can exploit in Sen. Barack Obama’s relentless drive to the Democratic presidential nomination and, more than possibly, the American presidency.

Both Clinton the Democratic challenger and McCain of the Republicans have decided on an attack strategy, trying to wed Obama to controversial comments made by Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — attempting to impugn the junior senator from Illinois with a guilt-by-association they hope will play to voters wary of extremism in their midst.

But in the imprecise realm of matters of faith, it will be hard for either Clinton or McCain to stain Obama by implication, especially when so many other equally embarrassing missteps can be laid directly at their doorsteps.

For reasons that are bigger than one man in a church, a handful of soundbites extracted from years of sermons at the pulpit; for reasons that have everything to do with a church’s wider mission to the community, the so-called “Wright strategy” — damning the candidate by what his former pastor did — is exactly the wrong one for Clinton or McCain.

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The first thing wrong with this stop-Obama strategy is its implicit attempt to condemn foundations of African American worship, a style of reverence that historically has activism as much at its core as spirituality.

Wright’s comments themselves are presumably under attack, of course. But built-in to the criticism of Wright’s fiery rhetoric is an indictment of black liberation theology, central to the way black people speak truth to power on Sunday mornings.

After the Civil War, black churches widened the scope of ministry, growing more involved with social and political issues, and laying a foundation for an activism that continues. The black church walked point during the Civil Rights era. From the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell to the Rev. Jesse Jackson — and needless to say, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a linchpin to the tradition — pastors in the black American church have historically connected religion with reality, often with pastoral language whose passion and candor lose much in translation outside the vernacular of African American life.

Not to excuse manifest displays of intolerance, but Wright’s offending comments — those two or three minutes force-fed to the nation for the last three weeks or so — need to be seen in that context: words of a former Marine, a senior citizen and an African American male whose personal history encompassed some of the grimmest periods in American history vis-à-vis race relations, a man whose early life and middle age were lived in an era of social confinements, cultural denials and literal dangers vastly different from today.

Voters, unfortunately, may well be seeing that quick clutch of Wright soundbites from now to the election. By November they may feel like Alex during his behavior-modification treatment in “A Clockwork Orange” — the worst kind of captive audience.

Not that there hasn’t been something to see. There’s more than one such soundbite.

Wright in 2003: “The government gives them the guns, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people.”

Wright in 2001, days after the grievous wounding of the September 11 attacks: “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.”

There are several other comments besides, some of which even the Obama campaign has condemned as “inflammatory rhetoric.”

But what’s equal in importance to the words of the man is the life, and the church, behind the man.

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After serving in the Marines, Wright became a U.S. Navy corpsman and a medical technician who attended to President Johnson during a November 1966 operation to remove a nonmalignant growth from his throat and to repair a hernia. Wright received a letter of thanks from Johnson.

In 1984 Wright was one of a body of ministers, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, who traveled to Libya to gain the release of a downed Navy pilot. The ad hoc ecumenical mission was praised by then-President Reagan.

Wright is the recipient of four earned degrees and eight honorary doctorates, and is the published author of four books and numerous articles.

Doesn’t sound like a demon with cloven hooves, now, does it?

Until he resigned earlier this year, after 36 years, Wright was the pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ, a Chicago megachurch with perhaps 10,000 parishioners, a church whose wider social mission includes outreach to seniors, cancer survivors, teenagers, prison inmates, the hearing-impaired, those recovering from drug and alcohol dependency, and people coping with domestic violence, mental illness, emotional distress and HIV/AIDS.

Other Trinity Church services include career development, after-school programs for at-risk youth, a reading tutorial service for elementary school children, cultural programs on black dance and literature, a computer learning center, a young-adult ministry, and a service that makes sure churchgoers get safely to and from their cars when they come to worship.

Engaged, informed, concerned, accessible … that doesn’t sound like the kind of church you walk away from, now, does it?

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If a churchgoer feels he’s known by the company he keeps, he’s as likely to identify with the church in the widest sense —the people who come to worship — as with the pastor whose delivery sometimes goes off the rails. You might come for the pastor, but you stay for the fellowship.

That’s the danger for Clinton and McCain. Any attempt to effect their own political linkage of matters of church and state has to confront the reality of the church as well as the rhetoric of the pastor. Despite its stated Afrocentric bent (the church’s motto: “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian”), the Trinity Church’s good works to the community at large clearly outweigh its former pastor’s bad words from the pulpit.

By adopting an all-or-nothing strategy of using Wright against Obama, both the rival campaigns reveal more about themselves — an increasing desperation and an unfamiliarity with black traditions — than they reveal about Obama.

Sen. Obama may have been guilty of a sin of omission. By not getting up and walking out, not only on his pastor of twenty years but on the congregation, he infers there was an agreement with, or at least a tolerance of, Wright’s most incendiary comments.

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Clinton is another matter entirely. With an often-repeated revisionist history of her trip to Bosnia; with her early and presumably continuing support of the Iraq war; and an apparent willingness to at least tolerate use of the dogwhistle of race and ethnicity (“Senator Obama is not a Muslim, as far as I know”), Clinton has problems that are sins of commission. Obama may be on the hook for what someone else said (in some cases years ago). Clinton has to grapple with what she said herself (in one case as recently as St. Patrick’s Day).

McCain faces similar problems; the now-infamous “100 years” comment, positing a theoretical time frame for U.S. presence in Iraq, came out of his own mouth. He’s responsible for any number of comments reflecting his volatile temper, a casual view of the use of military force (“Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran”) and an admission of knowing next to nothing about economic matters.

And for the most part, the media hasn't even delved into their spiritual advisers. Very little's been written about Clinton's relationship with "the Fellowship," a shadowy Bible study group composed of some of the most rightward, conservative politicians in America. Credit Mother Jones with an extensive piece on the issue.

You haven't heard much, either, about McCain's relationship with the televangelist Rev. Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church of Columbus, Ohio, a 12,000-member Pentecostal institution from whose pulpit Parsley has compared Planned Parenthood to the Nazis, and called on Christians to destroy the "false religion" of Islam. Or about McCain's relationship with John Hagee, the leader of a Texas megachurch who has called the Roman Catholic Church “the great whore.”

For whatever mischief Clinton and McCain may try to create for Obama over Wright’s more explosive comments, it’s obvious that they’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. And maybe more than Obama.

Desperate situations may call for desperate measures from Clinton and McCain, but trying to drive a wedge between Barack Obama and the nation with Rev. Wright is wrong as wrong can be.
Image credits: King: Public domain. "A Clockwork Orange": © 1971 Warner Bros. Obama and Wright: © 2008 Religion News Service. Clinton: Phil Ejercito for

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