Have you noticed the recent media kerfuffle surrounding the former pastor of Barack Obama's church? Last night, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly featured video of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright venting some extremely unpopular opinions about the causes of 9/11. The Atlantic Monthly's Ross Douthat summarizes the situation: "The problem is less that Wright sounds like Malcolm X than that he sounds like Jerry Falwell crossed with Ward Churchill, calling down God's vengeance on a corrupt U.S.A., but for leftist instead of right-wing reasons." By now, the video has been ricocheting around the blogosphere and inciting calls - some from Clinton supporters - for Obama to denounce the man who presided over his marriage and baptized his children.
Meanwhile, tomorrow Obama will be visiting us here in the Hoosier state. He is slated to speak at Plainfield Highschool in suburban Indianapolis after noon. How should Hoosiers respond to this latest scandal on the eve of Obama's visit?
Simple: This issue is fabricated from base guilt-by-association. It represents an inhumane politics and encourages public figures to abandon any and all relationships that aren't immediately reconcilable with political expediency. It turns our leaders into creatures of pure political calculus and punishes them for maintaining relationships with anyone who is in the slightest flawed and controversial. It misrepresents how and why people seek religious community and forces politicians to "politicize" even their intimate religious experiences.
To be clear, unlike the specious associations detractors attempted to fabricate between Obama and Tony Rezko and Obama and William Ayers, Obama's relationship with the Rev. Wright is a serious and long-standing one. It is, however, important to clarify the nature of the relationship. Rev. Wright has had a serious spiritual influence on Obama and the two can be fairly characterized as being close friends. But Mr. Wright is not a political advisor. His only involvement in the Obama campaign is as an honorary chair of a committee dedicated to African-American religious outreach. He isn't paid by the campaign. He has no input on matters of policy. He is a spiritual adviser and friend, and that is the limit of the relationship.
Should we be so quick to demand Obama denounce and abandon his friend and spiritual advisor over politically offensive comments?
I'm wondering how many of us wouldn't plead guilty to having loud-mouthed friends with noxious and obnoxious political opinions. Friends with questionable judgment? My list includes: sluts, skanks, tramps, junkies, thieves, and thugs. And those are just my exes.
Look: it's less important who our friends are, then why they are our friends. Friends with a debauched swine? If you hang with him because he's a blast to party with, that may reflect poorly on your judgment, but if you know him through the soup kitchen where you volunteer, it only suggests that the debauched swine is a complex person with other redeeming values. Similarly, if Barack Obama's relationship with Rev. Wright were grounded by mutual hatred of white America, well, that would be a problem. If, as is obviously the case, they are united instead by their common membership in a religious community and their common desire to fight poverty on Chicago's South Side, that seems like a valuable relationship that ought to be maintained in spite of obvious political differences. Nor has Obama been coy about stating that he disagrees "profoundly" with many of the Rev. Wright's political opinions. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Obama did just that, explaining, "Here is what happens when you just cherry-pick statements from a guy who had a 40-year career as a pastor. There are times when people say things that are just wrong."
Is it even remotely possible that, beneath the veneer of optimism and compassion, Barack Obama secretly hates white America? Given the long record of public comments by Obama that clearly and obviously contradict that possibility, the claim seems not only strikingly uncharitable, but downright frivolous.
Isn't it more likely that Barack Obama simply found worship at the Trinity United Church of Christ spiritually nourishing even when he frequently disagreed with the political messages coming from the pulpit? I know dozens of gay catholics who are appalled by the politics of the Roman Catholic Church, but head faithfully to church every Sunday morning because they find peace and comfort in the Mass. I know dozens of pro-choice Christians who were disgusted with the politics of Mother Theresa, but, nevertheless, would have been ecstatic to receive her spiritual council. I know dozens of Jews who belong to temples they feel are too ardently Zionist, but still crave the community and warmth they find there.
Religious experience is not and cannot be fully rational. Most people don't head to church to have their political beliefs challenged, vetted, or vindicated. They go to church because they find it spiritually satisfying and because it provides them with a welcoming, supportive community. In seeking those things, many people overlook the prescriptive messages of religion that can't be reconciled with the way they live their lives or their political views.
Why should Barack Obama be any different? Why isn't it enough for him to declare that he disagrees with the Rev. Wright's political idiocies, even if he still cherishes his friendship and spiritual guidance? It should not be a cause of concern that two people can worship together across a chasm of political difference. It should be a sign of hope.