Barack Obama deserves to take heat for his relationship to his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, the man who's lit up many a TV screen and Internet tube with his claims that "America's chickens are coming home to roost" and "the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color."
Indeed, Obama deserves at least as much heat as every other candidate for president since Jimmy Carter. Let me explain.
When Barack Obama chose to join the congregation of Trinity United Church of Christ back in 1987, his decision was partly spiritual, partly calculated. As Obama tells it in his 1995 autobiography Dreams from My Father, he was seeking two things. He was seeking salvation. He was also seeking a secure perch in the volcanic politics of black Chicago. In his interview with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama spoke plainly about his political concerns and Wright spoke back in his own language. "I'll try to help you if I can," Wright said. "But you should know that having us involved in your effort isn't necessarily a feather in your cap. Some of my fellow clergy don't appreciate what we're about. They feel like we're too radical. Others, we ain't radical enough."
Wright was not talking about his rhetoric that has since become the stuff of heavy cable rotation. Wright was talking about the church's flashiness and reputation for a more upper crust following in the black community. But Wright assured Obama that the church had a real presence in Chicago's South Side and that its "Black Value System," which Obama read that day, revealed the church's goals: To keep blacks in the community and to keep them from scattering to the suburbs. "While it is permissible to chase 'middle-incomeness' with all our might," reads the statement, "we must avoid the third separation method—the psychological entrapment of Black 'middleclassness.'" Here were the makings of a political base.
But Obama's decision to join the church was not simply a political calculation. Uncertain and struggling with his faith, he was moved to tears when he stopped in one Sunday and heard Wright preach on the "audacity of hope" (a phrase that later became Obama's signature). He found Christ in that church. That's the perversity of this scandal. Deciding to stay in Trinity United after 1996, when he had won a perch in the state Senate, was the end of Obama's calculation. Staying in the church through this presidential campaign, fully cognizant that Wright and his doctrine could become a liability (talk radio was shredding the "Black Value System" a full year ago), was not craven.
Obama seemed whipsawed by the reaction to Wright in a way he has never seemed so far in this race. In hs attempt to explain Wright before the "More Perfect Union" speech, Obama wrote that he "has never been my political advisor; he's been my pastor." This was true, strictly speaking. But Obama has straddled the line between politics and the pulpit in his meteoric political career. His rise had a lot to do with his ease at talking about religion, which seemed to Democrats like—pardon the pun—manna from heaven after the debacle of John Kerry's campaign. In his 2006 "Call to Renewal" speech, a key moment in his rise, Obama told religious liberals gathered in D.C. that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square." He called for progressives to understand and utilize religious speech to push their agendas. And he called for more than speeches:
Across the country, individual churches like my own and your own are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, helping ex-offenders reclaim their lives, and rebuilding our gulf coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will?
Obama's speech was, in some ways, a concession speech. He was saying that the advocates of closer church-state coordination were right, and it was time for progressives to understand that. And both Bill and Hillary Clinton had beaten him to the punch. Bill's administration pioneered the faith-based initiative, the federal grant for religious charitable programs: "Well-designed partnership between government agencies and religious bodies which can, at least in theory, unleash the underutilized compassionate energy of religious civil society," as Clintonite and Harvard Professor Mary Jo Bane has written. Hillary sang the praises of faith-based initiatives early on in this campaign.
Faith-based initiatives are not at the root of religious politics; they are an outgrowth of them. Of all the bizarre rituals that are followed by politicians and no one else—seizing infants from strangers and posing for pictures with them, taking camera crews on hunting trips—probably the most alien is church tourism. Presidential candidates are expected to visit, glad-hand, and even make sermons in churches all over the country they're itching to rule. "The presence of Democrats in black churches right before elections has nothing to do with religion," says Amy Sullivan, an editor at Time and the author of a book (The Party Faithful) about Democrats and religion. "They just see churches as a convenient way to reach a big number of black voters at one time." But Democrats do pay back these congregations and their leaders when they get into office, in the form of careful federal aid and in the form of access. Just ask Lewinsky-era White House guest Jeremiah Wright.
This is a strange bargain between the candidates and the country. Up to now, no one has demanded that a candidate renounce his pastor as the punditocracy suggested Obama do. No one demanded it of George W. Bush, no one demands it of Hillary Clinton, and no one demands it of John McCain. But it is expected that Clinton and McCain, like Bush, will sweep into countless churches without ever asking what their pastors say. They will go to some churches, like Rod Parsley's World Harvest Church or John Hagee's Cornerstone Church, where the pastors are on the record demanding "the false religion" of Islam be "destroyed," or that New Orleans was pummeled by hurricanes because "it had a level of sin that was offensive to God." McCain's occasional criticism of religious right leaders did not prevent him from going to Liberty University and asking Falwell and his students to support the war in Iraq. But if McCain's experience so far is a guide, all the candidates will have to do is disagree with the bad stuff and they'll get a free pass to campaign.
Why is that? Why is Barack Obama's 20-year fellowship a mark on his character but the drive-by and politically motivated fellowship of every presidential candidate simply expected? I understand the argument that Obama might have been influenced by Wright in the pews. I understand it and I don't buy it. The candidate has had 12 years in government to demonstrate his Wright-inspired AIDS conspiracism or race hatred, and he hasn't done anything of the kind. The only possible conclusion is that he disagrees with Wright's occasional outbursts. After the senator's "More Perfect Union," former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson argued that the fair-weather support of Republicans for Jerry Falwell was excusable in a way Obama's relationship was not, because those Republicans "didn't financially support [Falwell] and sit directly under his teaching for decades."
That's a red herring. Republicans, led by George Bush, gave Falwell political access: visits to the White House, jobs for Liberty University graduates, actions that amplified his voice and strengthened the bonds between church and state. The financial aid that Obama gave Wright was a part of his private faith. The attention lavished on Falwell, one among many religious-cum-political leaders who built bonds with the Bush White House, had a public effect on who sits on federal benches, on which charitable organizations get taxpayer cash, and on how much credibility we give to ideas like abstinence education.
The furor over Obama's church is the result of a blurring of the lines between faith and politics. "What this reveals," says Amy Sullivan, "is that we've really gotten warped in last 20 to 30 years in so closely linking politics and religion and assuming somebody who's your spiritual leader is your advisor as well. If everybody quit when their pastor gave a sermon that offended them, no one would stay in the same church." The stakes for "everybody" are not so high, though. You quit a church, and that's one less donation per week and one less pair of hands to clean up after a fellowship dinner. You are not trying to butress the bridge between religion and government.
Pastors do offend people. Pastors have a complicated relationship with their parishioners. That relationship should be private, and even though Obama was a bit player in the great "warping" that Sullivan talks about, and even though his relationship with Trinity United started with realpolitik, I feel for him here. Every candidate for this office for 30 years has been playing a game with religion. He shouldn't be the only one who loses.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.