The Wright-Obama Divide

What does the pastor say about the man?


The important thing about Jeremiah Wright, the inflammatory former pastor of Barack Obama's church, is not that he thinks America is "controlled by rich white people," that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were the result of our "chickens are coming home to roost," or that God should "damn America" for its sins against blacks. It's that Wright is supporting a presidential candidate who clearly believes none of these things, but instead puts his faith in what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

It's as if the Minuteman Project were to endorse a candidate who favors more Hispanic immigration. Wright has gotten behind a leader whose success badly undercuts the pastor's belief in the irredeemability of America.

That is a good thing. If there are people, black or white, who hold such a bitter, distorted view of this country, it's reassuring that the most congenial political figure they can find is one who radiates—in fact, embodies—our national faith in freedom and progress.

Wright apparently sees this nation as defective and divided beyond repair. Obama thinks the defects are only a part of the story, and that a unity transcending ancient racial distrusts is achievable.

What has fueled his candidacy is neither black anger nor white guilt, but a desire by people of different complexions to minimize the role of race in our society. In his book, A Bound Man, Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele writes that Obama is "a living rebuke to both racism and racialism, to both segregation and identity politics… [H]e also embodies a great and noble human aspiration: to smother racial power in a democracy of individuals."

If the pastor truly believed his more vitriolic comments, he would have no choice but to treat Obama as a fool for aspiring to the presidency. Instead, Wright has been forced to entertain the notion that white people would choose a black male for the most powerful office on Earth.

When Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, liberals attacked him for getting support from members of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, which regarded Dwight Eisenhower as a Communist agent. Reagan responded, "If anyone chooses to vote for me, they are buying my views. I am not buying theirs."

His career illustrates that political shrewdness often requires attracting not only savory but unsavory people to a cause. When he ran for president, he was criticized for tossing the occasional bone to racist white Southerners by endorsing "state's rights." But by appealing to many of those who had once supported the venomous white supremacist George Wallace, Reagan helped defang those forces, while advancing his own political agenda.

George W. Bush followed a similar route in 2000 by speaking at Bob Jones University, which had lost its federal tax exemption for banning interracial dating and whose founder once called Bush's father a "devil." Being politicians, Reagan and Bush found ways to lure in bigots at little cost, while rejecting their most cherished beliefs.

Obama likewise hopes to co-opt black radicals, whose convictions will be sorely tested if he wins the presidency. A candidate should not be condemned if he or she can persuade extremists to support a campaign that offers no extreme positions but many sensible ones.

In this case, of course, the complaint is that Obama doesn't merely accept Wright's support but that he joined his church and remained there. Why didn't he leave? One reason, as Obama said in his speech, is that the outrageous statements are only a small part of what he knows about the man, and that Wright's spiritual guidance and the church's vital missions in the community were far more important.

Anyone choosing a church has to accept its flaws, which can be considerable. Good churches and good pastors can be hard to find, and perfect ones impossible. I suspect Obama figured that if Trinity United Church of Christ excelled in its most important functions, he could put up with some foolishness in the peripheral area of politics—something lots of white churchgoers are accustomed to doing.

What is crucial, though, is Obama simply can't accept the view he heard expressed from the pulpit that America is an evil, oppressive, racist society. Come November, Wright may have serious grounds for doubt as well.