I’ll let the pundits pontificate on Obama’s speech and whether he succeeded in satisfying the concerns of American voters about his religious convictions and relations with his pastor. But there are a few passages I think are particularly worth noting: in particular one that moves me and one that disturbs me.
I have taken the position that Pastor Wright’s views, extreme as a few of them may be, have no place in the presidential campaign. Those who are stirring up the issue have a decided interest in smearing Obama and destroying his candidacy and little real concern about Wright’s actual views or whether or not those views have somehow influenced Obama or might impact future policies he might pursue as president.
Other than George Bush, when have we ever witnessed a president whose political program seemed dictated by theology? I really can’t recall any. When have we ever heard a previous president or presidential candidate asked to explain or defend the views of his pastor? It’s simply never come up because Americans have been wise enough to understand that while religion is important to many of us, it would never determine policy. That’s why Obama’s statement that Wright was his pastor and not his political advisor was important.
But Obama wisely didn’t choose this path in his speech. He decided: if they’re going to make Wright the issue then I’ll accept those terms; but I won’t accept their narrow frame of addressing the issue based on a set of the pastor’s alleged extreme views. Instead, I’ll put those views in the broader context of Black experience in this country. I’ll try to make Americans understand WHY Jeremiah Wright might express bitterness toward white America. And I’ll try to do this in a way that will make Americans understand the bitterness while not expecting them to embrace it.
This is what an American politician at his best can do. This is what Bobby Kennedy did. Or Martin Luther King. They ask us to reach out from our own narrow place within American society toward other Americans who live differently than we do. It doesn’t ask us to falsely pretend we are like them. It doesn’t ask us to excuse their weaknesses. It merely asks us to try understand those who have experienced this country differently than we have–who have suffered injustices that we haven’t; who have had work less well paid; who have had less educational opportunity. This is what that blessed Lincoln phrase means: to appeal to the angels of our better nature.
Obama’s critics are appealing to the devils of our worse nature. They want you to think of what divides us. They want you to mistrust Obama. They want you to think that Wright is Farrakhan is Kahane (as one commenter here attempted to argue).
Personally, I don’t know if this speech was like JFK’s famous 1960 Houston speech in which he laid to rest the concern American voters had with his Catholic background. I hope it will serve a similar purpose. I hope that with this speech he has either won the nomination or at least put himself in a position that will eventuallly get him to that point. I don’t know. But I’d like to think so.
Here are a few of the best passages in my opinion:
The [Black] church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
This is a brilliant description of all religions and even political movements. I’ve often described Judaism and Zionism in similar terms. You can’t, unless you are uncharitable or mean-spiritied, dismiss an entire Church or religion or national movement by saying it’s all-cruel or all-ignorant or all-hateful or all-racist. Only demagogues try to do this. Religion is a constant battle between warring impulses for good or ill. It is the task of the believers to ensure that the angels of our better nature triumph in this battle. Obama has captured this so well.
Here again Obama views Wright as a personal embodiment of those contradictions:
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who…on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
My hope is that Americans reading or hearing this speech will see themselves in it. How many of us enjoy relationships with pastors, family members, co-workers or friends in which we make compromises because we feel that overall the relationship benefits us in some way? How many of us accept imperfections in these people because we realize that there is more good than bad in them? And to the Obama haters out there I ask: how many of you have found perfection in your presidential candidates or your pastors or your friends? Let he who has found such perfection cast the first stone against Obama.
In this passage, Obama captures another important issue in the attack on Wright:
For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear [of Jim Crow and segregation] have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends.
What the Wall Street Journal and John McCain want to do is penalize Jeremiah Wright for his alleged extremism. But the truth is that the latter is merely a mouthpiece for what Blacks really feel. He doesn’t stir up hatred that doesn’t exist. He merely reflects it in his sermons. He is the messenger and not the cause of the problem. So the proper response should be to confront that anger rather than dismiss it. Or as Obama says:
…The anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
If anything in this speech will help him win the presidential candidacy or election it will be this paragraph:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
This indeed IS the better angels of our nature personified in political language. As is this:
…We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”
There are other such passages and I urge you to read or watch the whole thing for yourself.
Now, to the one disappointing passage. We all understand that Obama has a potential Achilles Heel that the right is trying to exploit. They’re trying to insinuate that he’s soft on Israel. It won’t work because Jews aren’t as stupid as Jewish Republicans make them out to be. But it still means that Obama has to watch his right flank in the Jewish community. Which is why he said this unfortunate phrase:
…The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm…expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
The only truth in this statement is that Wright’s comments about Israel DO place overwhelming blame on Israel and U.S. policy and they don’t recognize any Palestinian culpability. And this is wrong. But Obama’s statement above runs to the opposite extreme and makes the statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not at all rooted in Israel’s actions. Which is an abject falsehood.
Further, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has almost nothing to do with the “hateful ideologies of radical Islam.” For the conflict is a struggle between competing national identities, and competing claims over land, and not competing religions. Religious enmity is a symptom of the problem, not the root of it. Here Obama got it wrong and not just wrong but egregiously wrong. This paragraph was written for him by an AIPAC hack or someone who’s channeling one. It doesn’t at all reflect the better angels of our nature.