“Just maybe now as that dialogue begins the religious tradition that has kept hope alive for a people struggling to survive in countless hopeless situations will be understood.”

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, April 28, 2008

The right response to the controversy that has been generated with regard to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. is not to run away from the United Church of Christ pastor, to condemn him, or to try to apologize for him.

Rather, it is to listen to him and to recognize that Wright’s not the disease that afflicts our body politic.

Indeed, this former Marine who became an remarkably-successful and widely-respected religious leader is in possession of the balm that has frequently proven to be the cure for what ails America — an eyes-wide-open faith in the prospect that this country can and will put aside the sins of the past and forge a future that is as just as it is righteous.

As Wright has illustrated over the past several days, in a remarkable appearance Friday on PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal and in speeches to the Detroit NAACP and the National Press Club in Washington, he is the opposite of the caricature of an angry, America-hating false prophet that has been so crudely attached to him. Deeply grounded in biblical tradition, nuanced in his understanding of race relations and historically experienced in his assessments of America’s strengths and weaknesses, he has much to say to this country at this time.

Not all of what Wright says is comforting.

His views are not universally appealing, nor are they or should they be seen as unassailable.

But, for the most part, they are well much within the mainstream of American religious and political discourse.

The problem is not Jeremiah Wright.

The problem is a contemporary political culture that has come to rely on character assassination as an easy tool for reversing electoral misfortune — and a media that willingly invites manipulation.

Let’s not forget how Wright became an issue in the 2008 presidential race. Republican operatives, fretful about their party’s political fortunes, decided that the only way to weaken the candidacy of Wright’s longtime parishioner, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, was by suggesting the Democratic presidential front-runner was in the sway of an anti-American radical.

That end was achieved by separating out from long and thoughtful sermons regarding matters biblical and political seemingly offensive phrases and then inviting the Grand Old Party’s media echo chamber to repeat the sound bites until they became conventional “wisdom.”

This is a classic guilt-by-association maneuver, played out so aggressively in the current circumstance that it would make Joe McCarthy blush. But it has worked, at least in part because people of good faith have not taken the time to assess and appropriately answer the charge that Obama’s connection to Wright confirms the candidate to be either a closet radical or, worse yet, a dupe of some free-floating, ill-defined but still frightful fringe.

The response of Obama — most recently in an extended and at times painful press conference on Tuesday — and of many of his supporters has been to try to put distance between the candidate and the preacher. “They offend me,” the senator said of controversial comments by the minister who presided at his wedding and baptized his children. “They rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced. And that’s what I’m doing very clearly and unequivocally today.”

That’s strong stuff, to be sure. But it is not likely to end the wrangling over Wright.

While it is always good to maintain America’s historic wall of separation between church and state, the Obama camp has not had a lot of success so far in separating this particular statesman from his church.

That’s because the candidate and his backers have consistently come across as being embarrassed and ashamed by Wright.

That’s the wrong response. It’s perfectly fine to disagree with Wright. And Barack Obama should do so.

But there’s little if anything about this pastor that should provoke embarrassment or invite apology.

Wright can be unsettling, thought-provoking, often right and sometimes wrong. But he is neither anti-American nor unpatriotic.

In more ways than Republican and now Democratic critics seem prepared to admit, Wright is the embodiment of an American religious and political tradition of challenging the country’s sins while calling it to the higher ground that extends from the founding of the republic. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson — who constructed that wall of separation between church and state but who worried a good deal about questions of the divine — worried openly about the retribution that would befall a nation that permitted slavery.

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” wrote Jefferson in 1781’s Notes on the State of Virginia, where he asked, “(Can) the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

The wrath of God brought down on a country that permits slavery? A nation damned by its original sin? God damn America?

America has been blessed from its beginnings by champions of liberty, by abolitionists and civil rights marchers, by suffragists and union organizers, by anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and challengers of the military-industrial complex like Dwight Eisenhower. Necessarily, these patriots have said some tough things about American leaders and policies. They have acknowledged flaws that are self-evident. Yet, they have not done so out of hatred. Rather, they have loved America sufficiently to believe it can be as good and as just as figures so diverse and yet in some very important ways so similar as Thomas Jefferson and Jeremiah Wright have taught us.