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Imagine for a moment that you are pro-life. You believe that each abortion represents the murder of an innocent child. And as it stands despite protests and lawsuits and bills passed in the state legislatures, and organizing and marching and lobbying and petitioning, abortion in America remains legal and each year over 1 million innocent children are murdered. Yet America continues to stand idly by and allow this mass slaughter. If you were religious, you might think that God judged America harshly for this crime, for the nation’s continuing indifference, and you might even think that God damns America for its tolerance of a holocaust.
It’s hard to imagine, though, that if a Republican presidential candidate were running for president and had a preacher with the views spelled out above, that it would cause much of a stir, or even register a blip in the brain-dead oscillations of the twenty-four-hour, scandal-cycle EKG. And yet here we are, five or six news cycles into an ongoing firestorm over a few seconds of two different sermons delivered by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Barack Obama’s (and Oprah Winfrey’s) Chicago church, and a man who Obama says “brought me to Jesus.” Just five minutes watching cable news coverage of the “scandal” and it’s hard not to conclude the episode represents just about everything repellent and degraded about the nation’s public discourse on religion, politics and race.
The first problem is that we’ve come to a point in American political life where a de facto religious test exists for the highest office in the land. Whereas a half-century ago, John F. Kennedy was forced by circumstances to deliver a speech reaffirming his inviolable commitment to the separation of church and state, and primacy of the secular political sphere over his private theological beliefs, this past year Mitt Romney, a Mormon, gave what amounted to the same speech in reverse. Telling the assembled that it wasn’t so much what he believed rather than that he believed. In other words, we’re on the same side in the holy war.
The problem for Romney, and the whole reason he had to give the speech in the first place, is that he’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith with a variety of beliefs that are viewed as eccentric, creepy or downright blasphemous by millions of the nation’s Christians. He was desperately trying to slam shut the Pandora’s box opened by our demand that candidates discuss the role faith plays in their lives. It’s all well and good to hear comforting platitudes about their prayerfulness, but once we step inside the church doors, we’re liable not to like what we hear. A cursory examination of any believer’s views is bound to yield legions of problematic beliefs. Evangelical Christians believe that anyone who has not accepted Jesus as his personal lord and saviour will be sadistically tortured for the rest of eternity, which means that each of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust now spends each instant from here to end of time suffering torture far worse than what they faced in Dachau or Treblinka. The Rev. John Hagee, whose endorsement John McCain avidly sought and received, thinks that the Catholic Church is “the great whore” and that murder of Yitzhak Rabin was justified because it brought Israel closer to the fate God has chosen for it. There is more than a little wisdom to the old rule of etiquette that one ought not discuss religion at a dinner party.
But the right wants to talk about it, discretion be damned. So now, after years of Democrats being hectored for being insufficiently pious we have candidate who speaks openly and genuinely about his Christian faith, and what happens? The man whom the candidate says brought him to Jesus is transformed into a political liability. The entire episode has a familiar Lucy-and-the-football quality to it. Four years ago Democrats, having been told they had to prove their patriotism and military bona fides, nominated a war hero, and what happened? He was promptly attacked precisely for his record of military service. It’s a rigged game.
When I asked a conservative friend how his pastor’s spiritual beliefs would stand up to scrutiny, he countered that the problem with Wright was that his sermons weren’t religious, they were political. (Politics from the pulpit! Heavens, no!). This is, if tendentious, also clearly much of what motivates the outrages. Alongside some mildly nutty conspiratorial innuendo, Wright was offering, in heated even, hyperbolic terms, a set of fairly standard left critiques: He said America is run by “rich, white people” which it is, that it has a gruesome history of oppression and racism, which it does, and he used the occasion of 9/11 to ask his congregation to consider for a moment the violence, death and destruction brought to innocents under our own flag, with our own righteous justifications.
After three decades of the mainstreaming of dangerous and reactionary viewpoints, though, even the mildest bit of left-wing radicalism is deemed toxic and taboo. So while Ann Coulter can call John Edwards a faggot, Grover Norquist can say he wants to drown the government in the bathtub, and a host of imperialists can foment an illegal and pre-emptive war based on lies, Barack Obama’s pastor isn’t allowed to mention that America has been throughout its history the site and cause of much evil in this world.
Ultimately, though, this controversy, like so many in American life, is about race. It’s telling that the issue of Wright’s views have percolated among the right-wing fringes for months, but it was only with the discovery of a video, and the images and sounds of an angry black man decrying racial oppression in the cadences of the black church that the media staged a collective freakout. The problem politically for Obama is that his campaign is built on the promise of racial transcendence and healing old wounds, and here’s his pastor picking at the scabs. Or, as a friend of mine put it, it turns out America’s black friend has a black friend.
But it is only through the most debased and perverse logic of racial guilt by association, whereby every black politician has to denounce Louis Farrakhan, that the the political views of a candidate’s spiritual mentor should have any truck whatsoever. If Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency is derailed by a few intemperate remarks that his retiring pastor gave to a church which did not even contain the senator in its pews, it leads one to think that Wright’s skepticism about America’s treatment of black Americans and a black presidential candidate is wholly justified. And if, of all things, it is his pastor’s heated denunciation of American injustice that undoes the candidacy of an African American with a legitimate chance at the White House, any conscientious observer could be forgiven for thinking: God damn America indeed.