Sunday, March 23, 2008

Obama and Wright: thinking out loud

I'm currently going through Obama's speech called A More Perfect Union. It's interesting so far, though not directly relevant to the Australian experience that I can see. My primary interest is in terms of its relationship with the US media controversy over Pastor Jeremiah Wright. There's some deep-seated issues coming up over there.

Around the blogosphere I see people still even now asking of the Obama/Wright situation "how can he keep going to the same church for 20 years if that man is his pastor?". I regret that I have been so far unable to directly hear the controversial statements of "that man" myself. I would point out that Obama has already given an answer to that question in his speech:
Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Perhaps Obama's asking too much of people to put aside their first impressions? I know from my own experience it's hard to unform a conclusion about something once it's been formed - nobody wants to believe that they have poor judgement. But looking at the statement given, I recognise also a danger inherent in insisting that certain statements from a spiritual leader be "seen in the context of everything else that he's done" - the local example of Sheikh Al-Hilali's disturbing comments about women come to mind. I did not accept that the balance of evidence was in favour of Al-Hilali at that time. Is Obama's answer enough to excuse Wright? I don't know. But I would hope future commentators would at least acknowledge that he's tried to do so. So few of them have even now.

But the controversy isn't supposed to be about Wright, is it? It's supposed to be about Barack Obama, and how he's supposed to remove himself from Pastor Wright's church. Even if I reject the "but look at all the good the pastor's done too!" argument, I can't find a way to believe that Obama should physically reject Reverend Wright. I can and have been perfectly willing to condemn Reverend Jerry Falwell for comments made by Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sheikh Taj Aldin Al-Hilali for comments made by Sheikh Taj Aldin Al-Hilali, Pastor John Hagee for comments made by Pastor John Hagee, and Reverend Jeremiah Wright for comments made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Why is it that I must condemn Barack Obama for comments made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright and demand that he distance himself? Does the phrase "individual responsibility" mean nothing to Americans anymore?

I suspect cultural difference between Australian and American views on religion: it seems the claim is that Wright's public statements supposedly demonstrate that Obama has been indoctrinated into being racist and anti-American through the constant bombardment of over twenty years' worth of sermons containing such sentiments at Wright's church. Leaving aside how one can conclude the existence of "constant bombardment over twenty years" from some selected highlights from some selected sermons put up on Youtube, the whole idea that your entire worldview on racial and political issues is shaped by your pastor - in fact, MUST be shaped by your pastor - seems completely alien to me. Yet the American commentators complaining about Obama's association with Wright seem equally unable to comprehend the idea that Obama's worldview on racial and political issues could ever be different from that of his pastor in any way.

Is it because I'm not religious that I don't understand this powerful hold that pastors supposedly have over their flock? I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of people who have pastors with whom they disagree, often strongly. There's nothing in Obama's speech or demeanour that suggests he has any racist sentiment towards white people, or any hatred of America. In fact his pro-American sentiments are part of his appeal to me: he gives me a reason to believe that the ideal to which America aspires still exists behind the weight of the Bush years, and can still come to the fore. And yet now, because of statements said by somebody else and which Obama has repeatedly condemned and denounced, I'm supposed to stop believing in that?

To anyone that can't understand why Obama never walked away from Pastor Wright's church, please answer a question for me, asked in all sincerity: why should he? I genuinely don't understand why he supposedly had to.

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