By William Fisher
Amid the explosive controversy over remarks made in sermons by Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor, critics are charging that America’s mainstream media has distorted his comments with out-of-context soundbites, failed to understand the African American church, sought to punish the Democratic Party presidential hopeful through “guilt by association,” and gave a free pass to what they say are equally incendiary remarks made by white clergy on the religious right.
At the center of the storm that engulfed Barack Obama's presidential campaign is his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright is the former pastor of the Obama’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago's south side. He officiated at Obama's wedding and baptized his daughters.
Parts of Wright’s sermons have been played millions of times on the Internet and on television and have become a major issue for the Obama campaign. Wright's comments prompted Obama to give a groundbreaking speech on race in America – the first time in decades that this issue has been addressed by a candidate for the presidential nomination. In the speech, Obama said he rejected Wright’s more inflammatory statements, but refused to disown his longtime spiritual advisor.
Among Wright’s remarks:
"The government gives them (African Americans) the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, Goddamn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. Goddamn America for treating our citizens as less than human. Goddamn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
"We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans and now (post 9/11) we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."
The comments of Dr. George Hunsinger of Princeton University, an ordained Presbyterian minister, are typical of those who believe the American popular media have distorted Wright’s remarks.
He told us, “I think we are looking at some basic questions of fairness. Is it really fair to take a minister's remarks, no matter how provocative or ill-advised, out of context and to broadcast them incessantly, as if they were the only thing that minister ever said or believed? What purposes are served by this sort of propaganda?”
Hunsinger also raised the issue of faulting Obama for remarks made by Wright. “Is it really fair to slime a candidate with the defamation of guilt by association? Does anyone really believe that tactics like this belong in a well-functioning democracy? What kind of media succumbs to these tactics? Finally, is it really fair to act as though African Americans should all be a bunch of happy watermellon eating black folks with no historic grievances that our nation has yet to address? What universe are we living in?”
Another prominent theologian, Rev. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, said he “does not excuse some of the indefensible comments of Wright that have now been bludgeoned into our consciousness to the exclusion of all else. And those comments should not be excused. And they have not been excused by Obama.”
But he says, “The four S's charged against Wright -- segregation, separatism, sectarianism, and superiority -- don't stand up…” He said Trinity “has made strenuous efforts to help black Christians overcome the shame they had so long been conditioned to experience…People do not leave Trinity ready to beat up on white people; they are charged to make peace.”
Civil libertarians have also been weighing in on the continuing Wright/Obama controversy. For example, Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, told us, “Wright’s comments were taken out of context to make it seem like he was justifying the 9/11 attacks and was therefore unpatriotic. But when you listen to his entire sermon, he characterizes them as blowback for a vicious U.S. foreign policy.”
She added, “The cable (news) stations played the soundbites over and over, distorting their real meaning. Over the weekend, when news was slow, CNN played one of Wright's sermons in its entirety, which was helpful.”
In his speech, Obama called an Americans to begin a national conversation on race and ethnicity. Cohn told IPS that this “is already happening in the corporate media and on the Web among grassroots organizations. There is so much to talk about, this discourse will, and should, go on for a long time. We have a long way to go in overcoming racism.”
But she expressed doubt that the Bush Administration will take any substantive action to encourage the debate. “The Bush administration likes to sugar coat, i.e. spin, the most important problems, such as the failing economy, and the increasingly disastrous situation in Iraq. By encouraging a national debate about institutional racism, the administration would be admitting to its own shortcomings. It won't happen.”
The National Lawyers Guild was founded in 1937 as an alternative to the American Bar Association which, at that time, did not accept African-American lawyers as members.
Most polling data suggest that the Wright controversy has not damaged Sen. Obama’s presidential bid. But Harold Ickes, a senior advisor to Sen. Hillary Clinton, his competitor for the Democratic Party nomination, is quoted as saying that the Clinton campaign would use it as a way of persuading Party insiders – known as Super-Delegates – that Obama is not electable.
Meanwhile, theologians in Texas expressed support for Wright at a symposium last weekend on the “State of Black Church.” Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, associate professor of ethics and director of black church studies at the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said, ""What is eminently clear is the degree to which the black church is still largely misunderstood and routinely caricatured in U.S. popular culture.”
She added, “If Wright is guilty of anything, (he is) guilty of loving the U.S. enough to tell the United States the truth. Patriots and prophets are "often called to speak harsh words to their nation, not out of a place of hatred, as some suggest, but from an impassioned place of profound love and the highest of expectations.” Wright is a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps.
In contrast to the Wright/Obama furor, criticism of right-wing clergy has been muted or non-existent. For example, Mike Huckabee, a former candidate for the Republican nomination for president, has said, "I got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives...I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ." Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, is a former governor of Arkansas.
Also attracting little attention in the U.S. mainstream press are endorsements by prominent conservative clergymen of the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. One of them, Rev. John Hagee, has said Roman Catholicism is ‘A Godless theology of hate that no one dared try to stop for a thousand years.” He said that the Catholic religion has “produced a harvest of hate.” Hagee has confirmed that McCain sought his endorsement. McCain has said he was proud to have Hagee’s support.
Another prominent McCain supporter, Rev. Rod Parsley, has said, “America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion (Islam) destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore.”