I often write positive things about Ross Douthat (along Reihan Salam) and their call for a Sam’s Club Republicanism. But his take here on the Obama-Wright dust up is daft:

More importantly, though, we don’t demand that Catholic politicians answer for every Papal address and encyclical because most people understand that a cradle Catholic’s relationship to the magisterium of the Catholic Church tends to be dramatically different from a convert to Protestant Christianity’s relationship to the pastor of the only church he’s ever attended. A Catholic’s relationship to his local priest is perhaps more comparable, though again the weight that Protestantism – particularly in its evangelical strains – places on individual ministry tends to make a Protestant’s choice of minister far more revealing than a Catholic’s choice of parish. (Traditionally, Catholics weren’t even allowed to parish-shop; where you lived determined where you want to mass.) I would also add that in the course of attending mass at dozens of Catholic parishes over the last decade, I can’t say I’ve heard a single homily remotely like the Wright sermons that are stirring up all the controversy.

The line about cradle Catholic parish vs. Protestant congregation revealing much more about the Protestant (and his/her views) is just a cradle Catholic thinking about Protestantism through a cradle Catholic lens.

It’s a nice theory (on the surface) but it actually doesn’t often hold up to scrutiny. I would generally label it (very mildly) prejudicial Catholic thinking. i.e. It was what I thought to think when I was a Catholic just like Ross was–that is what all us cradle Catholics were taught to believe about Protestants.

Here’s one counterexample–my own. As someone who was both raised a cradle Catholic and as an adult converted to Protestantism and have spent most of my Protestant life at one parish, I can tell you the choice (originally) was because of the location, the music, and the beauty of the church. And because it was a large downtown parish that I thought more people might be attending from different walks of life, something I found that I was wanting then. Later on I’ve become more aligned with the politics of my church (if that is the right term)–which in our case is the inclusion of gays and lesbians–but that was not why I initially went. I stayed and came back in the beginning because the people were kind and I found the liturgy very moving.

It would be very easy for someone to automatically assume (as Ross has done with Obama) that because I went to this otherwise politically controversial church therefore I must have joined that church because of its stance on the gay and lesbian question. Such a person would be wholly incorrect.

Obama could have chosen Trinity United for any number of reasons. Here are some possibilities:

1. He loved the music (they have a blow your mind transcendent black choir)

2. He loved the people and found it a deeply warm and inviting place, with a caring community.

3. The United Church’s policy of acceptance of open gays and lesbians as opposed to many black churches where such individuals are not welcome and condemned for their lives. We know of Obama’s repeated inclusions of these issues in his speeches–famously at a black church on MLK Day.

4. He loved the wide ranging and profound ministries the church did in the neighborhood. Check out the list here. Recall he was a community organizer.

5. The reason he gives in his autobiography (which nobody is talking about since the talking heads always know better): i.e. that he was struggling as a young man (remember he was in his twenties when he first went to the church) to find his identity. His father abandoned both he and his mother and his vision–reinforced by socialization–was of black man (filtered via his father) as absentee poor men. He was looking for a strong black father-figure role model and found Rev. Wright. Wright took him in, helped bring him to Jesus. Here was a man who a Ph.D., world renowned preacher (Wright made the Great Preachers of the English Language Series) and somebody who obviously cared about him. Someone with whom Obama disagrees on many political matters.

[Ed. This can’t be right because then we would have to trust a politician–in his self-serving autobiography nonetheless!!!–especially because it doesn’t fit our pet ideologies. And all politicians are crooks anyways right?].

My own perception of Dreams of my Father was that it was one of the most nuanced and honest takes on race (in America if not more broadly) that I have ever read.

6. He, Obama, was then seen recall as a half-white boy (with an African not an African American father), hence not considered black/”black enough” in some circles. Authentically so that is. He had decided in his reflections to self-identity as a black man. This was a church where he saw black people proud of their heritage. And it helped him politically (in that context) of course and was I’m sure not unrelated to the fact of wanting to be seen as black.

But none of that is going to matter because the right wing which has been looking for a way to take Obama down, has locked in on this one it would seem. They see this as their ticket to smearing him an anti-American lefty. See Fox News Sunday from this week for proof.

The way to do so will be to argue as Douthat has done (though I don’t think he is part of the vast right-wing conspiracy as it were this line of thinking will be adopted I imagine by many who are): that is to say that somehow Obama’s choice of this church is more reflective of his political views than other individuals at other churches and their church choices. [For the record I have heard comments like Wright’s on 911 in churches both Catholic and Protestant–that says more about Ross’ political views and life experience than he probably realizes that he hasn’t.]

Again that Obama has a deep personal bond with Wright and maybe that should be stronger than political views–such an outlook is superseded by petty politics and the vague specter of anti-Americanism. [Douthat refers to Wright’s comments on 9/11 as beyond the pale. That they are factually beyond the pale in American discourse is true–but that doesn’t answer whether they should be or not.]

And/or as in this video with Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday, arguing that Obama is really a charlatan. That he went to Trinity and played race (“black nationalist” he calls it) to his advantage and now seeks post-racial because that is popular and will win him more votes.

The disproof of that view is to compare Wright’s sermon on the Audacity of Hope (from which Obama got the phrase) to Obama’s understanding/interpretation/use of that phrase.

For J. Wright, the Audacity of Hope is that in a world of intrinsic violence, a hell he repeatedly calls it–blood, guts, bodies everywhere, hatred, racism, abuse of women, neglect of children, murder, mayhem and screams of pain echoing throughout the world–in that it is audacious to praise your God. To have hope nonetheless.

For Obama, the Audacity of Hope is that a mixed racial boy from Kansas-Hawaii-Indonesia with a funny name and a goofy smile, whose father dreamed of America as a place of opportunity and freedom, could help call forth a movement. That is audacious. That people could come together. That he could run for president (as a campaign far surpassing any of his opponents to date).

Light years different from Wright if you notice. But not cynical manipulation. Both hopes, both world visions, and both audacities are true by the way. Remember that when Wright’s otherwise wonky conspiracy-theory laden stuff is all that comes out. Read that sermon and you see a different side of the man.

The take away in other words is that Obama is both indebted to his church and its pastor AND he is an autonomous person who is forging another political way. I think that is a more accurate view, but not discounting he’s a politician and there is always calculation involved (some)–though McCain and Clinton are certainly no different and probably worse in my book in that dept.–but still saying there is a genuine element of this in him. In both word and action.

Obama helped come to his identity as a black man through that church and Jeremiah Wright. But he did not fall them in the way of separatism or conspiratorial thinking. Juan Williams–whom I highly regard–I think needs to consider that possibility more carefully.

But who cares? I don’t but I’m not who needs convincing and I approach these issues (I think) very differently than many others. I’m honestly less concerned about Wright’s 1960s anti-system racialist rhetoric–which there is NO proof that Obama agrees with or seeks to legislate or execute–then I would be if Obama threw this man to whom he owes a great deal under the bus at the first sign of political difficulty for him (Obama). I appreciate that Obama has a sense of both his autonomy to name where he disagrees and not to dissemble the man in public for his (Obama’s) gain. Obama has a sense of due respect (to his generation and the man) and saying that it is a time for change–in both the black and white communities.

Published in: on March 17, 2008 at 3:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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