This week, Barack Obama has come under fire because of belief by association. Sermons by his long-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have come to light that include vitriolic statements that attack the American status quo. There are two issues to consider, the beliefs and the association.
If we allow the mainstream media's appetite for controversy to set the agenda for political discussion we will continue to find the suggestion that each candidate is responsible for all the beliefs of each person making an endorsement. It is not fair to assume, or for that matter even to accuse, that since Dr. Wright has apparently praised Louis Farrakhan that Obama somehow supports Farrakhan. Likewise, Rev. John Hagee's endorsement of John McCain does not lead to the conclusion that McCain shares Haggee's disdain for Catholicism. One could argue that Obama's connection to Wright is markedly different since as his pastor, Wright has influenced Obama's faith formation for a couple of decades. Certainly there is an important relationship here that Obama has stated numerous times. But to suggest that one is showing poor judgment by remaining a member of a church where the pastor makes a few controversial statements is to sorely misunderstand this church and its denominational tradition.
For many years now Christianity in America has been portrayed as a religion of doctrinal and ideological alignment. But the experience of most churches, at least those in the Mainline Protestant tradition, and certainly within the United Church of Christ (the denomination of Obama's church), is one of a wide range of theological views where rarely does a week go by that something said from the pulpit does not meet with the disapproval of one or more members. The UCC embraces this diversity of expression as a way of seeking to know more of “our still speaking God.” Even the dialogue between those who think differently is an opportunity, as it can teach us better how to live with these tensions without forsaking community. Unfortunately, this appears to be a concept not interesting enough to the mainstream media to cover. Likewise, the media pressure around this has unfairly forced Obama to choose between an old friend and mentor and his political future.
As for the beliefs themselves, it cannot be denied that Dr. Wright has spoken some difficult truths in a manner that offends. While we may not accept that from our politicians, we should not be surprised to hear it from preachers. The ancient Hebrew prophets were a surly bunch who spoke truth to power in socially unacceptable ways. This is the model for some preachers today. No one but Dr. Wright needs to defend his views, and some of them certainly demand clarification at least. Still, preaching to a predominately Black congregation about the ugliness of the still too-present racism in America today, while uncomfortable for Whites to hear, is yet appropriate. It is patently unfair for the oppressor to insist that those who are oppressed cease all antagonistic speech directed at them. We can hope that this issue does not get reduced to an incident about individuals, but instead opens up a wider discussion of ways of undoing racism in America.