Friday, March 21, 2008

Judging candidates by their church

First, a caveat: even though I'm dealing with an issue around Sen. Barack Obama, this is not about electoral politics.

What I am seeking to explore is the nature of public forgiveness, acceptance, and renunciation.

Sen. Obama is a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago. Trinity is a congregation of the UCC, and proclaims that it is "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." The congregation's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has come under attack in recent days for various public statements he has made. He has equated Zionism as racism. He charged that the 9/11 events were caused by America's violent policies, and later charged that the events were retribution for America's racism. He has also charged that the AIDS syndrome is a man-made affliction, specifically that it is caused by a virus which was invented by the US government.

Sen. Obama has made what I think is a good speech on the question of race in America. In that speech, he spoke about Pastor Wright's assertions and said that Wright represented an older generation's views on race in America. Obama went on to say that he while he disavowed Wright's statements, he could no more sever his relationship with Wright than he could sever his relationship with black America.

I'm going to suspect that Sen. Obama views Wright as a spiritual father. It was Wright who led Obama to his Christian faith, and Wright who married Barack and Michelle Obama. He baptized Sen. Obama's 2 children.

Given this history, we are wrong to demand that Sen. Obama denounce Pastor Wright. We may disagree with Wright's assertions -- Sen. Obama says he often does -- but I think that most white Americans operate on a different plane as far as churchly relationships. Black Americans -- probably because of a shared history of dealing with the consequences of slavery in America -- tend to operate on a more laissez-faire level of acceptance of differences and even eccentricity. I think that sometimes this brings a more ready forgiveness.

But I also suspect that Sen. Obama sees no need to forgive Wright. I suspect he views him as a sometimes flawed individual who is nevertheless his spiritual father. And given Sen. Obama's complicated physical father, we might cut the senator a bit of slack.

The US Constitution provides that no "religious test" may be required of a candidate. Which doesn't mean that we as individual voters can't prefer one or another variety of religious expression in those we vote for. But politics is complicated. Religious faith is complicated, too. And sometimes individuals belong to a church group which doesn't fully express their own faith. I don't know if this is the case with Sen. Obama. But the issue of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's relationship with Barack Obama may be more complicated than the network sound bites would lead us to believe.

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