Former President Jimmy Carter is an evangelical Christian. It was just lucky for him that when he ran for president in 1976 he had his Jesus credentials in place. All our politicians were suddenly born-again, and the voters were acting as if they were born yesterday. Since then, displaying religion is right up there with ‘being fun to have a beer with’ and dodging ‘gotcha’ moments.
When some inflammatory excerpts from sermons by Senator Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, were broadcast on ABC news this March, Senator Clinton was already doing a ‘gotcha’ on this comment Obama made during a fund-raising speech…
“It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
What, us bitter? No way, that would be unpatriotic. We always look on the bright side of life. And it sounded like Obama was implying that religion could be a bad thing. What is he, against God? Religion is always a measure of how good a person is — the more religious, the better. Right? Like in Northern Ireland, or Iraq.
It seems unfair to castigate Barack Obama for saying that religion can be divisive and reinforce a siege mentality. He’s dealing right now with a former pastor who offers a mixed message of hope and paranoia, who seems to have become so attached to a conspiratorial vision of America that he is, perhaps unwittingly, undermining the candidacy of the first African-American politician who actually has a chance of winning the presidency.
If Senator Obama had not made this connection before, he’s got time now to reflect on how bitterness can distort religion in the Black community, as in other parts of our society. Bitterness can spark loyalty to deeply flawed leaders when those leaders mix their demagoguery with truths that no one else dares to speak. But the prophetic tradition that inspires in church is not a substitute for debate and process in the state house. Religion and politics is a bad combination.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is no stranger to politics. He presided for many years over a powerful church in a large denomination with its roots in American history. The Rev. has not been isolated and is not inexperienced. He could have taken this opportunity to build bridges. But even reading his interview with Bill Moyers, a fellow member of the United Church of Christ , who invited him to explain his more inflammatory sermons, Rev. Wright seemed more interested in justifying himself. If he has become too used to preaching to the choir, he has forgotten how to reach out to people who will not understand the context of his anger. He missed a chance there.
Still, he is not without substance. An excerpt from one of Rev. Wright’s sermons, on the attacks of 9/11, contains a great deal of the kind of truth that politicians don’t dare to speak.
“Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets terrorism. A white ambassador said that y’all, not a black militant. Not a reverend who preaches about racism. An ambassador whose eyes are wide open and who is trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised. The ambassador said the people we have wounded don’t have the military capability we have. But they do have individuals who are willing to die and take thousands with them. And we need to come to grips with that.”
The truth is that the attack on 9/11 did not come from nowhere, but from people who resented our country because of our actions in the Mideast. For generations the US has been politically involved, and we’ve made enemies. If we don’t face that truth, then we won’t elect leaders who are able to negotiate peace. “They hate us for our freedom” was never an explanation.
But there’s a difference between a preacher saying that god will judge, and a preacher who claims that a national disaster was inflicted by his personal god to punish his personal enemies. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright can, like his namesake in the Bible, stand outside the walls and exhort. The Rev. John Hagee was invited in to bless Sen. John McCain with his approval and endorsement.
Here are Rev. Hagee’s words after Hurricane Katrina…
…in September, 2006. During an interview with NPR, he said the devastating storm “was, in fact, the judgment of God against … New Orleans.
The city, he continued, “had a level of sin that was offensive to God” because there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.
Nice. Rev. Hagee had a recent bout of humility where he conceded that he doesn’t have direct access to the mind of god, but I don’t think it will last. He’s lucky he’s white, because white preachers have been talking appalling nonsense for so long we don’t even hear them anymore.
Such as Rev. Jerry Falwell after 9/11…
“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
John McCain also sought Rev. Falwell’s blessings. And votes.
And Pat Buchanan, who isn’t reverend, but has the true religion, gives us his take on how white Christians are such wonderful people that even when they are raping, murdering and slaving god turns it around for the good…
First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.
Gee. This helps me understand why someone would rather listen to Louis Farrakhan.
There’s a lot of bitterness, and misdirected anger, being channeled into religion. Barack Obama was harangued for saying so, but it’s true.
When the first attacks on Jeremiah Wright hit the press, Barack Obama responded with a powerful speech on race. He didn’t toss his old friend and mentor under the bus, like a former president I won’t name. But now the Reverend has left him little choice but to distance himself completely. That’s too bad. Because white America and black America need to understand one another better. It won’t help to retreat into our separate churches. We need to keep talking and listening. (Incidentally, this whole mess is a good argument for respecting the separation of church and state. )
And there is a place for socially-minded preachers. But it’s not a comfortable place. Remember that Rev. Martin Luther King did not run around claiming that his personal god smote people, he didn’t spend all his time attending White House dinners, and he didn’t use the Civil Rights movement to get rich. He was more like that Other Guy who also died young. Follow him if you dare.