Who can justify bringing the anger of righteous whites down on a black candidate for his association and friendship with the outspoken pastor of the church he attends? Where did the anger (and the news story) begin? Is this pure racism, pure politics, or purely justifiable indignation on the part of white Americans?
Guests include: Ronald Kessler of NewsMax.com; Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell of the University of Chicago and Princeton University; Professor Brad Braxton of Vanderbilt University; Richard Cizik, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals; and Frank Schaeffer, author of “Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All or Almost All Of It Back!”
The discussion has been edited for clarity and ease of reading.
The first speaker is Ronald Kessler, Washington correspondent for NewsMax.com and author of “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race To Stop the Next Attack.” He had a hand, if not the leading hand, in getting the story about Barack Obama’s pastor to the public.
First, I’d also mention that I’ve also done stories critical of Hillary Clinton based on Secret Service observations of how nasty she is and comparing that with Barack Obama who is very decent with his Secret Service. I think that’s very important. And I’ve also done stories about John McCain’s temper. But on this, I got an email from a friend who said, “There’s stuff on this website of Barack’s church about the black value system, about how ‘we are unashamedly black.” As I looked into that further I found some definitions of that which include such statements as, “America puts blacks in prison rather than killing them off,” and just crazy, crazy stuff. I couldn’t believe it. And then, as I looked further into it, I did do a story based on that. I then found that the church and Reverend Wright had given an award in December to Louis Farrakhan. Wright was quoted in the church magazine as heaping praise on Farrakhan as someone who epitomizes greatness. That was January 14th. Then after that, Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “Well, that award was just because of Farrakhan’s work with ex-offenders.” That was just made up, because there was no mention of ex-offenders in the magazine or in the presentation. Rather, it was a lifetime achievement award for his great works.
So that was how it all started. And the latest speech just, to me, doesn’t have much to do with the fact that this is someone Barack Obama has been associated with for two decades, not only as his minister but also as his friend, his confidant, his sounding board. At the least it shows poor judgment. Beyond that I think it shows that Barack Obama actually has an affinity for some of these views. …
I said in a story yesterday that [Obama’s speech 3/18/08] was very eloquent, and that it was brilliant, but it’s just words. When we evaluate presidential candidates or when we evaluate someone we’re going to hire as an electrician or plumber we’ve got to look at their track record, at what they’ve actually done and not necessarily what they tell you. To just disregard this to me is really dangerous. Actually, NewsMax has quite a few Democrats who are readers and some blacks who’ve said that I don’t know what I’m talking about – because I’m not black I can’t understand it. Well, I interviewed for the story my friend Warren Williams who wrote a book called “Enough” which is all about black victimhood and he says that this is what some black leaders and some preachers do to get support. They emphasize that blacks were slaves and they create this whole ideology of victimhood. It’s harmful and he says it’s simply bigotry to express the kind of hatred that Wright expressed. Paranoid thoughts that the US caused the AIDS virus to kill blacks, that the US deserved the 9/11 attacks because of our racist society, that the US does put blacks in prison purposefully rather than killing them off… Of course, it’s the first time I’ve heard the government has been so efficient and well organized that they’ve been doing all these things. And of course if John McCain had had a minister, friend, and sounding board for two decades who gave an award to David Duke, you would pretty much have to forget about his candidacy.
What I see in Barack Obama’s response is an effort, on the one hand, to give the impression that he’s disavowing everything but, on the other hand, he also wants the support of this segment of the black community that does buy into this victim approach. He doesn’t exactly denounce his minister. He denounces the words. He says, “Of course, I’ve heard controversial comments” -- which, of course, could mean anything. He’s playing with words. He’s claiming he never heard these particular comments. If he was unaware of them, he’s one of the few people in Chicago who was unaware of them. That’s another problem in a president – if he’s not perceptive enough to know. Of course he knows! Of course that’s why he’s going to church!
I think you just can’t wipe away two decades of history and pretend that it didn’t exist. When Barack Obama announced for the presidency, he first was going to have Wright give the invocation… To me it would be inconceivable that, for example, if your friend gave an award to Louis Farrakhan that you wouldn’t have some areas of agreement with that person if you remain that person’s friend. … The vast majority of Americans, when they hear these horrible, hateful comments by Wright, cannot stand it. If they heard it in a church, they’d walk out. That’s why I say that he must agree with some of it. Otherwise, why would anybody sit there and listen?
The next speaker is Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of “Barber Shops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought.” She is also a seminarian at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
I taught at the University of Chicago for seven years, and during those seven years that I taught at Chicago I also attended Trinity United Church of Christ. So, I was a regular attendee there. I was not a member – I am a member of another church. So I can speak about even my disagreements with Reverend Wright. For me, rather than thinking about it as the disagreements we have with our friends or family members – as useful as that was when Barack suggested his complicated relationship in both loving his grandmother and recognizing forms of soft bigotry that emerged from her – I think that as a country, for example, we actually do a very good job of judging some elements of our community by the very best of themselves and not by the very worst.
Most importantly, I would say, in the way we think about our founding fathers. If we think about Thomas Jefferson, someone who was not only a slaveholder – because one might say, “Well, holding slaves as a Southern gentlemen was just part of the times” – he also articulated the strongest most vehement and long-lasting, racist language at the founding of our country. In “Notes on the State of Virginia” he basically inscribed within our American context the notion of inbred racial difference and the ways in which black people could never be considered for citizenship. He also wrote the Declaration of Independence in which he says that all persons are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable right and among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
How foolish would we be to reject Thomas Jefferson, reject the important contributions and the words (dare I say!) that Thomas Jefferson said, even while he held in bondage other human beings. If we judged him only as an enslaver, and as vicious, nasty, awful and inter-generationally inhuman as that was – going far beyond the sermons of Reverend Wright – this is a man who did vicious and terrible things and yet we recognize, with complete clarity as a country, the value of the words that he wrote and the meaning and flexibility that they had to create for us a great country. So I think we actually do a very good job of understanding the very best of people and not the very worst. If and when we decide that’s what we want to do.
Response from Ronald Kessler
I think that’s an interesting point. You can change your mind about something. You can rise above it. I don’t see any progression like that in what Barack Obama had to say.
Lawrence O’Donnell, interviewer and moderator: I’m not sure there was any real progression in Jefferson’s attitude towards slavery and I’m not sure what he did specifically to redeem his impregnating a slave… Which brings me to the following context: Louis Farrakhan, who’s a lightning rod in American politics and who will always find a way into these kinds of discussions and is very legitimately placed here by you because of Reverend Wright’s lifetime achievement award to him – he has been condemned for comments about Judaism he made over twenty years ago. Is it conceivable to you that in the decades since then he has done anything in his spiritual life or his day-to-day life in Chicago that have in any way been commendable?
I don’t think that’s true at all. I’ve seen anti-Semitic comments that he’s made within the past few months, not only anti-Semitic but anti-white, anti homosexual, anti-American. That really is not true about Farrakhan. Of course, everybody does something good. Mafia figures go to church, they contribute to charitable causes, but they murder people. So I don’t think the fact that, for example, Reverend Wright’s church does do good things – it does help out in many social programs – has anything to do with the fact that Barack Obama has been attending such a radical, extreme church.
Yes, I have an overall favorable view of Thomas Jefferson… [ Would I ever come up with an overall favorable view of Reverend Wright?] … I think the difference with what Jefferson did was the socially acceptable thing to do at that time. There are all kinds of things that went on in the past that were accepted …
The next speaker is Brad Braxton, Professor in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
I think racial perspectives have everything to do with [the willingness sometimes to forgive indiscretions or negatives in a person’s life and other times we seem less forgiving about that]. …There are two things I’d like to say as I jump into the fray here. First, I come to this as a Christian theologian and as someone who has studied the development of the black church, so there’s a scholarly perspective I’d like to bring to this. But there is also the perspective I bring being an ordained Christian clergy. I consider myself to be a religious progressive and so I bring that set of lenses to the conversation as well. So I’m very interested in how this moment can give us a firmer grasp on what the truth may actually be. For me, being a part of this conversation is important in terms of fostering some genuine cross-cultural dialogue about these …important matters. How can we generate more light and not just more heat is one of the reasons I wanted to be involved…
I think fundamentally this conversation that we’re having in our country will not be righted until we get some important historical context. I’d like to do that in two ways, very briefly. First of all there needs to be a larger conversation about the roots of the black church and the development of black Christianity – and why even language like that makes spiritual sense, religious sense, in the current context. …Second, I think there needs to be some broader discussion about what I will call the “prophetic mindset.”
First, the concept of the black church. One of the missing developments in or aspects of in the current conversation is the fact that the black church rose as a creative response, in many regards, to a kind of hegemonic, dominant form of Christianity, a distorted form of Christianity I would even say, where you have Christian missionaries offering a version of Christianity that is supporting the vile enslavement of other human beings. This became very real to me when I visited the Ghanian slave dungeons not long ago. To be there in Ghana and to see that you had European chapels literally above the dungeons where Africans were being held prior to the long journey in slave ships. So African-Americans come to Christianity in the modern period in a very intriguing way. That has not been listed in terms of the development of the black church in the hold of the slave ships, in plantations, and as black people are beginning to say, “How do I hear this message of Jesus that’s coming from slave holders? How do I hear this? How do I understand this?” It was in that broader historical context that a new form of Christianity arose, a form of Christianity that actually tried to correct the distortions and injustices inherent in a particular form that was given to African-Americans as they were introduced to this country. That’s the first thing I’d like to say, and I’m wide open to further conversation about that.
Comment from Lawrence O’Donnell: There seems to me to be an oddity in a slave population taking its religion from its masters.
This is the genius of African-American Christianity. There has been tremendous scholarship on this. What the African-American community did was to take the shell, if you will, of the Christianity that was given to them by the missionaries and the slave masters and they carved out from that all of the racist, debilitating aspects, and placed in it a new kind of content. That’s the missing aspect of this conversation. There is a different flavor. Many African retentions that came from the African continent were placed into the shell of white missionary Christianity. That’s what I don’t think many people understand. When churches talk about being “unashamedly black” or lift up “African elements,” that is not a kind of separatist language, it’s not a lack of patriotism, it’s a firm realization that, in the slave ships, our ethnicities were stripped from us and the concept of race was imposed up on us by slave masters. What black people did in their brilliance was to take a concept of race foisted upon them for all kinds of negative purposes and use it as a principle for dignity, nobility, political and spiritual mobilization.
Quite honestly I find some of the logic in the conversation quite faulty. Race is a concept foisted upon the black community to debilitate and even violate us. We used it – we did an improvisational riff on it – and made it an organizing principle for our self-advancement and even to help the country be its best self. Now as we use that principle to organize ourselves, to raise our families, and to be the best citizens we can in this country, we are criticized by using a concept that we did not help to create! It’s a fascinating logic that needs to be unpacked further.
Lawrence O’Donnell plays excerpts of Obama’s speech describing services at his church.
“Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes-bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”
O’Donnell says that Reverend Wright’s statements did shock some white liberals and asks whether that is part of the cultural divide?
Certainly we live in an incredibly segregated country even after many years of ending legal segregation, we still live in a country where African Americans and whites for the most part don’t live near each other. Although they may work in the same places, they don’t work at the same level with one another. Our children don’t go to school together and we certainly don’t worship together. I think it’s actually perfectly acceptable not to worship together. My colleague was saying about the particular theological resonances as well as the behavioral, structural, and worship style. People have a right to choose within the context of civil society if they want to sit quietly with their hands folded in their laps on Sunday mornings. Or if they want a more kinetic, bodily religious experience. What I think is the problem is the notion of valuing one of those experiences over the other, saying that one can only be worshipful and full of dignity of you’re sitting quietly with your hands in your lap.
So it’s not so much that we are separate, but that we are separation also breeds a kind of ignorance and judgment about what the other styles are. Part of what disturbs me in the public conversation around this has been the language that the church is somehow a “fringe” church. That’s absolutely inaccurate. The church is very mainstream. Part of the reason why I attended that church is because nearly every black professor at the University of Chicago attended that church! The vast majority of church members are middle class folks who work for the city government, who are postal workers, who are teachers, who are educators. There’s not some grand conspiracy on the part of Trinity United Church of Christ members to go out and infiltrate and destroy America! Quite the opposite. If you look, as your guest has suggested, at the fruits of the labor of the church, I think what you see quite clearly is a church that encourages and produces among its membership a great deal of social import, a great deal of personal healing. And more than anything, I suppose, it does what a church is supposed to do – it brings people closer to God. I don’t think anyone in the country should vote for Jeremiah Wright for the US presidency. I think that would be a terrible idea. But Barack Obama is not Jeremiah Wright. He is part of a congregation full of people who are brilliant and engaged and patriotic and worshipful Christians.
The next guest is Richard Cizik, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella organization of fifty-one denominations and thirty million members in the US. He responds to a question about the difference between black and white Christianity in the US.
Well, obviously I think we share some biblical mandates, biblical truths. We all are Christians in the broadest sense. We may not be a part of the same denominations but we serve the same god and worship the same risen savior. …I think a lot of Christian evangelicals, while they may be offended by the comments of Reverend Wright, in a certain sense we understand better than others that we all see through a glass darkly but by God’s grace we persevere. So we understand in the prophetic tradition, even in our own movement, that in the past fundamentalists have appealed to race to build a political movement. We know that from the Southern strategy that Richard Nixon employed. And so Christians have to recognize that we all live under a cloud of fallibility and our best efforts may not, at times, succeed. So I think we bring a degree of understanding to this that maybe others on the outside wouldn’t simply because we have had preachers in the fundamentalist and some in the evangelical traditions that have espoused views that at times have been offensive.
…Armed with the principles derived from the Bible and general revelations, Christians have to apply these principles to specific situations each of which exists within a historical and cultural milieu. One had to understand the history and the culture and the values of a particular community in order to understand how… to seek remedies that glorify God. If someone were to come into an evangelical service – for example in the ‘60’s in the South – they would have been appalled by some of the preachers and some of the things they said. Reading today some of what was said by my forefathers of the faith. So you have to really be careful that you don’t, in this case, assign to Mr. Obama views that his preacher held, anymore than today we would assign to some of the parishioners in evangelical churches and their preachers have said at times.
… I can talk a little bit why I attend that church. The first thing is to say that I’m not necessarily offended by the prophetic tradition of black American preaching that criticizes one’s government. Although I don’t always agree with the analysis offered by Jeremiah Wright, I’m not offended that he offers that analysis. So I’ll tell you that I have a complex religious experience. I would worship in the morning as I still do now at a Unitarian church which is predominately white and not particularly Christian in its worldview – a much more secular humanist church. And then in the evenings I worshipped at Trinity United Church of Christ. And I did it for several reasons.
Trinity was both a cultural space that provided a great deal of emotional and social healing because it’s a place where African Americans pray together, where we sing together, where we wear the clothing of the African motherland. It’s a place to reaffirm who you are, particularly when you work at a place like the University of Chicago, a vastly, predominately white place, where you encounter racism in your work life and often in your home life. It’s extremely important to have an opportunity to reengage with black communities who are worshipping in a way that says, “God has a preferential option for the poor.” That when we read the scriptures, we see over and over again – both in the Old Testament and in the New – a way in which God is calling us to have a particularly concern for people who have less than us.
So a large part of the reason I worshipped there was both for the emotional and social healing as well as for the kind of political call towards doing more – doing more activism work, doing more to assist the people living in our communities. Now I combine that with the secular humanist tradition because that also has value to me. But I can tell you that I was more frequently appalled, astonished, and offended by things that were said in that predominately white setting, that struck me as shockingly ignorant on questions of race, sometimes of gender. But it was a place that I love and I love all the people I worship with there. I love my minister there even though there were times when that minister said things that I just thought were wrong! Similarly, there were times when Jeremiah Wright said things that I just thought were wrong! I wasn’t offended by them. I understood them to be part of his political analysis.
And quite honestly, I think it is a great strength of Barack Obama. The thing he has been claiming since the beginning of his campaign is that he is able to work with, sit with, and continue to be engaged in relationships with people with whom he disagrees. The country was applauding that when the people with whom he disagreed were white, conservative Republican lawmakers. Then his ability to reach across the aisle was considered a greatness. Now he’s saying, “I’m also able to sit with, work with, and have engaged relationships with someone with whom I disagree who’s a progressive black minister.” And now it’s all a lie, it’s all awful. I think Barack has already told us, a long time ago, that this is who he is – someone who can be with people he disagrees with and he doesn’t feel the need to walk out of the room. I think that’s a good thing in a president.
The final guest is Frank Schaeffer, a writer. He is the author of “Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All or Almost All Of It Back!”
I take a little bit of a different angle. For those people who haven’t read “Crazy for God,” I grew up in evangelical royalty so-called. My dad was Dr. Franklin Schaeffer, a founder of the religious right, founder of the evangelical pro-life movement – both of which I have left. What I see here is intense hypocrisy. My father criss-crossed the country calling for the violent overthrow of the US government in books like “A Christian Manifesto,” published in 1980. What happened to him after that? He was invited to the White House, was a confidant of President Reagan, Ford, Bush Sr. No one ever distanced themselves from his prophetic words as a white evangelical. And he wasn’t even yelling them in a sermon style that lends itself to hyperbole as was Reverend Wright. My dad was writing this down. If you read “A Christian Manifesto,” he compares America to Hitler’s Germany. Then he said, “There comes a time when legitimacy can be attached to the use of force to change the government,” if they won’t change and they’re doing something sinful.
I would just say that there’s a double standard here, that we heard at the beginning of this show with one of your other guests talking about investigating this preacher and a smear-by-association with Barack Obama that just absolutely infuriates me, to be honest. I’m very, very angry – as a white, 55-year-old American who has always voted Republican in every election, and someone who helped found the religious right. I think this double standard is disgusting. I’m not judging what Reverend Wright said as right or wrong. But if you compare the volatility of his comments to those made by people like Jerry Falwell who has been approached by John McCain before Falwell’s death to patch up his ties with the conservative movement. Or if you look at Pat Robertson blaming America for 9/11 and its sins of accepting the gay community, and realize he gave his endorsement to Rudy Giuliani and Giuliani accepted it, then this is a double standard.
White American candidates from the left or right, Hillary Clinton or McCain, can accept the endorsement, friendship, and comfort of fundamentalists, of left-wing white rabblerousers like the late Bishop Moore of New York for instance who is an Episcopalian just like John McCain is… Where are the clips of Bishop Moore railing against the US as he did as often as he served communion next to John McCain? So my view is that this is an act of hypocrisy. It underlines the racism that we have in this country. I emphasize that I come to this as a white, middle-class American Christian who has been active in the right wing. But just out of a sense of fairness and decency, cannot stand to see an honorable and decent man like Barack Obama judged by a different standard. So my point is different from the other guests’. My point is not about Reverend Wright per se, it’s about hypocrisy and a double standard and treating black Americans differently from the way we treat white Americans in this case. …