Monday, May 5, 2008
Certainly not the typical way to begin an Easter Morning church service, the Rev. Dr. John Ballenger was reacting to the scandal associated with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illi., and his pastor the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright.
As pastor of Woodbrook Baptist Church in suburban Baltimore, Ballenger wanted to clarify that his words from the pulpit were meant as guidance, and were not necessarily transferable to the individuals in the congregation.
"Our worship and our community are defined by our conversation, not by any rigid and absolute like-mindedness," he explained.
However, Ballenger does not mean this to be a free pass. "I would hope anyone thinking about running for office down the road would be held responsible for what they bring to the conversation and for what we as a congregation do with that conversation - not for what I bring to the conversation."
Pastors, public figures, journalists and commentators continue to weigh in on the recent scandal regarding Wright's controversial sermons and other public comments.
Rev. J. Brent Walker, director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, sees this as a very delicate issue.
"The question of where one worships and whose preaching someone has sat under in the past are not completely irrelevant," Walker explained. "However, I think the firestorm created by the statements in sermons by... Jeremiah Wright, has gone way to far."
Even former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is defending Obama and the way his campaign handled the situation.
"[Y]ou can't hold the candidate responsible for everything that people around him may say or do," he told Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's Morning Joe, while performing his duties as surrogate to presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.
The Second Wave
Yet Wright's latest comments, particularly those in Detroit at an NAACP event on April 27 and at the National Press Club in Washington on April 28, have changed the nature of this debate.
He started his Detroit speech by pointing out that his words were "descriptive," not "divisive." This sentiment was followed by encouraging interfaith dialogue and denouncing "see[ing] others who are different as somehow being deficient."
However, the next section of Wright's speech mocked the speaking patterns and accents of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as those of Edward Kennedy, the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts.
The next morning at the National Press Club, Wright again started with inspiring words on the African-American religious experience.
"God's desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change," Wright began. "God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people."
Yet when asked a question about one of his sermons, he asked her if she had heard the whole sermon. Without letting her respond, he said "You haven't? Well that nullifies that question."
Wright reiterated his views that the firestorm surrounding his sermons is not just an attack on himself, but on the entire black church, which created many waves throughout the Christian and political communities.
The difficulty with his statements is that there is no central "black church" in America. Numerous Christian denominations have strong African-American congregations, including Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal and United Church of Christ, of which Wright is a part.
"Reverend Wright represents [the] black church about as much as Warren Jeffs represents the white church," explained Nancy Giles, a social commentator speaking during Verdict with Dan Abrams on MSNBC, referring to the leader of a Fundamental Latter Day Saints sect that practices polygamy.
If referring to liberation theology, a major part of traditional black theology and Wright's preaching, many more than just the black church have been attacked.
A predominantly Roman Catholic Biblical interpretation, liberation theology preaches that Jesus Christ, along with being savior, served as liberator. An integral part of this ministry is activism, particularly on social justice issues.
Obama's opponent in the Democratic primary, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., was pressed about the Wright situation on an April appearance on The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News. Host Bill O'Reilly began his interview with the candidate by asking, "Can you believe this Rev. Wright guy? Can you believe this guy?" Clinton said she would "leave it up to the voters to decide," but O'Reilly asked her for an opinion as an American citizen rather than as a candidate.
"Well, what I said when I was asked directly is that I would not have stayed in that church," Clinton said. "I think it's offensive and outrageous," she said about Wright's remarks.
"People will have to decide what they believe," she continued, "and I certainly don't believe that the United States government was behind AIDS."
When O'Reilly said that what Wright had to say "disturbs" him and that his comments were "hateful", Clinton all but agreed, saying she found Wright's comments "totally off-base" and "so far out it's hard to even understand and take seriously."
O'Reilly asked Clinton if she felt sorry for Obama because his campaign had been "derailed by some loony guy." Clinton said that she thought her opponent had done what he needed to do when "he made his views clear finally, that he disagreed."
A key word in Clinton's response is "finally," because after Wright's first wave of controversial statements went public, Obama stood by his longtime pastor and refused to denounce him.
Barbara Walters asked Obama in an appearance on The View about the situation, comparing it to shock jock Don Imus' racist remarks that Obama strongly denounced and asking, "What's the difference?"
"I joined this church when I was 27, twenty years ago," Obama said. "Rev. Wright had a reputation, justifiably, for being one of the best preachers in the city."
Obama said he had never heard Wright say "some of the things that have upset people." Obama added that he did not have a research team listening to Wright and that he had not been vetted by the campaign. He said that he found the remarks "rightly offensive," but continued to defend his church and his former pastor.
Walters asked Obama whether he would have stayed at the church had Wright not retired, and Obama admitted that he wouldn't feel comfortable in the church if that were the case.
View co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck pressed Obama further on the issue, asking if he displayed a lack of judgment by staying in Wright's congregation. "You speak about 'one America,' but the person that you chose time and time again to be your spiritual adviser, when he says and characterizes the U.S.A., as you said wrongly, the U.S. of KKK-A, that the chickens were coming home to roost after 9/11, suggesting that we got what we deserved -- you chose him again to marry you, to baptize your children, you named a book after one of his speeches... you had no idea, you never heard about these sermons?"
"The particular ones that you mentioned I hadn't heard," Obama said. He added that "it's not to excuse it," but that "what you've been seeing is a snippet of a man." He asked the hosts to "imagine if somebody compiled the five stupidest things" they had ever said.
"Barack Obama has been nothing but loyal to him, as a member of his parish," Giles said. "It's true, he attended, he was married by Rev. Wright, his kids were baptized by him. But this guy has not been loyal. He's not acted in any way that I can see Christian or spiritual, all he's done is go for the limelight."
Obama himself seemed to agree with that sentiment at a recent press conference following the most recent wave of Wright remarks. "Obviously whatever relationship I had with Rev. Wright has changed as a consequence of this," he said. "I don't think that he showed much concern for me, and more importantly I don't think he showed much concern for what we're trying to do in this campaign and what we're trying to do for the American people."
Obama said he wanted to make absolutely clear that he does not "subscribe to the views that [Wright] expressed" and that he believed them "wrong" and "destructive."
He added that if Rev. Wright thinks his denunciation is "political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought either."
"I am outraged by the comments that were made," Obama said, "and saddened by the spectacle that we saw yesterday."
Huckabee reacted on Fox News, praising Obama for "distanc[ing] himself from the very vitriolic statements."
Will it matter?
The Wright controversy will undoubtedly effect the relationship between religion and politics for years to come.
"A free and fluid discussion in the public square about a candidate's religious convictions...can enrich the public discourse during elections," explained Walker. "But it's vitally important that the discussion about religious conviction be tied directly to a candidate's position on public policy or his or her leadership style."
The problem with this statement is that there is no objective way to judge what does and does not influence public policy or leadership style.
In this election cycle alone, Wright has had, and will continue to have, profound effects.
Although many factors contribute to shifting poll numbers, the Wright controversy has been cited by pundits as a major reason for Obama's shrinking lead in North Carolina and Clinton's ability to pull ahead in Indiana.
A senior McCain advisor told New York Magazine's John Heilemann, "Once there was a clear impression that [Obama] would be tougher...but after these past few weeks, I don't think that's the case anymore."
The North Carolina Republican Party even released a television advertisement opposing two Democratic gubernatorial candidates in that state by tying them to Obama and Wright. The ad, which was condemned by McCain, says that Obama is too extreme for North Carolina. "For twenty years, Barack Obama sat in his pew listening to his pastor," the ad begins, before playing clips from Wright's infamous "God Damn America" sermon.
"I don't think that my church is actually particularly controversial," Obama said on the campaign trail in April.
Maybe he's right: according to a new Fox News poll, over half of Americans approve of the way that Obama handled the Wright situation.
If anything, the Wright controversy has already entered into the political lexicon for comedians, commentators, and the pundit class.
"At the very moment Obama doesn't need this to come back into the race -- Obama did not disown him," said Bill Maher on his weekly HBO show Real Time, "this guy brings up the one thing that Obama cannot afford to have brought up, that he's just another politician."
Comic Joy Behar joked on The View about the implications of the recent uproar, suggesting that Wright is helping the GOP with his media frenzy.
"I think Rev. Wright might be being paid by the Republicans," she said.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
- He served 2 years in the US Marine Corps before transferring to the Navy for 4 years.
- Wright was inspired to waive his college deferment and join the Marine Corps after hearing President John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech.
- While in the Navy, Wright was stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital where he was a cardiopulmonary technician. While there, he helped care for President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.
- He holds a bachelor's degree (in English from Howard University), two masters degrees (one in English from Howard and one in Divinity from University of Chicago) and a doctorate of ministry (from United Theological Seminary).
- Wright holds seven honorary doctorate degrees, and was scheduled to receive one more when the invitation was withdrawn due to the recent controversy.
- Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago has become the largest UCC church in the country under Wright's pastorate. He has been pastor there since 1972.
- Wright was supposed to give a public prayer at the event where Obama announced his candidacy for President. However, the invitation to do so was withdrawn.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Q: What are your views on the separation of church and state? How were these views formed?
A: The separation of church and state is good for both. The institutional and functional separation between the two is called for by our Baptist heritage and required by the religion clauses in the First Amendment: No Establishment and Free Exercise. Neither church nor state should try to control or interfere with the work or mission of the other. This is especially important in a religiously diverse culture that we find in the United States. Government must remain neutral towards religion.
Q: What role do you think religion will play/is playing in the upcoming Presidential election?
A:The separation of church does not require segregation of religion from politics or strip the public square of religious discourse. Learning about a candidate’s faith helps voters get to know who they are, understand what makes them tick and examine what their moral code is like. A free and fluid discussion in the public square about a candidate’s religious convictions is not out of bounds and can enrich the public discourse during elections. But it’s vitally important that the discussion about religious conviction always be tied directly to a candidate’s position on public policy or his or her leadership style. Otherwise, an examination of a candidate’s religion is little more than spiritual voyeurism and violates the spirit if not the letter of Article VI of the Constitution that bans a religious test for public office.
Q: Should political candidates be allowed to speak in churches, or is that mixing church and state? Why or why not?
A: Political candidates can speak in churches if all candidates are invited and the church is clear that it is not endorsing or opposing candidates. Candidates should be allowed to worship and speak in churches (without all being invited) if they avoid making a political speech and the church makes it clear that it does not endorse or oppose candidates. Even within these guidelines, the appearance of a candidate may be divisive and vitiate the churches prophetic witness. As a result, the church may find it wise not to permit candidates to speak.
Q: Should religious authorities endorse political candidates? Why or why not?
A: Religious leaders, speaking for themselves and not for the church or entity they represent, may endorse political candidates without threatening the tax exempt status of the church. Again, leaders may choose not to do so for fear of creating the impression that their church is also endorsing.
Q: Is the media coverage of the Rev. Wright controversy appropriate? What should the media be doing differently? Should Sen. Obama be judged based on his pastor?
A: The question of where one worships and whose preaching someone has sat under in the past are not completely irrelevant. However, I think the firestorm created by the statements in sermons by Senator Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has gone way too far. Senator Obama has stated clearly his disagreement with the sometimes inflammatory remarks that Dr. Wright has made. However, to make Obama suffer a political penalty for refusing to repudiate Dr. Wright himself – one who served as his spiritual leader for years, married Obama and his wife and baptized his children is to expect too much. The same goes for present and former pastors of Senators Clinton and McCain.
Q: Should religious officials/institutions be permitted to endorse political candidates?
A: Religious officials, when speaking for themselves, may endorse political candidates. Religious institutions (section 501(c)(3) nonprofits) may endorse candidates, but not without threatening their tax exempt status. In any case, the practice of endorsing candidates by officials and institutions will often be divisive and corrosive of the churches’ witness.
Q: Politicians often invoke God in their speeches, especially in the South. In places like Texas, there aren't a lot of people who would object. Does that make it acceptable?
A: Candidates do not have to check their religious convictions at the door. It is appropriate for them to talk about their faith, and use religious language in their speeches. But I bristle when it appears that God is being used (or abused) to advance a political agenda. Candidates should be careful in their use of religious language and understand that they are seeking to serve all the citizens, religious and non-religious alike, and not just those who share a common religious heritage.
Q: Many social justice issues, particularly gay marriage, are often approached in the political arena with religious arguments. Is this appropriate, considering our country's separation of church and state? Should any/all mainly religious morals be imposed on the general public?
A: The separation of church and state does not divorce religious ethics from influencing public policy. However, I offer three notes of caution: (1) the theological principle of humility should temper any public debate driven by religious conviction, (2) as mentioned above, God talk should not be used to curry favor or garner votes, and (3) the resulting policy outcome, under the Constitution, must have a secular purpose and not have the primary effect of advancing religion.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Friday, April 25, 2008
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Democrats, in the words of Sen. Joseph Biden after the Sojourners forum, acted more like agnostics -- other would say atheists -- when it came to issues of faith.Martin makes the case for Democrats to pay attention to their faith-based voters, or suffer the consequences on election day.
For nearly 30 years, Republicans successfully used wedge issues like abortion and homosexuality to rally their base to those social causes and elect candidates who were willing to go to the mat when they came up. Their outreach efforts were strong, consistent and they delivered time and time again. And as long as Democrats were willing to ignore the ever-increasing concerns of people who tied their faith with public policy, the GOP would continue to clean up at the ballot box.
Monday, March 31, 2008
By K. Hollyn Hollman
I get the bulk of my news by radio on my commute to work. Lately, there has been a larger than usual correlation between what I hear on my way to work and what I do when I get there. News reports of presidential candidates speaking to religious audiences, and particularly from the pulpit, are rampant. Callers want to know why it is happening and what is being done about it.
Based on the biographies of this crop of candidates (from both parties), it may be natural that they would be comfortable framing political priorities in faith language and speaking in houses of worship. Still, the practice of politicians filling pulpits during campaign season raises good questions that should be considered carefully if churches are to avoid pitfalls.
There are legal issues, though they are not insurmountable. Houses of worship, like other nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations, are prohibited from intervening in campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office. In short, such entities, which receive favorable tax treatment, including receipt of tax-deductible donations, should not be used to tell people how to vote. The resources of nonprofits should be used for the educational, charitable, or religious purposes for which they are organized. Other laws govern campaigns and contributions to them. Nonprofits should not be used as a way around those laws.
The IRS regulations that prohibit endorsing or opposing candidates and thus protect tax-exempt purposes, however, are not intended to stifle the religious freedom of congregations and other religious entities or to prevent individuals from being involved in campaigns. Protections for religious freedom ensure that houses of worship and members of religious communities have the right to participate fully in public debates.
Those competing interests are explicitly recognized in the guidance issued by the IRS to explain the ban on electioneering. For example, the guidance notes that churches can have candidates speak at sponsored events either as a candidate or in an individual capacity (as a public figure, congregant, etc.), with guidelines that address each situation. A wealth of information on the risks of church electioneering, including a link to the guidelines, is available on the issues page at the BJC Web site.
As the recently reported IRS investigation of the United Church of Christ (UCC) demonstrates, the difficulties are in the details. According to information from the denomination, the IRS investigation arises out of a speech by Sen. Barack Obama to its national meeting in 2007. The UCC has been aggressive in getting its story out and demonstrating a number of factors that support its side of the story. He was invited long before his presidential candidacy; he has long been a member of a UCC church; his participation was part of an anniversary program featuring 60 members of the church; a disclaimer on electioneering preceded his speech; and campaign activity was excluded from the premises.
Concerns cited by the IRS involved Web site links to news stories and conflicting references to the fact that the speaker, in addition to being a public figure and member of the church, is a candidate for the presidency. In recent years, the IRS has reiterated its willingness to enforce its rules, as well as providing more guidance about possible events far less explicit than a pastor’s endorsement from the pulpit. Thus, even where one may have a good legal case, the costs can be high.
Quite apart from legal issues is the inescapable risk that an appearance by a candidate (even speaking as a “non-candidate”) in the pulpit aligns a house of worship with that candidate or a particular political party. This risk is plain, regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation, whether a church is well-known as having a particular political leaning or involvement in a political debate, and whether the candidate is a former preacher or a first-time pulpit speaker. It is a risk to the house of worship itself in that it may divide its members and do damage to its reputation in the larger community. While polls indicate a majority of voters want a candidate of some faith (and thus presumably appreciate seeing them in a house of worship), concerns for the church may weigh heavily against inviting candidates into the pulpit.