Monday, May 5, 2008

The Story

"Are we recording? Good. If any of you ever run for public office, I want you to know that y'all aren't responsible for anything I say."
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.

"Totally Off-Base"
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.

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