National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Obama Corrects His Reaction to Wright

At first blush, Sen. Barack Obama’s speech delivered Tuesday, in response to the growing controversy of his relationship to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, seemed eloquent, moving and even epochal.

Indeed, it was a balm to the insensitive and hostile reaction that characterized Obama’s initial reaction to the video clips from Wright’s sermons that began firing up the Internet last week. Obama’s first impulse was to denounce the sermons and to jettison Wright from his campaign, betraying a friendship that was decades old.

Of course, Obama’s change of heart was not solely due to introspection. He got a very loud earful from Afro-American pastors and other leaders for his initial handling of the matter, helping to convince him he’d better correct the impression he’d created.

So his speech was a carefully crafted attempt to embrace his old pastor friend, to appreciate, but not endorse, his fiery rhetoric, and at the same time say that the Obama campaign embodies the effort to move beyond the old days of racial divide in America.

No question about it, Obama is a compelling speaker, and comes across as a healing and hopeful influence on at least some of the superficial evidences of division in our land. The world is a better place for Obama being in it, and whether as president, or in any other capacity, he hopefully will play a major role for decades to come. There is a solid grounding in personal conviction that animates much of what he stands for.

But stepping down from the euphoria generated by his speech Tuesday, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that it was delivered for political “damage control” purposes, with the aim of weathering a serious challenge to the viability of his presidential aspirations.

It will be left for history to judge whether, on that level, his speech achieved that goal. I have commented before on the huge difference between leading a civil rights movement, and running for president of the U.S. To put it in religious terms, one role is prophetic, the other is pastoral. Most simply, in a president, the American people want someone who will make it easy for them to sleep at night. 

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not just any old preacher from Chicago. In fact, he for years has been considered tantamount to a rock star in the 2.2-million member United Church of Christ denomination, frequently asked to speak at large denominational gatherings to inspire the whole wider church body. He has been held up for years as a glowing example in the progressive-minded U.C.C. of how to reinvigorate the mainstream church by focusing passionately on social justice issues. (Among other things, the U.C.C. officially endorses gay marriage).

Wright’s preaching style connects with the pain he encounters in his congregation, and on the streets around his church. You can hear that pain in his voice, in heartfelt sermons that tell his flock that God embraces their frustration and anger at the cultural realities that have kept them in poverty and despair.

Obama soundly denounced some of Wright’s sermon content, but what if Wright’s declaration, “Some say God bless America, I say God damn America,” had been delivered in the days of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco? How many people would have agreed wholeheartedly with him then?  

After Hurricane Katrina, America saw the Ninth Ward for the first time, the nation’s underclass, routinely kept out of the public eye, rendered helpless by the criminal negligence of its government.

The “racial divide” is not fiction, as comparisons of wage, unemployment and prison population numbers show. 

But Obama sought to explain the Rev. Wright by generally relegating grounds for the “racial divide” to the past. In a particularly outrageous claim, he sought to equate Afro-American anger against racial prejudice with the racist sentiments of his white grandmother.

If it had been me, instead of treating the Rev. Wright like a crazy old uncle, I would have said his passion for social justice, and especially the pain in his words, have legitimacy, regrettably so, and are exactly the reason I am running for president. His words are a clarion call for achieving the kind of just nation the Obama candidacy seeks.

It’s good to have Obama around, but it’s even more important to have the Rev. Wrights of the world around, to let us never forget that prejudice and hatred are far from dead, and moreover, that anger expressed against them must not be equated with them.

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