The Misbegotten Furor over Reverend Wright

The worst thing about the perpetual campaign for the Democratic nomination is that while the race dominates the airwaves and internet, precious little substantive discussion is going on. Most media coverage, including the debates, is dominated by superficial trivialities. It seems to me particularly pronounced in the coverage of Obama. The nation is facing some potentially grave economic times, a thorny international situation, and the rats nest which is Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and the general blowback from the spurious War on Terror. Instead of some very hard-hitting, critical analysis of Obama’s agenda, his economic and international philosophies and his proposed policies, I keep hearing gossipy speculation and innuendo about flag-pins, salutes, unsavory neighbors, pastors, childhood schools, and even the man’s middle name.

Come on. How puerile is this going to get?

Once again, Reverend Wright is making headlines, and Obama is scrambling to distance himself. I’m tired of hearing about Wright, but I can understand why he is taking a stand. If I’d become a national public whipping boy, I might want to defend myself as well.

When the hysteria over the soundbites and short clips of Wright on YouTube exploded in the media, a co-worker of mine chuckled “The people who are all upset obviously don’t go to church,” she insisted. This woman, a deacon in her own congregation, noted that nobody ever agrees entirely with their pastor. You don’t leave the congregation over it. We shouldn’t hold Obama accountable for Wright’s supposed transgressions.

But are the phrases really transgressions?

I’ve seen little reason to condemn Wright’s statements as egregiously inappropriate. We are warned in the scriptures that if we sow the wind, we will reap the whirlwind; when Wright says that “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” he is only reminding us of that principle’s application in foreign policy.

“God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme,” Sounds harsh, yes. But has not God promised damnation for those societies and people who rise to the pinnacle of hubris? I wonder if it isn’t more sacrilegious to confidently proclaim “God bless America!” as if such blessings are the monopoly of our nation.

I don’t believe that the U.S. government under any leadership has concocted the aids virus to harm the black community, or any other community. But as Frank of Simple Utah Mormon Politics pointed out, there are proven examples in which the U.S. government has deliberately harmed or endangered members of our population.

What about the AIDS claim of Wright, that the US government inflicted the black community with AIDS? I haven’t seen any evidence given by Wright, but I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility. Here’s a couple of things that your government has done:

  • For forty years, the government did experiments on several black men with syphilis, not telling them what disease they had and not helping them to get better.
  • The government conducted open-air testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada in the 1950’s.

(“Is Reverend Jeremiah Wright a Lunatic?“)

I’m no fan of Louis Farrakhan, and I believe that much of his rhetoric intensifies friction between races. But I can respect the fact that he has motivated many members of the black community to take responsibility for their lives, build businesses, organize, and otherwise act with dignity rather than turn to gangs, violence, drugs, prostitution, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. I can accept Wright’s approbation for Farrakhan’s work in that regard.

Yes, Wright is passionate and confrontational. That doesn’t bother me; it is part of the black religious tradition. Not only that, but it is part of the general historic Christian tradition. Many of the Old Testament prophets used very incendiary language to condemn the social injustices of the nation of Israel. The very word Jeremiad comes from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, known for his stinging rebuke of Israel’s sins. Christ very harshly condemned society in Jerusalem during his time, and warned them of impending damnation. It has always been part of the responsibility of Christian leaders to admonish with sharpness, not only of personal sins, but of social injustice. For those who believe that religion has no part to play in the conversation on social issues, I would call your attention to Ed Firmage’s reminder of past LDS leaders:

If you are Mormon and want to see class, or at least read brilliance, read the Jeremiads of J. Reuben Clark, Jr, during World War Two. Note: During the Second World War, while our troops were dying by the tens of thousands. What did Clark say? He said God would not forgive us for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or fire-bombing Tokyo and Dresden. He condemned without equivocation the development and storage of biological and chemical and nuclear weapons in Utah. During a war. He condemned the use of our God-given land and air and water and people in the employ of making or storing or disposing of weapons of mass destruction here (“The Reverend Jeremiah Wright…Jeremiads are What the Bible Says”).

The reverend is hardly perfect in his perception. But neither is he the raving lunatic nor hatemonger many have accused him of being. In the end, his opinions have nothing to do with Obama’s capacity to serve as President. People should stop worrying about him, flagpins, and names, so that we can concentrate on meaningful issues of governance.

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16 Responses to “The Misbegotten Furor over Reverend Wright”

  1. D. Sirmize Says:

    I’m sorry, but I refuse to call questions of judgement and character “distractions.”

    You have presented a well thought-out argument that Pastor Wright isn’t a raving lunatic, but I simply disagree. Wright’s and Obama’s church is proudly proclaims Black Liberation Theology as a core tenet. BLT (for convenience’s sake) is hardly a noble ideology. The movement was started by James H. Cone, who said:

    “Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community … Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy.”

    Pretty Christlike.

    Oh, and before you go on about taking things out of context, have you listened to entire sermons of Rev. Wright? I have. It comes off just the same.

    Obama attended this church for over two decades, yet he claims he had no idea that Wright was a racist lunatic. Either Obama is lying (pretty big character flaw), he’s playing political CYA (huge character flaw), or he’s being totally honest in saying that this week’s Wright isn’t the Wright he’s known for 20 years (collossal character flaw).

    Wright hasn’t changed. Obama has.

    I don’t care about Obama’s stupid lapel pin or his middle name. I want to know if I can trust him. The man may very well become the next president. Is it so wrong for me to wonder if I can trust him?

  2. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I agree with you that Obama shouldn’t have to answer for his pastor’s sins. Absolutely disagree with you putting Wright in the mainstream black church and excusing his excesses as “passionate and confrontational”. The man certainly has an interesting resume, including his service in Vietnam, but he is loving the spotlight, and I don’t blame Obama for one minute for distancing himself from him. Still, one has to wonder how Obama missed Wright’s true nature after going to his church for years. It seems that Obama really is a run-of-the-mill politician after all, and not the transcendent leader he claims to be.

  3. Frank Staheli Says:

    I was not aware what J. Reuben Clark had said about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Dresden. I, however, share his views. It is tragic what we’ve done in the name of liberty and democracy over the last century (and more). It’s very similar to the economic fraud that we’re now perpetrating on the world in the name of capitalism.

  4. D. Sirmize Says:

    As long as we’re treating non-doctrinal political statements by general authorities as gospel, I have a few quotes from President Benson I’d love to see you treat equally.

    With all due respect to Elder Clark, I have no obligation to accept his premise.

    Consider the following statements:

    Parley P. Pratt: “Politically speaking, some barriers yet remain to be removed, and some conquests to be achieved, such as the subjugation of japan, and the triumph of constitutional liberty among certain nations where mind, and thought, and religion are still prescribed by law.”

    Quoting Parley Pratt in General Conference in 1954, Harold B. Lee took it further:

    “Subjugation means conquering by force. I want to say to you that one of the most significant things that I have seen in the far east is the fulfillment of what Elder Parley P. Pratt testified would be one of the significant developments necessary to the consummation of god’s purposes, ‘the subjugation of Japan and the triumph of constitutional liberty among certain nations where mind and thought and religion are still prescribed by law.'”

    Now I don’t base my views on the atomic bomb on those quotes. My view is my own.

    My point is that different general authorities/prophets have expressed varied and conflicting views when it comes to political topics (and yes, war is technically considered a political topic). I no more need to give credence to that Clark quote than you need to give to any church leader who takes an opposing viewpoint.

  5. D. Sirmize Says:

    “Absolutely disagree with you putting Wright in the mainstream black church and excusing his excesses as ‘passionate and confrontational'”

    To continue Aaron’s train of thought on this, ever since Wright equated attacks on him personally with attacks on the “black church” in his speech to the National Press Club, boatloads of black religious leaders have clearly and passionately argued that “black church” does not equal Black Liberation Theology- and certainly doesn’t equal Jeremiah Wright. Wright offended a whole lot of blacks with that equation.

  6. jennifer Says:

    On the bright side, if Romney had done better, the press would be raging about the ludicrous LDS traditions, not about Rev. Wright. 😉

    My point being that people tend to be easily appalled by the faith traditions of others………

  7. Cstanford Says:

    D. Sirmize’s bringing up Ezra Taft Benson is a very good point. Let’s take it further: if a Mormon runs for office, should he be held responsible for all of the political opinions of Church leaders, notably right-wingers like Benson? Should we assume that all Republican LDS candidates are just fine with the JBS if they sustained Elder Benson thruout the 1960s and 1970s?

    I disagree sharply with many of Benson’s, Clark’s, and other Church leaders’ political views, but I haven’t left the Church over it. LDS Democrats have to distance themselves from or “justify” their non-agreement with that legacy all the time. And they get attacked by right-wing Church members for it.

    I agree that what we saw with Romney would be magnified hugely if he were still in the running. Especially with the FLDS affair going on – imagine!

  8. D. Sirmize Says:

    “I agree that what we saw with Romney would be magnified hugely if he were still in the running. Especially with the FLDS affair going on – imagine!”

    I think it would be pretty bad. Part of me is glad he’s out of the race…for the time being, anyway. Another part of me wants a huge, messy, thorough discussion of LDS history, FLDS history, and how the two differ. That may be the only way to set the record straight.

    I find it interesting that back while everybody was skewering Romney for being LDS, nobody really cared about Obama’s religion. Sure there was the “Obama is Muslim” (a rumor a Clinton staffer started, by the way), but before a few weeks ago, nobody had heard of Jeremiah Wright or the Trinity Church.

    Oh, not to distract from my thought, but I just remembered this. All those Wright speeches last week- the good Reverend’s security for those was provided by none other than Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.

    Google Nation of Islam if you’re not familiar with it. Obama was probably really smart to completely denounce Wright. But he was probably dumb not to do it a long time ago.

  9. Aaron Orgill Says:

    A couple more thoughts. First, to Sirmize, Rev. Wright has actually been very well-known for quite some time. But you are right that only in the past month has he become a household name. More importantly though, I really had some respect for Obama when he made the Philadelphia speech refusing to reject Wright. I thought it showed real guts, notwithstanding that Wright is crazy as a loon. Now that he’s become a liability, Obama has thrown him under the bus. Maybe he feels Wright has thrown him under the bus by starting his Looney Tunes tour of America. But he’s sure singing a different song now than he was before, and it isn’t the first sign I’ve seen that Obama is just politics as usual, despite his vague and dramatic rhetoric about changing everything in Washington.

  10. Aaron Orgill Says:

    BTW, Sirmize is absolutely right about the political orientation of GAs. As much as we like to think the Brethren are united on everything, there are some very conflicted, even irreconcilable, differences of opinion on political matters. Apparently opinions don’t go away or become canonized when you become a General Authority.

  11. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Just as there is much more to Wright’s body of work as a minister than the sermons on war and other political topics, there is much more to BLT than that of James Cone. I have no problem with a religious tradition which tries to engender a sense of self-worth and dignity in its population. Before we start throwing stones at BLT, we should probably consider the fact that those on the outside could easily see our faith as nursing a sense of victimhood and martyrdom with our focus on the historical persecution of the Church. Considering the suffering of blacks from the founding of our nation which was still rather widespread only a few decades ago, I think they are far more justified in recognizing their persecution than we. Jennifer is absolutely right, we have plenty of our own ludicrous traditions.

    And yes, I’m quite familiar with the Nation of Islam from my readings on Malcolm X. It is indeed a very disturbing philosophy, but it has still undeniably done a great deal to create a sense of self-reliance in black communities.

    D, you seem to be confused. I pointed out that we have our own history of Gospel leaders criticizing national foreign policy. I nowhere claimed the statements of Clark were gospel. I’m fully aware that there has never been the sort of unanimity in our leaders that we seem to think today. I’ve heard some really interesting tales of the subtle (if loving) squabbles between (then) Elder Benson and Elder Brown, President G.A. Smith’s desire to cool Elder Benson’s ardor for conservatism, and the dueling speeches among the GAs in defense of and opposing the ideas of human evolution.

    I did not excuse Wright’s excesses. I said that they weren’t really excesses.

  12. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Derek, give me a break. Do you really think we have a culture of victimhood and martyrdom? We do have some of our people who make a show of how misunderstood we are, and I have said before we need to stop worrying about that and just accept that as part of the package. But come on, you really compare that to the so-called leaders of the black community who go around shouting about the evils of Whitey and demanding reparations? You can’t be serious. Clearly, no group of people has suffered more in this country than African-Americans, and their grievances are far more serious than Mormons whose ancestors were persecuted.

    To the extent that Wright has helped blacks engender self-worth and dignity, and served his country in Vietnam, I really respect him. But from the sound bites (and it’s hardly just a few snippets), it doesn’t sound like that’s been his message very often. And they are absolutely excesses, whether you are willing to call them that or not. The language we use to discuss race in this country does nothing but hurt relations. Just yesterday I had an older man tell me that he wishes that a lady he heard on the radio would go back to Africa to see what a favor the slave traders had done to her ancestors. I was in a professional setting, but I couldn’t hold my tongue. I was polite but firmly let him know that I felt that was offensive and misleading. That extreme rhetoric is what we’ve got from almost everyone in the limelight, and it’s gotten us to a point that we don’t even listen, and have preconceived notions about what people with different skin colors are like without knowing a single thing about them. And if we can’t rid ourselves of those extremes and we don’t tune out people who spout them, like Wright absolutely has been with much of what he has said and done, then it’s never going to get better.

  13. D. Sirmize Says:

    Derek, I’m going to ask you two simple questions and I hope you’ll give me two simple answers:

    1- Do you believe that Nation of Islam’s philosophy is racist?

    2- Do you believe that Louis Farrakhan is racist?

  14. Derek Staffanson Says:

    1 – Yes.

    2 – Yes.

    3 – No, I do not believe Wright is racist. He has called attention to the fact that on average, blacks have suffered intense persecution throughout U.S. history, and that blacks still on average face a disadvantage in U.S. society. Sounds accurate to me.

  15. D. Sirmize Says:

    Derek, note that I didn’t ask a third question. I wasn’t trying to trap you into concluding that Wright was racist (though I believe he’s aptly demonstrated that he is). I just wanted to make an observation about what you have said about Nation of Islam and Farrakhan in this thread.

    Your words about Louis Farrakhan:

    “I believe that much of his rhetoric intensifies friction between races. But I can respect the fact that he has motivated many members of the black community to take responsibility for their lives, build businesses, organize, and otherwise act with dignity rather than turn to gangs, violence, drugs, prostitution, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty.”

    And here’s what you said about Nation of Islam:

    “It is indeed a very disturbing philosophy, but it has still undeniably done a great deal to create a sense of self-reliance in black communities.”

    Your failure to call both racist in the first place (instead of ‘disturbing’ and ‘intensified friction’), and your immediate defense of both based on the “good” that they’ve done, are telling.

  16. Jan Says:

    Thanks for the reflection on J. Reuben Clark. Given the amount of money that our leaders are spending daily in Iraq versus the amount that our leader has committed for relief in Burma, I tend to agree with Brother Clark.

    I talked with another Christian friend and observed if we even spent half our resources to providing aid, relief, and infrastructure vs. our present military situation in Iraq, there would be greater respect for our leaders and our country.

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