NEW YORK - Amid the explosive controversy over remarks made in sermons by
Senator Barack Obama's former pastor, critics are charging that the US
mainstream media have distorted his comments, failed to understand the African
American church, and sought to punish the Democratic Party presidential hopeful
through "guilt by association".
Some also argue that a free pass has been given to equally incendiary remarks
made by white clergy on the religious right.
At the center of the storm that engulfed Barack Obama's presidential campaign
is his spiritual mentor, the Reverend
Jeremiah Wright. Wright is the former pastor of Obama's church, Trinity United
Church of Christ in Chicago's south side. He officiated at Obama's wedding and
baptized his daughters.
Parts of Wright's sermons have been played millions of times on the Internet
and on television and have become a major issue for the Obama campaign.
Wright's comments prompted Obama to give a groundbreaking speech on race in the
United States - the first time in decades that this issue has been addressed by
a candidate for the presidential nomination. In the speech, Obama said he
rejected Wright's more inflammatory statements, but refused to disown his
longtime spiritual advisor.
Among Wright's remarks:
The government gives them [African Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons,
passes a three-strike [felony] law and then wants us to sing "God Bless
America". No, no, no, Goddamn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent
people. Goddamn America for treating our citizens as less than human. Goddamn
America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.
We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South
Africans and now [post 9/11] we are indignant because the stuff we have done
overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America's chickens
are coming home to roost.
The comments of Dr George
Hunsinger of Princeton University, an ordained Presbyterian minister, are
typical of those who believe the US popular media have distorted Wright's
"I think we are looking at some basic questions of fairness," he told Inter
Press Service. "Is it really fair to take a minister's remarks, no matter how
provocative or ill-advised, out of context and to broadcast them incessantly,
as if they were the only thing that minister ever said or believed? What
purposes are served by this sort of propaganda?"
Hunsinger also raised the issue of faulting Obama for remarks made by Wright.
"Is it really fair to slime a candidate with the defamation of guilt by
association? Does anyone really believe that tactics like this belong in a
well-functioning democracy? What kind of media succumbs to these tactics?"
Another prominent theologian, Reverend Martin Marty of the University of
Chicago Divinity School, said he "does not excuse some of the indefensible
comments of Wright that have now been bludgeoned into our consciousness to the
exclusion of all else. And those comments should not be excused. And they have
not been excused by Obama."
But he says, "The four s's charged against Wright - segregation, separatism,
sectarianism and superiority - don't stand up." He said Trinity "has made
strenuous efforts to help black Christians overcome the shame they had so long
been conditioned to experience. People do not leave Trinity ready to beat up on
white people; they are charged to make peace."
Civil libertarians have also been weighing in on the continuing Wright-Obama
controversy. For example, Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers
Guild, said, "Wright's comments were taken out of context to make it seem like
he was justifying the 9/11 attacks and was therefore unpatriotic. But when you
listen to his entire sermon, he characterizes them as blowback for a vicious US
She added, "The cable [news] stations played the sound bites over and over,
distorting their real meaning. Over the weekend, when news was slow, CNN played
one of Wright's sermons in its entirety, which was helpful."
In his March 18 speech, Obama called on the country to begin a national
conversation on race and ethnicity. Cohn said that this "is already happening
in the corporate media and on the Web among grassroots organizations. There is
so much to talk about, this discourse will, and should, go on for a long time.
We have a long way to go in overcoming racism."
But she expressed doubt that the George W Bush administration will take any
substantive action to encourage the debate. "The Bush administration likes to
sugarcoat, ie spin, the most important problems, such as the failing economy,
and the increasingly disastrous situation in Iraq. By encouraging a national
debate about institutional racism, the administration would be admitting to its
own shortcomings. It won't happen."
The National Lawyers Guild was founded in 1937 as an alternative to the
American Bar Association which, at that time, did not accept African-American
lawyers as members.
Most polling data suggest that the Wright controversy has not damaged Obama's
presidential bid. But Harold Ickes, a senior advisor to Senator Hillary
Clinton, his competitor for the Democratic Party nomination, is quoted as
saying that the Clinton campaign would use it as a way of persuading party
insiders - known as superdelegates - that Obama is not electable.
Meanwhile, theologians in Texas expressed support for Wright at a symposium
last weekend on the "State of the Black Church". Dr Stacey Floyd-Thomas,
associate professor of ethics and director of black church studies at the Brite
Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said, "What is
eminently clear is the degree to which the black church is still largely
misunderstood and routinely caricatured in US popular culture."
She added, "If Wright is guilty of anything, [he is] guilty of loving the US
enough to tell the United States the truth. Patriots and prophets are often
called to speak harsh words to their nation, not out of a place of hatred, as
some suggest, but from an impassioned place of profound love and the highest of
expectations." Wright is a former member of the US Marine Corps.
In contrast to the Wright-Obama furor, criticism of right-wing clergy has been
muted or nonexistent. For example, Mike Huckabee, a former candidate for the
Republican nomination for president, has said, "I got into politics because I
knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in
accepting Jesus Christ into our lives ... I hope we answer the alarm clock and
take this nation back for Christ." Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, is a
former governor of Arkansas.
Also attracting little attention in the US mainstream press are endorsements by
prominent conservative clergy of the presumptive Republican nominee for
president, Senator John McCain of Arizona. One of them, Reverend John Hagee,
has said Roman Catholicism is "A Godless theology of hate that no one dared try
to stop for a thousand years." He said that the Catholic religion has "produced
a harvest of hate". Hagee has confirmed that McCain sought his endorsement.
McCain has said he was proud to have Hagee's support.
Another prominent McCain supporter, Reverend Rod Parsley, has said, "America
was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion [Islam]
destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms
that we can no longer ignore."