Published March 20, 2008
This week, Barack Obama found himself facing a critical moment in his once seemingly unstoppable Presidential campaign. Though his 150-delegate buffer remains improbably surmountable by most mathematical estimates for the duration of the run-up to the convention, his perceived momentum has been pulled back, and the media scrutiny has increased exponentially.
The outsized personality of Obama's former pastor and spiritual mentor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, has cast an increasingly large shadow over his campaign in recent days, as audio and video clips have flooded YouTube and the Conservative spin machine. Wright preaches Black liberation theology, whose message is empowerment and self-determination: liberation from social, political, economic, and all other forms of bondage. Read the full text of Wright's 1990 "Audacity of Hope" speech that so inspired Obama, and you'll find criticisms of America but none more threatening than, "Our world cares more about bombs for the enemy than about bread for the hungry. This world is still more concerned about the color of skin than it is about the content of character—a world more finicky about what's on the outside of your head than about the quality of your education or what's inside your head."
Frank Schaeffer, son of the late Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer, makes an important point on The Huffington Post about the double standard in who is allowed to criticize America:
"Every Sunday thousands of right wing white preachers (following in my father's footsteps) rail against America's sins from tens of thousands of pulpits. They tell us that America is complicit in the 'murder of the unborn,' has become 'Sodom' by coddling gays, and that our public schools are sinful places full of evolutionists and sex educators hell-bent on corrupting children. They say, as my dad often did, that we are, 'under the judgment of God.' They call America evil and warn of immanent destruction. By comparison Obama's minister's shouted 'controversial' comments were mild. All he said was that God should damn America for our racism and violence and that no one had ever used the N-word about Hillary Clinton."
Nonetheless, Obama knew the politically necessary task was to address the issue head-on and attempt to elevate the discussion. Reading the text, it is clear he succeeded:
"On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.
"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
"These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
"Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.
"But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
"The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."
Obama brought these issues to a personal place for all of us, by bringing in that relative we all have who says inappropriate and racially insensitive things. I know I have one; make that two.
Howard Fineman commented on Countdown with Keith Olbermann that the setting of Obama's speech contrasted "the fire of Jeremiah Wright with the coolness of himself, of Obama in a presidential setting."
The remaining question is whether it will make a difference with the working-class, white male voters who needed to be persuaded. We won't know that for a few more weeks.