Why Jeremiah Wright is so wrong

I applaud Bill Moyers for being fair to Obama's pastor, but their PBS hour won't chase questions about his grim view of America. Plus: More Wright tapes emerge.

Published April 27, 2008 11:43PM (EDT)

I was profoundly depressed by the conversation between PBS's Bill Moyers and Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, broadcast on PBS Friday night. I found myself thinking this race might be either too short, or too long, for Obama to win the presidency. It's too long because already, for some people, the thrill is gone, the honeymoon is over, even Obama's media fans are starting to ask tough questions. It's too short because the "national conversation on race" we all keep promising to have has barely begun, and it would take longer than November to hash out how much Wright's role in Obama's life should mean to voters. But the Moyers-Wright interview had to be troubling to anyone who cares about race relations, American politics or the Obama campaign. Now there are new and longer taped excerpts from Wright's incendiary sermons, and Obama's pastor will also be at a press conference in Washington, D.C., Monday morning. Clearly the Wright story isn't going away.

My goal in this post is to try not to treat Wright the way Wright seems to treat the idea of America; to not utterly damn Wright because some of (a lot of? I'm not sure) what Wright has said is disturbing and wrong. I am grateful to Bill Moyers for airing so much of the sermons. I enjoyed their thoughtful conversation about theology and politics. But the whole idea that Wright has been attacked over "sound bites," and if Americans saw his entire sermons, in context, they'd feel differently, now seems ludicrous. The long clips Moyers played only confirm what was broadcast in the snippets (and the longer excerpts out today are even more troubling).

Talking to Moyers, Wright argued that the famous "God damn America" sermon was a) only condemning bad American government actions, and b) using "damn" in a singular religious sense referring to how God treats those who've sinned horrendously (he went into hermeneutics to explain why most Americans can't understand him). But his explanation was unconvincing. Wright could probably have gotten away with "God damn Bush" for the bloody Iraq war if he wanted to, or "God damn Truman" for bombing the Japanese at the end of World War II, or even "God damn the American government!" for its many mistakes. But "God damn America" -- that's sweeping. It sounds like it's the idea of America, its fundamental principles, that he's rejecting.

And the rest of the interview didn't dispel that idea. As Wright described it to Moyers, America would seem to be all about dispossessing the Indians, enslaving blacks, interning the Japanese and now killing Iraqis. He said nothing about Americans who fought any of that (and nothing about white ethnic groups who also faced WASP prejudice). Note that, in his defense, Wright didn't say: "Hey, I'm a guy who also talks a lot about the promise of American democracy, and the way Americans of every race have worked together to try to make the country live up to that promise. Here's a sermon about the heroes of the civil rights movement! Even some who weren't black!" (I'm not saying Wright never gave any sermon like that; maybe he did, but that's not what he pointed to in self-defense.) He used his hour with Moyers to argue that his thoroughgoing critique of American evil is, well, true.

And I'm on the left. I know huge chunks of it are true. But Wright casts his critique in such an extreme way that the possibility of redemption, the evidence that America can and has and will change for the better, is never considered. (It should be noted that Obama agreed with me on that point in his March 18 speech about Wright and race.) Wright preaches a deadly kind of "blame America" politics that many on the left have tried to move away from since the '70s. And it could be especially deadly for Obama. He was supposed to be a continuation of our evolution toward promise and opportunity and optimism -- but his pastor is a guy who says "God damn America"? Who seems to feel vindicated by "the chickens coming home to roost" after 9/11?

The long excerpt from Wright's Sept. 16, 2001, sermon was maybe the most disturbing. He compared al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden to African slaves who led slave rebellions in the U.S. He linked the 9/11 hijackers with every decent kind of global freedom-fighter. He linked the killing of American civilians on 9/11 to Americans killing civilians from the Indians to Hiroshima to Bill Clinton's bombing of Sudan to retaliate against al-Qaida in 1998. I deplore all of those civilian killings as well, but 9/11 was indefensible. And to the extent that American foreign policy has played a role in the rise of al-Qaida, and it certainly has, anyone who wasn't a tone-deaf, tin-eared lefty opportunist looking for any chance to push their "analysis" of American evil knew that 9/16 wasn't the time to talk about it persuasively. Watching Wright defend his 9/16 speech to Moyers I thought to myself, what's the problem here? Wright clearly believes the chickens were indeed coming home to roost on 9/11. What part of that does he think people don't understand? My conclusion Friday night was bolstered by new tapes of Wright that came out this weekend, including one that captures him saying the Iraq war is "the same thing al-Qaida is doing under a different color flag," and a much longer excerpt from the "God damn America" sermon that denounces "Condoskeezer Rice." (Yes, Hugh Hewitt got the tapes first, but no one has challenged their accuracy. They contain all the previously released "sound bites" as well as the long excerpts Moyers played.)

Watching Wright and Moyers I also couldn't help thinking: Is Wright trying to ruin Obama? I don't have an answer. One thing about my reaction surprised me. I had seen short clips and I was prepared to argue that Wright is a stone-cold narcissist, unprepared to let Obama surpass him, uninterested in whether he's wrong. But Moyers' interview made me see how hurt Wright is. He's genuinely wounded, and I felt sorry for him. Wright is sure that he is right. I think Moyers, too, thinks Wright's been treated badly: that the controversy ignores the good Wright has done, the HIV/AIDS work, the health, education, mentoring services. And all of that is good, important work. But to me, a telling part of the interview came in the Farrakhan section -- not just Wright's insisting that Farrakhan's anti-Semitism is 20 years in the past, but in praising the Nation of Islam as one of the best institutions in America when it comes to keeping black men out of jail and crime and in jobs. I felt like he was trying to make the point that organizations that preach black separatism and focus on the real (as well as imagined) evils of white America are uniquely successful in strengthening the black community -- and further, that he's created another one at Trinity, one that is less deadly and delusional than the Nation of Islam, but still seems to think it's therapeutic to school its members in an extreme critique of American society and its thoroughgoing, ongoing racism. I think he's wrong; there are many black pastors who've had great impact in their neighborhoods without preaching what Wright preaches. But this is a divide in many urban communities.

In the end, I think the reasons Wright hurts Obama are less about race than radicalism. Leave aside Wright's thoughts about Africa, black liberation theology and other things liberals and religious people can debate, Wright's sermons are distinguished by their old-time lefty anti-America rhetoric. I'm sure Wright and Bill Ayers agree about a lot of things. Maybe these are the friends Obama needed to make to climb politically in Chicago's Hyde Park. But Obama isn't running for president as a Hyde Park liberal. He's running as a centrist who can unite the country better than Hillary Clinton. The new Wright tapes emerged on the very day Obama went to Fox News to make that case, telling Chris Wallace "I think there are a whole host of areas where Republicans in some cases may have a better idea," and boasting about supporting tort reform legislation opposed by trial lawyers. The core of Obama's case to Democrats has been that he's more electable than Clinton because he's going to bring in independents and Republicans -- remember "Obamacans"? Let's hope they didn't watch Moyers Friday night.

I found myself feeling a little sorry for Wright Friday night, but even more sorry for Obama. The most sympathetic explanations of Obama's decision to choose Wright's church argued that the fatherless young man who was raised by white people and bereft of black role models chose Wright to fill both holes. Even though he disagreed with Wright's extreme critique of American society, this explanation held, he was comforted by his spiritual and personal mentoring. Maybe so. But if that's true, clearly Obama's been let down by Wright, who couldn't suppress his own hurt and anger at his treatment by the "corporate media" long enough to think about the presidential hopes of his renowned spiritual mentee, Obama. And so he pops up during Obama's worst week yet on the campaign trail, in the wake of his sobering loss to Clinton in Pennsylvania. I can't help wondering: Maybe Wright needs Obama to fail to justify his pessimistic view of American promise. The whole thing is very sad.

UPDATE:A reader notes, and I agree, that I should have said that Obama agrees with me that the problem in Wright's view is "that the possibility of redemption, the evidence that America can and has and will change for the better, is never considered." He's right, and so I added that after publication.

By Joan Walsh

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