The return of the Rev. Wright

Barack Obama's former pastor is back in the news, and in a big way -- how will this affect the Obama campaign?

By Alex Koppelman

Published April 28, 2008 7:27PM (EDT)

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright hasn't exactly been a recluse lately. First, he gave an interview to PBS's Bill Moyers, then he spoke to the NAACP, and Monday morning he gave a speech at the National Press Club that got massive coverage from the cable networks. If he wants to help his former parishioner, Wright sure has a funny way of showing it, leading a lot of people to ask: Is the Rev. Wright trying to sabotage Barack Obama? And what kind of effect will Wright have on Obama's campaign?

Wright's speech to the NPC wasn't, by itself, the kind of thing that would have sparked controversy -- or at least it probably won't be any more controversial than some of the remarks that made him a campaign issue in the first place. For the most part, Wright stuck to discussing black liberation theology and the history of African-American Christian worship. (His speech opened a two-day symposium about the black church.) But when it came time for questions, the subject of the day came to the forefront, and things got heated.

The third question put to Wright was, "Senator Obama has tried to explain away some of your most contentious comments and has distanced himself from you. It's clear that many people in his campaign consider you a detriment. In that context, why are you speaking out now?"

Wright responded:

On November the 5th and on January 21st, I'll still be a pastor. As I said, this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.

And why am I speaking out now? In our community, we have something called playing the dozens. If you think I'm going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, you've got another think coming.

Wright made similar comments in response to another question. Asked, "What is your motivation for characterizing Senator Obama's response to you as, quote, 'what a politician had to say'? What do you mean by that?" Wright said:

What I mean is what several of my white friends and several of my white, Jewish friends have written me and said to me. They've said, "You're a Christian. You understand forgiveness. We both know that if Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected."

Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, [the] Huffington [Post], whoever's doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they're pastors. They have a different person to whom they're accountable.

For me, Wright's comments lead to something I've been thinking for a long time about Wright, Obama and their relationship -- why did Obama join Wright's church? And just how close were the two? Yes, one of Wright's sermons was the inspiration for the title of Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope," and yes, Obama attended Wright's church for 20 years. But I think Matt Yglesias was on to something when he wrote, back in March, "Obama's going to have a hard time explaining [w]hat I take to be the truth, namely that his relationship with Trinity has been a bit cynical from the beginning." In Salon, Edward McClelland described the germination of the relationship between Obama and Wright this way:

In "Audacity of Hope," Obama is talking about networking when he describes what brought him to Wright's church in 1987.

He was a community organizer then, and one of the black ministers with whom he was consulting suggested that the work would go more smoothly if he joined a congregation. "It might help your mission," said the pastor, "if you had a church home ... It doesn't matter where, really." The pastor was talking about Obama's community organizing mission, but he was also giving him good advice about politics.

When Obama picked a "church home," he chose one that helped him with another weak spot in his biography. Before Obama joined Trinity United, Rev. Wright warned Obama that the church was viewed as "too radical ... Our emphasis on African history, on scholarship ..." But Obama joined anyway. With that act, he had become significantly blacker -- and more like local voters. Part of the cultural divide between the half-Kenyan Hawaiian and his Chicago neighbors, most of them products of the Deep South's black diaspora, was bridged.

Look, for better or worse, the reality is that politicians and aspiring politicians sometimes appear to make choices about religion based at least in part on political expediency. (Take John McCain, who last year had trouble with consistency on the issue of which branch of Christianity he belongs to; sometimes he identified as a Baptist, which would presumably be a boon in a Republican presidential primary.) The problem is that even if Obama did in fact join Wright's church for political reasons, or just to help with his community organizing, and even if he wasn't much for active churchgoing -- Wright certainly seemed to imply that in some of his comments on Monday -- Obama can't say that, even to distance himself from the growing millstone around his neck that Wright now represents. Much of Obama's campaign is based on the premise that he's the anticynic, a politician who doesn't act or think like one. If Obama were to admit that sometimes even he makes cynical decisions, that could backfire and undercut his central message.

By this point, and even though he's no politician, Wright has to realize the trouble he's causing for Obama's campaign and the bind the Obama camp finds itself in. And yet he's hardly shunning the spotlight. That's prompted some to question his motives. (The Obama camp may even be pushing the questioning, it seems, and with good reason.) On his blog, the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote:

The Obama campaign knows that Wright is throwing Obama under the bus, and they're of two minds about the political repercussions. On the one hand, they want him to shut up, knowing that the press is likely to repeat the Crazy Uncle soundbites more than they are the intelligent, learned theologian soundbites ... On the other hand, Wright's decision to publicly break up with Obama by essentializing him as a politician may well generate some distance between himself and Obama; perhaps the public may perceive the distance.

Time's Joe Klein made a similar argument, saying, "Wright's purpose now seems quite clear: to aggrandize himself -- the guy is going to be a go-to mainstream media source for racial extremist spew, the next iteration of Al Sharpton -- and destroy Barack Obama."

I have to agree, especially given what was reported on Dana Milbank's blog on Monday: Wright's security came courtesy of bodyguards from the Nation of Islam, one of the most politically radioactive organizations in the U.S., especially for Obama. Obviously, he disagrees with mainstream perceptions about the NOI, and he's entitled to that view. But if Wright had any regard for his former parishioner's political future, he'd stay the hell away from the group. Surely Wright must know that the right will be drooling over additional ammunition with which to make a specious tie between Obama and the NOI, but he handed the right that ammo on a silver platter.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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