WHEN TELEVANGELISTS Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed the 9/11 attacks on "gays, feminists and the ACLU," their obscene remarks were used like a club to bludgeon George Bush and his "fundamentalist" base right up to the 2004 elections. For media elites such as The New York Times and CNN, it didn't matter that Bush quickly condemned their hate speech, or that he had no relationship to either man or their churches. It was guilt by association--an association that existed only in the feverish imaginations of the Bush-hating intelligentsia.
Well, now. Barack Obama has nourished--and been nourished by--a 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama calls Wright his spiritual "mentor" and the man whose "social gospel" drew him into the black church. He is the minister who married Obama, baptized his daughters, and prays with and counsels him at key moments of his political life. Obama absorbed hours of tapes of Wright's sermons while a law student at Harvard. When he settled in Chicago, he joined Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ, where he has been an active, tithing member for over 17 years.
What do we know--and what does Obama know--about Rev. Wright? We know from his sermons that he blames the events of 9/ll on the United States: "America's chickens are coming home to roost," he said the Sunday after the attacks, when human remains were still being uncovered in lower Manhattan. He believes the AIDS virus is the malicious design of a white supremacist government. He gave an achievement award to the anti-Semitic demagogue Louis Farrakhan. We know, too, that he invokes the Bible to justify his crackpot conspiracy theories. "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America,'" Wright intoned. "No, no, no. God damn America, that's in the Bible, for killing innocent people."
The Obama campaign spent most of last week disavowing these remarks, while simultaneously rationalizing his long friendship with Wright and membership in his church. This is a hopeless strategy--and it raises massive questions about Obama's judgment, character, and the meaning of his "social justice" agenda.
Consider Obama's "I Didn't Know" defense. Wright's remarks "were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation." Church attendance records, now being examined, will surely betray Obama. In the meantime, the claim confounds common sense. YouTube clips of Wright's bellicose bloviating make one thing clear: His congregation has heard this message before--and they love it. He is their man of God "speaking truth to power."
Only a posture of willful ignorance--prosecutors might call it depraved indifference--could leave any church member unaware of Wright's hate-mongering palette. Indeed, the disheartening fact is that this minister has built an 8,500-strong congregation explicitly on a "black liberation" gospel that is anything but liberating: It reduces the Scripture to a political tool. It uses the pulpit to sanctify a race-based social critique. It makes Jesus the Judge of White America, instead of the Savior for all mankind. The black social gospel can inspire church-based outreach to the poor and marginalized, as it has at Trinity United. But it comes with a fierce rhetoric of rage and victimhood.
ABC News has examined dozens of Wright's sermons and found "repeated denunciations of the United States" based on his reading of the gospels and his racial theories. It is precisely this political theology that attracted the young Barack Obama as a community organizer. He was, as a New York Times reporter put it, "entranced" by Wright's fiery sermons of "empowerment." He has devoured them like candy ever since and spent many hours with Wright outside of church. Referring to the minister, a church member told the Chicago Tribune: "He's not a hypocrite. You know what he says behind closed doors, he'll say in the pulpit."
Now consider Obama's "Man of Truth" defense. He claims that Wright is a "sounding board for me to make sure I'm speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible." Here's a further sample of what Rev. Truthmeister dishes out on a regular basis:
* "The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied."
* "We put Mandela in prison and supported apartheid the whole 27 years he was there."
* "America is still the number one killer in the world."
* "We are only able to maintain our level of living by making sure the Third World people live in grinding poverty."
* "Racism is the American way."
Whatever role racism still plays in American society, it is a defining feature of Wright's embittered theology. "Jesus was a poor, black man who lived in a country and who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich white people," he says, evidently clearing up the rumors about Jesus' Jewish identity. But there's more: "The Romans were rich, the Romans were Italian--which means they were European, which means they were white--and the Romans ran everything in Jesus' country." That's it: the Mafia killed Jesus. As a full-blooded Italian-American, I am tempted to file a complaint with the Sons of Italy.
Finally, there's the "Uncle in the Attic" defense. The voluble minister, Obama claims, is "like an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with." It is a deceit. As my niece and nephews are painfully aware, people don't choose their uncles. They're stuck with them. But Americans, more than most people in the world, choose their pastors and their churches. A survey released in February by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 44 percent of all Americans have changed their religious affiliations. Howard Dean famously ditched the Episcopal Church in a dispute over a bike path. Yes, a bike path.
Only recently has Obama decided that the uncle defense is insufficient. Last year he rescinded his invitation to Wright to give the invocation at his presidential announcement. "You can get kind of rough" in the sermons, Obama reportedly told him. Earlier this month, the Obama campaign website purged the minister from its "People of Faith for Obama" testimonials. Like the revisionist history-writing of Stalin's Russia, there's simply no trace of him.
What Obama does now to distance himself from Wright is less important than what he failed to do over the last 20 years. Why didn't Obama leave this church when he learned that its senior pastor was committed to ideas that are "contrary to my own life and beliefs"?
Perhaps because it would have cost him something. Ebony magazine named Wright one of America's 15 best black preachers. He moves in influential church and seminary circles. He openly uses his pulpit to endorse Obama's political ambitions--on the face of it, a violation of the church's tax-exempt status--and commands the allegiance of a large, well-heeled congregation. At each step along Obama's political path--his run for the Illinois house, the state senate, the U.S. Senate, and his presidential bid--he has counted on the support of Wright and Trinity United.
All of this suggests a weakness in Obama's character, a shrinking back from principled decisions if they seem too costly. When John McCain challenged his own party on causes that could sink his political career, Obama voted "present" to avoid taking a position on controversial bills in the Illinois senate. During his captivity in Vietnam, McCain refused to denounce the United States or to be released from prison until his fellow soldiers could join him. Obama couldn't find the moxy to stop attending the church of a minister who makes anti-Americanism an indispensable doctrine of his faith.
Trinity United fired back earlier this week, comparing criticism of their church to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Liberal admirers of Obama are also rushing to defend Rev. Wright's message as a legitimate aspect of the black church, given America's racist history. Jim Wallis, a leader of the religious left, ignores Wright's paranoia talk and association with Farrakhan, but praises him as "one of the leading revival preachers in the black church." Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity for the Rest of Us, describes her own conversion to the "prophetic nature" of black preaching. "This is not, of course, comfortable for white people," she writes. "But it is a deep, spiritual river in American faith and culture, a river that--as I had to learn--flows from the throne of God."
The rage, vitriol, and conspiracy theories of Jeremiah Wright do indeed flow like a river--from his mouth. The jury is still out, though, as to their ultimate source. The more important question is how much of this torrent has found its way into the soul of Barack Obama.
"It is hard to imagine . . . how Mr. Obama can truly distance himself from Mr. Wright," writes Jodi Kantor of the New York Times. "The Christianity that Mr. Obama adopted at Trinity has infused not only his life, but also his campaign." Jim Wallis, who has known Obama for a decade, told Rolling Stone: "If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from, just look at Jeremiah Wright."
That's exactly what Barack Obama is now hoping most Americans will not do.
Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.