First of all, I think Matthew Yglesias hits the nail on the head regarding the main question most people are asking right now: What was Obama thinking going to this church, associating with this guy?
Obama’s going to have a hard time explaining [what] I take to be the truth, namely that his relationship with Trinity has been a bit cynical from the beginning. After all, before Obama was a half-black guy running in a mostly white country he was a half-white guy running in a mostly black neighborhood. At that time, associating with a very large, influential, local church with black nationalist overtones was a clear political asset (it’s also clear in his book that it made him, personally, feel “blacker” to belong to a slightly kitschy black church). Since emerging onto a larger stage, it’s been the reverse and Obama’s consistently sought to distance himself from Wright, disinviting him from his campaign’s launch, analogizing him to a crazy uncle who you love but don’t listen to, etc.
I don’t believe Barack Obama’s Christian faith was a political choice, but his decision to make Trinity his home church almost certainly was. He reaped the benefits of attending a black nationalist church for years, and now he’ll begin paying the price. Speaking of the good and the bad, here are five reasons why Barack Obama can both welcome and fear the continuing flap over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
1. Obama’s decision to repudiate Reverend Wright’s comments, but not Reverend Wright himself, was a key insight into the quality of his character. Imagine if Obama had thrown Wright under the bus the way Bill Clinton did to Sister Souljah, a prominent black figure in 1992 who made similar racially incendiary comments. Imagine if Obama had said as Clinton did then, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” It might have satisfied the conservative media to see “the blacks” turning on each other, but it also would have shown a disturbing lack of loyalty and political ruthlessness that is inconsistent with Obama’s post-political image.
2. Perhaps the frequency that Fox News is showing videoclips of Obama’s former pastor will inadvertantly put to rest the Muslim smear they’ve been pushing so hard. He’s either a secret Muslim or a radical black Christian, but they’ll have a hard time convincing their viewers he’s both.
3. This pushes the slightly more substantive Rezko story to the backburner. And in a move of political genius, the Obama campaign dumped new details of his relationship with Rezko into a weekend news cycle that was already a lost cause. Politico and the Chicago media are trying desperately to make hay of it, but with the Wright wildfire burning brightly, nobody cares.
4. This will come up again in the general, but it will be blunted by the fact that John McCain’s got enormous pastor problems of his own, as this Talking Points Memo reader points out hilariously:
What drives me crazy is how this could have been avoided so easily if Wright was the slightest bit media-savvy. Had he merely controlled his tongue and limited himself to advocating an attack on Iran to encourage massive worldwide Muslim attacks leading to a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of end-times and bringing about Armageddon and the summary slaughter of every Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and non-believer on the planet while rapturing him and his flock up to heaven, then followed it up by denouncing Catholics as cult members and blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay people, this story wouldn’t be metastasizing like this. One five minute milquetoast repudiation by Obama and it would all be behind him.
But what does Wright do instead? He spews this vile “God damn America” bile. What a psycho.
5. With racial tensions as high as they’ve ever been in this campaign, it provides Obama with opportunities to do what he does best: rise above the fray and call for unity, as he did magnificently in this impromptu moment in Indiana today where he invoked Bobby Kennedy (one of the more honest moments of the campaign thus far):
1. The attack ads write themselves.
SCARY-VOICED NARRATOR: For 20 years, Barack Obama has attended Trinity United Church of Christ. Here’s what his pastor thinks about America’s role in 9/11.
VIDEO OF REV. WRIGHT: We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki… We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant?! Because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our front yard? Americans chickens are coming home to roost!
SCARY-VOICED NARRATOR: This is the man who gave Barack Obama the title of his bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope.
VIDEO OF REV. WRIGHT: Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a country and who lived in a culture, that was controlled by rich white people! … Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people!
SCARY-VOICED NARRATOR: This is the man who Barack Obama calls his “spiritual mentor.”
VIDEO OF REV. WRIGHT: …God Bless America? No, no, no, God damn America! That’s in the Bible for killing innocent people! God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human! God damn America…!
SCARY-VOICED NARRATOR: Barack Obama. What does he really believe? This ad was paid for by the Churchboat Veterans for Truth.
2. Obama’s claim that he never heard Wright make these types of statements in his presence doesn’t just stretch the boundaries of belief, it will probably be disproven within the month. All it will take is one archived, decade-old tape of a sermon of Wright condemning America for something or another, and then the camera pans over to the pews where one of Trinity’s most prominent members is nodding his head but only half paying attention.
For Obama to feign ignorance on the beliefs of his pastor and close friend is a disingenuous political maneuver akin to Hillary Clinton attempting to take credit for all the accomplishments of the Clinton administration, while blaming all the failures on other people.
REPORTER: Senator Obama, what did you think when you heard Rev. Wright’s sermon in 2002 condemning America for [insert foreign policy blunder here]?
OBAMA: I wasn’t there for that.
REPORTER: What about when Wright told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003 that America was to blame for [insert black community problem here]?
OBAMA: I didn’t read that.
REPORTER: What about Wright’s Fourth of July sermon in 2005, praising puppies, kittens, and apple pie?
OBAMA: You know, that was one of my favorite sermons of his.
3. The antagonism towards whites in Wright’s sermons plays perfectly into the hands of those who will attempt to portray Obama as the secretly angry, secretly vindictive black man, especially in blue-collar and Deep South states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Mississippi. Wright’s antagonism towards America’s racial and international sins plays even more perfectly for those who want to paint Obama (and his wife) as unpatriotic, blame-America-first liberal outsiders.
4. Even with statements of denunciation and rejection, it’ll be hard for Obama to distance himself from this. This isn’t some peripheral supporter going off message in an unguarded moment, this is the man who pastored his church for 20 years. This is the man Obama calls his spiritual mentor. This is the man who presided over Obama’s wedding and baptized his daughters. No matter how much distance Obama puts between himself and Wright (and removing Wright from his formal role in the campaign was a good start, though not giving him a formal role in the first place would have been a better start), people will continue to ask how Obama could sit there and tolerate that for 20 years?
Personally, I think the relationship between a person and their pastor is something akin to attorney-client privilege and should be out of bounds, maybe especially when it comes to government figures (separation of Church and State and all that). But this is American politics and this is the presidency. Nothing will be out of bounds.
5. In a campaign fueled by the concept of Barack Obama’s sound and superior judgment, the Wright story (along with Rezko) calls it into question. Ethically, Obama is in the clear. He has every right to attend the church of his choosing, and what is glaringly obvious in all this is that no one can possibly be held accountable for the things their pastor says. But many people will and should question the political wisdom of a person who intends to run for president (say, in 2004, 2005 or so) continuing to attend a black nationalist church with a pastor who has a reputation for making controversial, inflammatory, and seemingly unpatriotic statements.