I’ve been corresponding extensively with family and friends about Sen. Obama’s two recent stumbling blocks: his speech on race, in which he addressed controversial sermons by Jeremiah Wright, and his comments about frustration and bitterness in small-town America. I had decided not to blog about these episodes, because the issues felt stale. But now, thanks to Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, I realize I was wrong. Given the amount of time those two devoted to these “gotcha” questions in Wednesday night’s debate, we may be talking about this for a long time yet to come. Since this ground has been well covered, though, I’ll focus only on what the two controversies have in common: In both cases, Obama put himself in the cross-hairs by empathizing.
By my reckoning, the Wright problem did not begin with Wright. By my reckoning, it began February 26 in a televised debate in which Sen. Clinton criticized Sen. Obama for denouncing Louis Farakhan without rejecting his support. “There is a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” she insisted. Like millions of other people across the country, I laughed out loud when Sen. Obama responded, in a slightly patronizing tone, “I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There is no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. If the word reject Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word denounce, I’m happy to concede the point. I would reject and denounce.”
But I wasn’t laughing for long. Predictably, the war of denunciation and rejection escalated, generating kerfuffles about other supporters of the two campaigns. That was the context in which Jeremiah Wright’s sermons became an issue for Senator Obama. Would he denounce and reject? Only the words; not the person.
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.
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:
“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. 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.
That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
I thought this was spot on. I know an awful lot of wonderful people, but I don’t know a single one who could survive trial by YouTube — and some of the best people I have ever known might have the worst “lowlight reel” on YouTube. Obama seemed to me to be appealing to all of us to look beyond the half-truths about Wright (only the bad stuff) and accept the whole truth that there is good and bad in all of us, and you have to take it the way God packaged it. (The same point was made in a recent testimonial about Wright’s military service, written by an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.)
Perhaps even more importantly, Obama was trying to explain Wright on Wright’s own terms, the way Wright himself might think about it. That was harder than just denouncing and rejecting, and all that much harder because the views in question were views Obama made clear he did not share. But it was also fairer to Wright, and worth the effort.
Fast-forward to April and “Bittergate.” George Will argued that Obama’s remarks showed him to be a liberal elitist who did not understand working-class Americans. Will wrote,
Obama voiced such liberalism with his “bitterness” remarks to an audience of affluent San Franciscans. Perfect.
When Democrats convened in San Francisco in 1984, en route to losing 49 states, Jeane Kirkpatrick — a former FDR Democrat then serving in the Cabinet of another such, Ronald Reagan — said “San Francisco Democrats” are people who “blame America first.”
It is entirely fair to criticize Obama for misunderstanding small-town America. But we should notice that what he flubbed was essentially an exercise in empathy, and that most politicians don’t make mistakes like this because they never really attempt to enter into any sort of sympathetic understanding of people who disagree with them.
Compare Obama’s remarks, for example, with Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s denunciation of “San Francisco Democrats,” quoted in Will’s piece. Most San Francisco Democrats do not, of course, understand themselves as people who “blame America first,” and –- this part is important -– Ambassador Kirkpatrick knew they did not understand themselves that way. Her statement was all criticism, no part of it intended to build any bridge or cordon off any areas of agreement or consensus. And of course that was exactly the right note to strike at a political convention; Ambassador Kirkpatrick was much too good a diplomat to speak that way at the U.N. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as if the sort of us/them rhetoric long associated with political conventions is the only kind anyone in domestic politics remembers how to use.
Obama’s remarks, by contrast, give an account of why people who do not support him might have their reasons, and how Obama’s supporters can reach out to them to change their minds. What Obama has done time and again –- and has been in trouble for time and again -– is to try to say something nice about people who disagree with him. He screwed it up this time, and screwed it up in a way that might well disqualify him with the people who felt misunderstood or even offended. But what many other people, including me, find attractive about Obama is that he makes this sort of effort; he does not approach every single issue with the sort of us/them thinking that makes progress much harder than it should be even on easy issues, and makes progress absolutely impossible on some. The next time John McCain or Hillary Clinton says something about an opponent that actually tries to explain things from the opponent’s own point of view, somebody post it here.
There are both moral and political dimensions to this, and both dimensions seem to me to require more nuance than many folks are letting on. In the moral dimension, it is important to stand up for right and wrong, but there is a lot more to morality than denouncing and rejecting. In the political dimension, it may be good electoral politics to pounce on differences and sharpen contrasts, but people who actually want to persuade, to get something done, usually find it’s better not to start out by demonizing the Other. Our political gridlock has a lot to do with the steady decline of this type of bridge-building.