March 21, 2008

Re: Obama's speech

The most interesting criticism to arise from Barack Obama’s speech on race stems from the nature of his relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. As Michael Gerson put it in Wednesday’s Washington Post, “Barack Obama is not a man who hates—but he chose to walk with a man who does.”Gerson’s argument is predicated on two parts: That Wright is, in fact, a man who hates, and that Obama should have left Trinity as a result. The first point is less relevant for now—Wright is certainly capable of hateful language, but to what extent it dominates his sermons and to what extent his political views converge with his religious ones, we really have no idea; It’d be irresponsible to attempt to capture his entire character in a few choice sound bites. But let’s suppose that, in his authority, Wright did stray from time to time into the realm of vitriol and that for a number of these outbursts, Obama sat respectfully in his pew. To this, Gerson and Matt naturally ask, why? In doing so, they fail to give due credence to the candidate’s answer.The Senator could have stayed at Trinity for three reasons: He could have believed Wright’s every word. Let’s discount this one for now (he is a Muslim, after all). The second explanation, then, would be that he did it for political reasons. If Obama wished for nothing more than a career as a State Senator representing a South Side community, perhaps joining Trinity would have been the politically correct move to make. But it’s clear that Washington was always in his sights. Viewed in that light, and with regard for the past week and possibly the next eight months, staying at Trinity was by no means a cunning political move. Provided that Obama does not personally subscribe to Wright’s most incendiary views, we are left with this to chew on: Obama stayed at Trinity in spite of the political risks and in spite of the views of his pastor. Therein lies the third option, and the one put forth by the Senator in his speech: He stayed because the rhetoric of his pastor was secondary to his close relationship with the church.As he stated, his complicated friendship with Wright was always secondary to his relationship to God and his relationship to the members of his community, both of which he felt best served at Trinity. Because of his personal connection and sentimentality—he got married there and both his daughters were baptized there—he couldn’t bring himself to quit the church. With the assumption that Obama did not accept Wright’s ridiculous views, and that this was not a political decision, we should logically conclude, then, that most of the time, Trinity was simply a place of worship and a rock of his community, and that, by and large, Wright was not a peddler of hate. This would explain why an intelligent man like Obama would have first been drawn to Trinity, and as a result, why he didn’t stop attending.So there is Obama’s answer. Where Gerson errs is in mistaking an issue of faith for an issue of judgment.To put it another way, I can’t help but relate this to my own personal experiences with the Catholic Church. This all came boiling to a head one night in Washington D.C., when I went with my grandparents, both in failing health at the time, to a Sunday evening mass. Presiding over the service was the Cardinal of Washington D.C.—in the news that same day for stonewalling efforts to bring priests to justice for sexual abuse. Certainly, there was plenty to be cynical about.Yet there were my grandparents, ever the odd couple, sitting quietly throughout the service. Leaving was out of the question, and not just because neither of them could drive. The Church had been with them every step of the way in their lives—they had put their children through its schools, spent their free time volunteering, and done their best to live to its greatest promise. To borrow from Obama, they could no more quit the Archdiocese, than they could quit their family. The highly personal nature of faith does not lend itself to calculated judgments.You can argue, as Matt and Gerson have, that Obama should have left the church nonetheless; that the “incendiary” rhetoric crossed the line of decency and that you personally would have packed up and left faster then you can say “U–S-of KKK.” That’s fine. As a visitor, I probably would have, too.But his relationship with Trinity is far more complex and far more personal than a collection of youtube clips. To the best of his abilities, and to a degree heretofore unprecedented in recent political memory (with apologies to Mitt Romney), Obama sought to answer such questions. His answer may not seem rational, but then, what part of faith really is?