On Obama’s Pastor

If you haven’t seen the clip of Obama’s pastor ranting and raving about how racist America is, it’s worth taking a look at just for the sheer shock value:

Frank Schaeffer tries to pull out the “the-Right-is-just-as-hypocritical-like-me-and-my-dad-were” card but doesn’t get it. The problem Obama faces is that his “spiritual advisor” speaks a message that is absolutely contrary to the conciliatory message Obama has touted throughout his campaign. Though Obama has repudiated Wright’s message, the cognitive dissonance is staggering when one considers how long the two have been intimately acquainted. James Cone’s divisive liberation theology meets Oprah Winfrey’s colorblind self-empowerment in a back alley somewhere in the Southside of Chicago? For 20 years? The inevitable logic Frank misses is that Obama has been either in the dark about Wright’s views (which makes him stupid), or utterly out of touch with his congregation (which renders his “faithful attendance” to a Christian church as mere posturing), or fully in the know about it (which makes his criticisms of Wright disingenuous).

It’s not much ado about nothing for Obama supporters who have bought into the “Yes we can” message of hope and change that promises to rise above the partisan, divisive identity politics that will achieve some sort racial progress. Michael Crowley over at The New Republic isn’t joking around when he says a blind eye can’t be turned to such glaring inconsistencies:

Where does this leave us? There are two separate issues here. One is political, and that one’s not too ambiguous: This is really bad news for Obama, both in the primary and if he makes it to the general. He’s worked successfully to escape the image of the “angry black man,” and here he is linked to that image in the most emotionally searing way.

The second issue is how we should feel, normatively, about the fact that Obama maintained ties with Wright, even after presumably realizing that he held views Obama now calls deplorable. I’m not prepared to render judgment on that here. But I do worry that this lays bare a very grim truth: That even middle-class black American culture is more angry and alienated than most whites understand, and that our country is simply not yet at the point where even an ostensibly post-racial black candidate can escape that dynamic entirely. (Indeed not only was Wright perfectly acceptable to Obama and his Chicago circle, but it seems likely that it would have been difficult for Obama to separate himself from the preacher had he wanted to, lest he be accused of not being an “authentic” member of the south side black community.)

Diana Butler Bass of the God’s Politics crew tries to minimize the damage by putting Wright’s preaching in the context of black liberation theology. It isn’t clear if she is trying to say that conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the US creating AIDS to keep the Third World down are business as usual in this tradition, but she maintains that the fact that the Christian community doesn’t understand what its all about is “beyond ignorance.” While there may be something educational about the history of black liberation preaching and how it developed and found its voice, it only exacerbates Obama’s problems.

Race relations scholar Shelby Steele believes Obama can’t win the election, because he wears one of two masks in the public square. He explains:

Bargainers make a deal with white Americans that gives whites the benefit of the doubt: I will not rub America’s history of racism in your face, if you will not hold my race against me. Especially in our era of political correctness, whites are inevitably grateful for this bargain that spares them the shame of America’s racist past. They respond to bargainers with gratitude, warmth, and even affection. This “gratitude factor” can bring the black bargainer great popularity. Oprah Winfrey is the most visible bargainer in America today.

Challengers never give whites the benefit of the doubt. They assume whites are racist until they prove otherwise. And whites are never taken off the hook until they (institutions more than individuals) give some form of racial preference to the challenger. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are today’s best known challengers. Of course, most blacks can and do go both ways, but generally we tend to lean one way or another.

Barack Obama is a plausible presidential candidate today because he is a natural born bargainer. Obama–like Oprah–is an opportunity for whites to think well of themselves, to give themselves one of the most self-flattering feelings a modern white can have: that they are not racist. He is the first to apply the bargainer’s charms to presidential politics. Sharpton and Jackson were implausible presidential candidates because they suffered the charmlessness of challengers. Even given white guilt, no one wants to elect a scold.

Obama then is caught between a rock and a hard place. He comes from a spiritual tradition of “challenging” but advances a political platform of “bargaining.” Bargaining is essential to winning an election so as to win a white vote that is able to realize the possibility of assuaging the burden of white guilt. Steele agrees and gives us an ironic twist on the Clinton campaign:

But the great problem for Obama is that today’s black identity is grounded in challenging. This is the circumstance that makes him a bound man. If he tries to win the black vote by taking on a posture of challenging, he risks losing the vote of whites who like him precisely because he does not challenge. And if his natural bargaining wins white votes, he risks losing black votes to Hillary Clinton. Why? Because Hillary Clinton always identifies with black challengers like Al Sharpton. This makes her “blacker” than Barack Obama.

More ironically, however, is that Jeremiah Wright does not think so. Hillary is rich and white, and Obama is oppressed by her kind just like Jesus was. What is most ironic of all, though, is that Obama doesn’t see it that way.

And white people love irony.

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5 thoughts on “On Obama’s Pastor

  1. In response to Bass’ absurd remarks, one poster questioned whether, if Wright’s message represents prophecy, Obama isn’t then rejecting prophecy by disowning it?

    To date, Obama has an (unearned) reputation for being post-political. His appeal to the Christian faith is crucial to the perceived authenticity of the message. In this narrative, Obama is looking beyond partisanship to what God is calling him to do.

    I think Obama’s participation in this church was more of the “keeping up appearances” variety. Now he has a problem, in that he is forced to concede, essentially, that he wasn’t all that into his faith in the first place.

    His rhetoric has been that of a political shill, pretending that he knew nothing about the statements, skating the fine line between a lie and a talking point.

    Obama’s hope had to be that he could ride the rock star thing to the general, and then switch gears with an earnest “state of the nation” type piece laying out his actual agenda. At that point, his candidacy would possess the gravitas to outweigh the Wright issue.

    Now, his best hope is that people will forget, but many of his supporters (and I’m talking his midwestern supporters, not fainting college kids) are still making up their minds. Obama won the majority of Republicans and independents in the primaries. Republican crossover soccer moms in Missouri are a lot of things, but they aren’t Kool-aid drinkers.

  2. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. People have short memories and are generally dismissive of religious beliefs in general so I don’t suspect Obama will be unable to weather the storm. What is more interesting is the sociological experiment Obama is engaging in. I think he can use this to his advantage, in a way, if he uses it to filter out a “bargainer” identity and move closer to what Steele calls an “individual.” That may make him more authentic and more palatable to voters.

  3. CSI_yellowknife says:

    I have to admit that SWPL website gets on my last nerve. Maybe if they retitled it “Stuff Upper-Middle Class-bred Twenty-Something Whites Who Never Have Left the Big City Like” then maybe I’d go for it.

    Somedays I hope for an honest race discussion. Then this happens (or “The Jena 6,” which is completely off anyone’s radar these days), and we’ll have to wait a few more months for things to subside. Maybe Obama’s run can help out, if nothing else.

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