Monday, May 05, 2008

Obama and Wright: Legitimate But Not Disqualifying

I cannot fully agree with either Obama's supporters, who dismiss his membership in Reverend Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church as insignificant, nor with his critics, who consider it so far out of line as to disqualify him as President.

First to the critics. They compare Wright's church to a white supremacist church, something like the Aryan Nations that should completely disqualify any member from consideration as President. This is taking things a bit far. Trinity United is an affiliate of the United Church of Christ, a predominantly white denomination. It focuses on black issues, just as other ethnic churches may focus on the issues of their own ethnic group, but admits white members and performs interracial marriages. Anger at the United States for racial and imperial sins is well a well-established tradition in black churches, by no means limited to Rev. Wright. In short, Trinity United Church is by no means the black equivalent of a white supremacist church; it is well within the mainstream of liberal or black Christianity.

Conservatives may well reply that if a pastor who believes that the United States deserved 9-11, that Louis Farrakhan is a great man, or that the CIA developed AIDS to kill black people is a mainstream liberal Christian, that is more a condemnation of liberal churches than a defense of Wright. Maybe so. But conservative churches, particularly the white Evangelical churches that form one of the Republican Party's major constituencies should not be too quick to claim superiority. Many of them hold equally nutty views. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, figures whose rings any Republican President must kiss, agreed with Rev. Wright that the US deserved 9-11 -- only it was God's punishment for tolerating gays and not having prayer in school. Reverend John Hagee, whose endorsement John McCain eagerly sought, said that God sent Hurricane Katrina to destroy New Orleans because the city held gay pride parade the week before. And then there is the Armageddon Lobby, an important constituency all Republicans must court, consisting of white Evangelical millenarian churches that believe that the end of the world is near and that a Christian President should start wars in the Middle East in hopes that one will escalate into Armageddon. I am not suggesting that all white Evangelicals hold these views, only that they are within the mainstream of conservative Christianity. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

But I also think it is absurd for Obama's supporters to argue that because Obama's membership in Wright's congregation is weaker association than Republicans who seek the endorsement of Robertson or Hagee and consult with them as advisers. Nonsense! When Republicans seek the endorsement and guidance of Robertson or Hagee, they are simply pandering to line up the white Evangelical vote. Everyone, including the Evangelicals being pandered to, know it. Let anyone who doubts this consider, which would alarm you more, McCain seeking Hagee's endorsement, or McCain belonging to Hagee's church? The former is the usual dishonest pandering all politicians do; the latter would mean he shares Hagee's nutty views.

So, the next question is, if I agree that membership in a church whose pastor holds dangerously extreme views is more alarming than merely seeking endorsement from such a church, why doesn't Obama's membership in Wright's church disqualify him from the Presidency? I would offer two answers.

First, in any church there is a difference between its basic articles of faith and the personal beliefs of the pastor. Clearly it is a basic article of faith in Trinity Universal Church that black people, in the US and in Africa, have been oppressed and ill-treated (a view for which there is much historical support) and that it is a Christian duty of members to seek solidarity and uplife of the black race. Belief that the US deserved 9-11, that Louis Farrakhan was a great man, or that the CIA developed AIDS would fit in the category of a pastor's personal views. Likewise, it is clearly a basic article of faith in Hagee's Cornerstone Church that homosexuality is a serious sin (a view with much scriptural support). Belief that nearly every misfortune the United States suffers was caused by our toleration of gays is an example of the pastor's personal views. In either case I would want assurance that a candidate did not share the pastor's more extreme views. But in neither case would I consider those views essential to church membership.

Armegeddon theology is a different matter. A member of a millenarian church may quibble with the pastor over which current events best fulfill which Biblical prophecies. But the basic belief that the end of the world is at hand, that it will begin with a war in the Middle East, and that Christians should rejoice at the prospect are basic articles of faith central to Robertson's or Hagee's churches. No candidate could disavow them and remain a church member in good standing.

All of which leads to my second point. Not all nutty religious views are equally alarming. How alarming the belief is just as relevant an issue as how close a candidate is to that belief. A member of a black liberation church can be expected to focus on black issues, both in the US and in Africa. A member of sexually conservative church can be expected to oppose gay rights. A non-member of a millenarian church who nonetheless has the endorsement of the Armegeddon Lobby can be expected to pursue a warlike policy in the Middle East. People may quite legitimately oppose any of these policies, but surely an enthusiasm for war is more dangerous than than the others. Favoring Armegeddon is more alarming than believing that Louis Farrakhan is a great leader, that the CIA created AIDS, that all natural disasters are the result of homosexuality, or that the US deserved 9-11 for any reason. As a matter of fact, if one were to imagine the most disqualifying belief possible in a Presidential candidate, it would be hard to beat wanting the world to end.

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