May 12, 2008

May 2, 2008: Ranting Like a Crazy Man, Swift-Boating Obama, Lessons in Parochialism

“I hear a preacher on the corner
Ranting like a crazy man
He says there’s trouble, troubles a coming
I can read it like the back of my hand”
-----The Rolling Stones, “Back of My Hand” (1)

The right Reverend Wright has taken to the airwaves in an erstwhile effort to defend himself. Ever since he came to national prominence he has been thrown in the spin-cycle of cable news where he has been left to be wrung out. Now he has chosen to once again thrust himself center-stage in an effort to repair his tattered reputation. So first appearing in an interview with Bill Moyers, then later in a speech before the National Press Club, the Reverend began a haltering and convoluted defense of himself that quickly spun out into charges that “of course Barack had to say those things”, he is a politician. Missing a grand opportunity to clarify his statements and perhaps inject a bit of rationality to the controversy, the Reverend Wright chose instead to add to the proceedings yet another level of misunderstanding.

What one would have longed to hear from the good Reverend is that he was not damning the United States; he was damning its sins. From the record this could have been readily demonstrated. Instead the Reverend chose to further impugn the character of his congregant by implying that it was mere political calculation that made Barack put distance between himself and the Reverend. How this will “play in Peoria”, as Mr. Nixon would say, is yet to be determined but it has given Fox Noise and the chattering classes an excuse to put the Reverend through several more spin-cycles.

Obama, walking the high wire of presidential politics, stood before the cameras and in a firm but soft voice, and with a look of resignation in his face, once again explained that those were not his sentiments and that clearly the Reverend did not understand who he is or what he and his campaign are about. With no joy in his voice he then publicly repudiated the Reverend saying that he clearly is not the man he thought him to be. One hopes that this is the end of the business, for this campaign has been distracted far too long over such an issue.

One can ask, as many have, why Obama would sit in a pew and listen to such sermons. But the truth is that we all have sat in pews and listened to admonitions we find unpalatable. I remember the 1960 campaign. We were instructed from the pulpit to vote for Nixon because if Kennedy were elected the Pope in Rome would run this country. At school we were told to remind our parents not to vote for the Catholic. Long lectures about the inquisition and the Catholic persecution of Protestants were held. It was as if the Inquisition had happened yesterday. I went home and told my mother who, after patiently listening to my political advice, simply said “nonsense, we’re Democrats, we’re voting for Kennedy”. So it was with all my classmates who lived in the neighborhood. Grand Haven went for Nixon, but not my neighborhood. It is easy to put labels on people, to try and tag them by such associations, but I have yet to sit in any pew and not disagree with at least half of what is being said—beginning with the preacher’s misunderstanding of natural history.

What we have here are inflammatory remarks, loosely associated with the candidate that can be spun into smear. Another simple instance of ‘swift-boating’. The question is why would the Reverend seek to once again raise the ugly issue and by so doing participate in the ‘swift-boating’ of the man he mentored?

I think the answer is that he does understand his congregant. The Reverend Wright does understand what Obama is all about, and that is the problem. To a degree all religions, and all denominations within each religion, are based on the concept of exclusivity. In order to maintain the institution one must maintain its identity. In order to maintain its identity one must constantly strive to see to it that the congregation does not melt back into the larger society. Therefore to keep the flock together it is necessary to draw distinctions be they over dress, dietary restriction, religious holidays and observances, ritual, and an abiding belief that only the version of truth taught by this denomination is the way to salvation. Only by separation from the larger community and following the ‘true’ path can one be saved. Walls of varying descriptions are then erected between oneself and the larger society, sometimes (as in the case of the current scandal in Texas involving a renegade Mormon sect, or the Branch Davidians) becoming a bit bazaar. In any case, not so deep under the surface, lurks a great deal of intolerance. It is intolerance that prevents the Bible-thumping fundamentalist from embracing the Mormon Mitt Romney, as it is intolerance that prevents the Reverend Wright from witnessing before his very eyes the work of his own parishioner. To embrace the greater community, to cross the line of demarcation and transcend one’s own parochialism is seen as ‘backsliding’ into heresy. This is an old story, at least as old as the reaction of Christ’s disciples when Peter told them that they must now take the Gospel unto the Gentiles. The Reverend Wright, who had built his church on drawing distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’, now finds that he cannot bring himself to embrace ‘them’. It’s no different that Jerry Falwell’s difficulty embracing homosexuals. “I love the sinner, but hate the sin”, Falwell used to say. The problem, of course, is that we are all sinners and therefore cannot be so easily separated.

I attended a parochial school and within its walls learned the true meaning of the word. To be parochial means to be limited, be it geographically or intellectually. It means to adhere to a narrow and more constricted version of truth, to the exclusion of all else. It means teaching to fear the other, those not like us. It means if no Lutheran is running for President, then we must vote protestant over Catholic, Christian over Muslim or Hindu—whatever the lines of demarcation and such lines there must be. That is what fuels the internet smear that Obama is Muslim, and this is what fuels the infatuation with the rantings of Reverend Wright. We can appeal to our parochialism, our collective intolerance, and do it with religious sanction. The opposite of parochial is cosmopolitan, urbane, and in a word worldly. Barack, by seeking to transcend parochialism, as he must do if he is to become President of all the people, has offended his mentor who now fears his success. To transcend his station, to preach to the gentiles as it were, to appeal to the larger community is seen as ‘backsliding’; a heresy threatening not only the theological ‘certainties’ of ‘black liberation’ theology, but the very identities of the church and the Reverend who built it.




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