The Wright Question

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

THIS MORNING in Philadelphia, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will try to put the controversy over the charged rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. behind him. The front-runner for the Democratic Party's nomination for president has his work cut out for him.

The almost-daily demands for denunciations and repudiations of comments made by supporters of Mr. Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have become wearying. We long for a return to a vigorous debate about kitchen-table issues facing the nation. But the explosive sermons preached by the Rev. Wright that have come to light require the speech Mr. Obama will deliver today. This passage from a 2003 sermon is particularly troubling: "God damn America -- that's in the Bible -- for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme." The cadence is strident. The words are harsh. And the anger with which they are delivered no doubt is disturbing to many.

The sermons stand in stark contrast to the vision of America that Mr. Obama espoused in the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that catapulted him to prominence. "My parents . . . shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation," he said. "They would give me an African name . . . believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. . . . They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential. . . . I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story . . . that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

The relationship between the preacher and the politician is as close as it is complicated. The Rev. Wright recently retired as the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. For 20 years he played spiritual adviser to Mr. Obama, who credits the Rev. Wright with guiding him on a path of faith. He performed Mr. Obama's wedding and baptized the Obamas' two children. Mr. Obama denounced the inflammatory rhetoric. But his explanation -- "the statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of the controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews . . . or heard him utter in private conversation" -- has not quelled the furor that engulfs him.

That's understandable: It's hard to accept that Mr. Obama was entirely unaware of his pastor's bitter analysis of American society. That he did not distance himself from the Rev. Wright until the statements became public is bound to raise legitimate questions. Mr. Obama has presented himself as someone who can help the country overcome its racial divisions. If that is to happen, rhetoric such as the Rev. Wright's cannot be tolerable.

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