A Pastor's Influence
In his achingly slow steps toward repudiating the repugnant words of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama has run the risk of serious political damage by leaving vague what it was that attracted him to this outspoken critic of American society.
In the rational part of Wright's appearance Monday at the National Press Club, before he got to the self-justification and the denunciations of our government and the nation's values, Wright offered clues to the answer to that question. They came in the form of his succinct interpretation of the historic goals of the black church.
These can be boiled down, he said, to three words: liberation, transformation and reconciliation.
To Wright, liberation means more than opposing oppression in all its forms. It also encompasses freeing oneself from any feelings of inferiority or superiority and recognizing that "being different does not mean one is deficient."
Transformation, in his terms, is all-encompassing: "Changed lives, changed minds, changed laws, changed social orders and changed hearts in a changed world."
Reconciliation, he concluded, "means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them. We retain who we are as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us. They are just different from us."
Anyone who has heard Obama's speeches in this campaign will recognize these three concepts as the roots of the senator's thinking and the guiding principles of his life.
Liberation explains the young Obama's decision to take his first job as a community organizer, helping poverty-stricken people on the South Side of Chicago, and similar efforts that have marked his work in the Illinois Legislature and the U.S. Senate.
Transformation is a fancy way of describing the need for radical change, not just in policies but in the fundamental premises of politics, as Obama has been advocating since the start of his campaign. As he says, until Washington is thoroughly changed, the challenges of the economy, health care and even foreign policy will not be met.
And reconciliation, as translated by Obama, means not only an appeal to move beyond partisanship in policy debates but explains his friendships with people such as Tom Coburn, the staunchly conservative senator from Oklahoma who is passionately antiabortion and strongly supporting John McCain.
From their very different religious backgrounds, Hillary Clinton and McCain share some, but not all, of these philosophical perspectives. But neither, so far as we know, has had a pastor who is nearly as controversial as Wright.
Once the question-and-answer period began at the press club, it became clear that -- for all the academic tone of his formal speech -- Wright was seething with resentments that overwhelmed any possibility of reconciliation.
The first question asked what Wright meant when he said, in a post-Sept. 11 sermon, that "America's chickens are coming home to roost."
"Have you heard the whole sermon?" Wright shot back. "Have you heard the whole sermon?"
The moderator said she heard most of it.
"No, no. The whole sermon. That's -- yes or no? No, you haven't heard the whole sermon? That nullifies that question." It went steadily downhill from there, with Wright repeating or embellishing a litany of his most offensive statements, while insisting that the counterattacks on him were not a repudiation of himself but an assault on the black church.
The resulting furor confronted Obama with an issue he badly wanted to avoid as he struggles to defeat Clinton in Tuesday's Indiana primary, the latest test of his ability to win working-class and white votes.
So he came forward in successive news conferences, each one more sharply condemning his former minister and repudiating his words. In the final attempt, he called them "divisive and destructive" and signaled a complete break with Wright.
But he insisted that the preacher most Americans met through TV clips this past month was not the same man who brought him into Christianity 20 years ago. Voters who do not find that persuasive are not likely to accept Obama's current words as anything more than political positioning.
We do not know how destructive this association will be to Obama's chances. But as much as Obama may have found inspiration for his political views in Wright's sermons, the damage from their friendship has now been far greater.