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Fair Play for False Prophets

Jerry Falwell
Jerry Falwell (Dave Martin - AP)
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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, May 2, 2008

NEW YORK -- Do white right-wing preachers have it easier than black left-wing preachers? Is there a double standard?

The political explosion around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was inevitable, given Wright's personal closeness to Barack Obama and the outrageous rubbish the pastor has offered about AIDS, Sept. 11 and Louis Farrakhan.

After Wright's bizarre and narcissistic performance at the National Press Club on Monday, Obama would have looked weak and irresolute had he not denounced him. But if there was a moment of courage in this drama, it was not Obama's condemnation of Wright but his earlier and now much-criticized effort to avoid a complete break with his unapologetic pastor.

In March, Obama tried to explain the anger in the black community and insisted that "to condemn it without understanding its roots only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

In light of this racial gap, it's worth pondering why white, right-wing preachers who make ridiculous and sometimes shameful statements usually emerge with their influence intact.

The catalogue goes back to Bailey Smith, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Speaking at a 1980 religious convention that was also addressed by Ronald Reagan, Smith declared that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew."

Reagan later asserted that he thought Jewish prayers were answered, but he was less than definitive. "Everyone can make his own interpretation of the Bible," the Gipper said, "and many individuals have been making differing interpretations for a long time."

Two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Jerry Falwell, appearing on Pat Robertson's "700 Club," declared: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' "

Robertson replied: "Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And the top people, of course, is the court system."

To their credit, many conservatives condemned Falwell and Robertson. The ministers backed away from their words, but Falwell's retraction was, at best, partial. "When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture," Falwell insisted, "the result is not good."

What's telling is that neither preacher lost sway in Republican circles. Before Falwell's death last year, John McCain actively courted his support, and Rudy Giuliani, one of the heroes of Sept. 11, welcomed Robertson's endorsement of his own candidacy. "His advice is invaluable," Giuliani said.

And, of course, there is the endorsement of McCain by the Rev. John Hagee, founder of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, who has called the Catholic Church "the great whore of Babylon" and "the anti-Christ."


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