Rev. Wright Strikes Back

Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ and the former pastor of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., prepares to addresses a breakfast gathering at the National Press Club in Washington, Monday, April 28, 2008. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ and the former pastor of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., prepares to addresses a breakfast gathering at the National Press Club in Washington, Monday, April 28, 2008. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite - AP)
Jack White and Melissa Harris-Lacewell
Contributing Writer, The Root and Former Time Magazine Columnist and Contributing Writer, The Root, and Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies, Princeton University
Monday, April 28, 2008; 3:30 PM

Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor today defended the fiery sermons that have become a political liability for the Democratic presidential contender, charging that a furor over his remarks represents an "attack on the black church."

Jack White, former Time magazine columnist and contributing writer to, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African American Studies at Princeton University and also a contributor to The Root, were online Monday, April 28, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss and analyze Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.'s speech today before the National Press Club in Washington.

Jack White: The Sin of the Reverend ( The Root, April 28)

A transcript follows.


Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I attended Trinity United Church of Christ during the seven years that I lived in Chicago: 1999-2006. This means that I was in the pews during many of these controversial sermons. I remember the sermon given the Sunday after 9-11 as particularly meaningful to me because I was pregnant with my daughter and Rev. Wright directly addressed what happens when our desire for revenge extends to a willingness to destroy innocents. From the beginning I have wanted to defend Jeremiah and his right to say anything from the pulpit that he wants to say. But, now he is out of the pulpit and in the broader media. Now, he needs an editor badly!


Jack White: Nice being with you today, Melissa, on what may be a very bad day for Barack Obama's campaign.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you think Wright is doing this to get back at Barack Obama? There is a lot of press coverage of Wright today and over the weekend CNN broadcast live his comments at another event for quite a long time. What effect, if any, do you think this will have on Obama and the electorate?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I am not sure why Reverend Wright would feel a need to "get back" at Obama. Although he has distanced himself from Wright, Senator Obama has never thrown him under the bus and was pretty careful in his Philadelphia speech to say that he refused to disown Wright.


Washington, D.C.: Why is Wright's association with Obama so relevant to the press whereas Falwell's association with McCain is not?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: Many reasons. Obama has made a claim to be a different kind of political figure and claims to be able to bring people together. I don't think either of the other two candidates have made this kind of claim. They are more free to engage in politics as usual. Race is, of course, the other factor. It remains a conversation around which we do not share common vocabulary.


Bristol, R.I.: I watched his NAACP talk in its entirety and found Rev. Wright to be reasonable, highly intelligent, and funny. And then I read Dana Milbank's account of his National Press club chat and "heard" an entirely different person. What, in your estimation, is at work here? And secondly, do you perceive an organized "pushback" from the black clergy to media coverage of Rev. Wright?

Jack White: Shades of the racially mixed reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict. I think that Wright was very effective in the first part of his presentation, when he spoke from a prepared text. But his response to questions from the audience was unsettling. He was cocky, even silly, pirouetting around behind the host and spinning his hands. Milbank's reaction, no doubt, may be influenced by his ethnicity and unfamiliarity with black preaching styles. But I found it unsettling too. Wright had a chance to lay this issue to rest. He chose to inflame it.

As for a pushback from the black clergy, of course, especially since Wright characterized the criticism of him as an attack on the black church on the whole. I think that was a mistake because it suggests that black churchgoers believe what Wright says and I don't think that's true.


Washington, D.C. : Wow! Is this guy secretly working for the Republicans? He is the best thing that could have happened for McCain. My wife an (African American) is a Obama supporter, I am a Independent, we get into disagreements; she thinks Wright is working for Clinton. How does Obama recover from this self-centered character?

Jack White: Ha! That's the same question I asked in my piece today. I think that Obama at the very least is going to have to put even greater distance between himself and Wright. And even that may not work.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I don't think he is on the GOP payroll. That is too easy! He seems to be simply driven by hubris and ego right now. I think he believes it is his job to defend the black church. I think the church was doing a pretty good job defending itself these past few weeks!


York, Pa.: The Bill Moyer's PBS interview and the speech Sunday night in Detroit provided mostly positives for the Obama campaign. The National Press Club appearance today, however, appears to have put some significant negatives out there. I don't see how Obama can successfully maneuver out of this barrage without further distancing himself from Wright. Ironically, though, the two appearances before today could have helped him. I'll have to listen to what Wright said today to confirm this view that today's remarks were different. If you have listened to all three appearances would you please comment on them?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I agree that the Moyers interview was the most complex and "Obama-helpful" appearance. Particularly when Wright said that God takes things that man means for evil and uses them for good. The most obvious Christian example is the resurrection. He then compared Obama's Philadelphia race speech as an example of God making bad things good. That was a pretty huge metaphor!


Dumfries, Va.: I don't agree with everything Rev. Wright says even after hearing the entire sermon, but I understand his point.

Why doesn't the media put his comments in context? Is the media really that driven by profit and conflict?

In the meantime gas is approaching $4/gal and there are food riots. Let's move on to the real news.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: Yes, the media is that profit driven! Take it from someone who does a lot of broadcast media hits! Even though there are smart and ethical journalists and producers and editors working in the industry, the industry itself is competes for viewer, listeners and readers in a way that makes it difficult to penetrate the noise of scandal and get to underlying issues

Jack White: Well, he had an entire hour on CSPAN today, and an hour with Bill Moyers on Friday. How much time does he need?

I agree with you that it's a side issue we shouldn't be so focused on, but that's how politics works.


Montgomery County, Md.: While the sound bytes have not surprisingly angered many people, I have also found Jeremiah Wright's complete sermons on YouTube, his interview with Bill Moyers and his speech at the press club to reveal a very thoughtful, provocative (in a good sense), and articulate man. Does the media have a responsibility to show a more well-rounded picture of Rev. Wright than is happening, or is character assassination easier than the complexity of the man? Is there a silver lining (not necessarily for the Obama campaign) in a better understanding of Rev. Wright's theology and that on many black churches in America?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: The media will not accept this responsibility even if it has one. I think the big question is whether Wright will accept his complicity in damaging Obama's campaign and if Obama will accept that now these are the new terms under which he will have to win.


Washington, D.C.: Why has Rev. Wright chosen this time to defend himself and his remarks? What effect does Rev. Wright believe his theology and his comments will have on Obama, politically?

Jack White: Well, he says he's a pastor and not a politician. I have no idea what he thinks he was accomplishing. Interestingly, I've been hearing from some black observers that they think Wright hit it out of the park and helped Obama. I don't see it that way. I think Wright's body language in particular is going to rattle some viewers.

_______________________ The Sin of the Reverend ( The Root, April 28)


Ellicott City, Md.: Who do you think the reverend wants to see winning the election? By continually rehashing this, he's making sure it's not going to be Obama.

Wright can't seriously think McCain would be better... could he?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I think he believes there is little difference between the candidates. I am not sure why he has decided that HRC, McCain or Obama are all equal "agents of the state" but that is the subtext I heard emerge over the past three days of media.

Jack White: Well, I can't read his mind. But the effect, in the short terms, is to help Hillary, and, in the long term, to help McCain.


Palo Alto, Caif.: Hi Melissa, did you see Obama when you were at the church?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: Not on those particular Sundays that I can remember. There are more than 1000 people at every service! But I did sometimes see him. I also often saw him or Michelle on campus at the University of Chicago. I most often saw him running at the lake. He is a beautiful runner. I am pitiful! I got lapped by the senator more times than I care to admit.


Washington, D.C.: You must admit that it seems very suspicious that all of a sudden Rev. Wright is showing up a lot in the media. Doesn't he know that he might not be doing Obama any good? I can imagine Barack Obama cringing, hearing the reverend back on the dias. What do you think? Could Rev. Wright lose the election for Obama by just being around and casting doubt in peoples' minds?

Jack White: I love conspiracy theories. The notion that Wright is out to damage Obama doesn't track for me. I think he's just out of control. As for Obama, he's probably repeating that line from Godfather 3- "just when I thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!"

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: Jack, you are so funny and so bad! I don't think there is a conspiracy. It is just the power of ego to destroy. Of course, Obama must learn to govern in the midst of racial storms. This is what it will mean for him to be president.


Baltimore, Md.: If the good Reverend Wright is so concerned about the plight of the black man in America, instead of building a multi-million dollar home, why doesn't he give the money to the poor as Jesus commanded?

If Dr. Wright is appalled at racial segregation in schools, why does he insist that black children require a different learning environment than non-blacks? Does not the New Testament say that Jesus broke down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (i.e. between races)?

If the Most Right Reverend Doctor Jeremiah A. Wright is the humble servant of Jesus, why does he live a life of luxury, while the Son of God had no where to lay his head to sleep (i.e. homeless)?

Why does the lowly and meek Rev. Wright wear custom made suits when Jesus said "do not worry about what you will wear... instead, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness".

Mr. Wright's speeches are extremely divisive and contradictory. Jeremiah Wright should have been removed from his mega-millions pastoral position years ago. For the Scriptures say "humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up." It's no wonder so few actually believe the Scriptures are true, for even the religious leaders do not live by Its principles.

Jack White: Well, this is a personal attack on Wright, and you're entitled to your opinion.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I agree that this attack is personal.


Alexandria, Va.: Why can the media not admit that the narrative surrounding Rev. Wright has been set and that nothing he says will ever change that. Like a previous commenter, I found his speech at the NAACP meeting to be witty, intelligent, and enlightening, yet there is no way those ideas will be equated with the figure Rev. Wright. Wright's persona has been turned into a few sound bites on YouTube and there is little that will change that. There is no way the media can turn the story around no matter what the truth. Doesn't this whole sage display an inherent deficiency on modern media coverage?

Jack White: To borrow an apt phrase, you are preaching to the choir. And while it reflects some of the deficiencies of the media, it also reflects Wright's inability to stay out of the limelight. He knows how the media works. He may well be enjoying this second 15 minutes.


Washington, D.C. : Should Obama now more forcefully repudiate Wright? If so, how would he defend his new stance? If not, how should he deal with the more assertive Wright?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: If I were advising the campaign I would say that Obama should not respond at all. Somebody has got to shut up about this, because there is no where to go but down. I think the official position is that Obama has already addressed this at length, Wright is a free agent. Our first amendment right to free speech is sacred and Wright is exercising his. Obama should use his 5th amendment right to remain silent!

Jack White: He won't have the option of not responding. Think back to 1984 when Jesse Jackson was forced to repudiate Farrakhan.


Washington, D.C.: Why does this deserve so much attention? Why does what Obama's pastor said in the past matter? I'm not a church-goer but some of my friends are and they told me that their pastor has said some things that they don't agree with, but that doesn't keep them from going to the same church or even from not liking the pastor.

Jack White: I agree that it's a side issue, but it's also a fair question to raise. If Obama had belonged to a secular organization whose leader espoused the views Wright has expressed, and paid thousands of dollars of dues, he would have to explain his association. Politics, as Mr. Dooley said, ain't bean bag. Or, to use Wright's language from today, it ain't playing the dozens. This is the way the game is played.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: Fair maybe, but still short sighted. I do not believe that Obama agrees with everything that Reverend Wright says. I attended the church and often disagreed with the man. But the sacred worship experience there was powerful and worth coming back for every Sunday. To me it is a sign of Obama's character that he can withstand disagreement. He claims that he will reach across the aisle to people on the Right with whom he disagrees. I think his comfort with disagreement is reflected in his willingness to maintain a relationship with TUCC even while sometimes disagreeing with Wright. This is consistent with the person he claims to be.


Bristol, R.I.: The challenge isn't merely Obama's. I think Hillary Clinton needs to step very carefully in responding to this "Wright moment." You?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I think that HRC and McCain have A LOT to answer for in 2008. I will NEVER understand why the one candidate with a broad, multi-racial coalition has to answer questions about race while candidates with nearly lily-white electoral bases are allowed to avoid the question altogether. I would like HRC and McCain to explain why they have so much difficulty getting black voters to support them.

Jack White: Agreed. Clinton has benefited from racism--not race, racism- during this campaign. Her husband has fanned the flames, as have some of her aides. She and McCain should be held to the same standard. By the way, have you seen the video of Gov. Ed Rendell of Pa. praising Farrakhan in a speech about ten years ago? Nobody has asker her to disassociate herself from Rendell.


Washington, D.C.: I think this is abominable. I am not at all a supporter of Obama yet feel sorry for him. He has been ill-served by this man who is perversely taking delight in the problems he is causing. How is criticizing what this "pastor" says an attack on the black church. It is a specific attack on Wright. Deservedly so. As blacks, we must be speak with moral clarity. When he refers to Ms. Rice as Condoskeezer? Is this also in the black tradition?

Jack White: I agree that Wright made a tragic mistake by equating the criticism of him with an attack on the black church as a whole. In a way, it reminds me of Marion Barry and others claiming that charges brought against them as individuals are charges against the entire black community.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: And let the church say Amen to that. Wright is not the totality of the black church, our traditions, or our sacred selves. I do think the attack is rooted in American racial divisions, but Wright has not been elected by all of black America to represent us...Oh yeah, that is Barack with 90% of our vote to date!


Seattle, Wash.: I'm going to go against the grain and say having Wright in the spotlight now helps Obama more than it hurts him. Think of it as a controlled burn. The more Wright is in the spotlight now the less he will matter in the Fall.

Jack White: Goodness, Obama should hire you to spin for his campaign!

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I love that idea. I have thought about something similar. Maybe this is Wright's way of distancing himself from Obama so that he cannot be used against him later. Here is the line: "Obviously Rev. Wright does not support Barack for President. If he did he would not behave in this way. Therefore, no need to judge Obama by the yardstick of Wright" Brilliant!


Annapolis, Md.: How is the black church different from a white church?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: There is no one church of either race. I would not, for example, go up to any white person on the street and ask them to explain the polygamous cult that is currently in the news. That said, there are a number of unique racial traditions that emerge in many historic African American congregations. There is a voluminous literature on this topic. A quick Amazon search will lead you to some great texts.

Jack White: Do you really expect an answer to that question?


Tallahassee, Fla.: I wish that the commentators would deal with the real issues that Rev. Wright is addressing -- racism in America, injustices in our society, militarism that saps our nation's resources in an ill-conceived war, American mythology of a completely virtuous political history -- these are the types of problems that Rev. Wright raises. Talking about his style of speaking is trivial compared to his "prophetic point" that the church can never associate itself completely with our government without losing its ability to criticize it and point out these types of social ills.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: Ah! What a novel idea, deal with the provocative issues themselves rather than arguing about the fact that they are provocative! But then we might have a real deliberative democracy and that would provoke fear and trembling.

_______________________ Rought Sketch: For Obama, a Voice of Doom?


Washington, D.C.: Do you think Wright accurately represents an older generation belief if any at all in the black community? Is what he says representative of how young black citizens feel?

Jack White: I think there are many people in the black community who agree with Wright. And others who don't agree with him who will rally to his defense out of a sense of racial solidarity. I'm not sure how this divides generationally, but I suspect this might be an issue on which the young and old agree.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: There is a bit of a generational divide here .My father is certainly of a generation that never trusts that white voters will be reasonable and durable coalition partners. But had I lived through Jim Crow I might easily have felt the same way. It is easy to judge harshly those who survived so much.


Washington, DC..: I listened to the NAACP speech, watched the Moyers interview, and listened to the transcript. I have new and great respect for Rev. Wright, and agreed with him on many points.

My questions: What portions of the press conference do you believe will be most repeated/maligned, and why?

And (I'm assuming this by the talk of ego and hubris) why don't you believe the attacks on Rev. Wright are the narrow form of a larger attack against black churches?

Jack White: Well, it will come down to sound bites again. Maybe the one in which he expounded on the idea that 9/11 was chickens coming home to roost. There were plenty.

I don't think that the criticism of Wright was an attack on all black churches because they are all different, don't subscribe to the same ideas, and don't deserve to be found guilty by association with Wright.


Raleigh, N.C.: Why do you claim "while candidates with nearly lily-white electoral bases are allowed to avoid the question altogether" regarding race? Is Clinton's base 'lily-white'? I thought Hispanic voters were a very important part of her supporters. Also, former President Clinton was taken to task for mentioning that Jessie Jackson had won S.C. primary when he ran.

This is part of an unwinnable debate -- if Clinton gets the white votes in Pa., it is because of the Bradley effect, yet if Obama gets 90 percent plus of the African American vote that is viewed differently.

In view of the large gulf in how topics of race or around race are viewed, aren't Wright's placing Obama in a no-win scenario? If he does not throw Wright under the bus he loses moderate white votes, if he does he loses some percentage of black support?

Jack White: You have accurately described Obama's dilemma, which happens to be the same one any black candidate faces running in a mostly white political landscape. Obama's candidacy raises the question squarely: can a black win enough votes to get to the White House? The only way to know if for a black candidate like Obama to run.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think Obama will ignore this latest news from Rev. Wright? Or do you think he will address it? Has there been any reaction yet from Barack Obama?

Jack White: His campaign strategist, David Axelrod, tried to handle it prememptively by pointing out that Wright is a free agent over whom Obama has no control. But I think Obama is going to have to say something about this. Don't know if he has yet, or when he will.


Boston, Mass.: But Rev. Wright is a smart man, he must know 'it would all come down to soundbytes again.' Why do you think he chose to pepper his speeches with as many soundbyte-ready comments as he did?

Jack White: Who knows why he is doing what he's doing? He's not exactly a shrinking violent, is he?


Richmond, Va.: Isn't this really just a disagreement between the old guard (the Sharptons, Wrights and Jackson) vs. the new guard (Obama). The old guard was the fiery group who had their window on the world while Obama has a different one. Maybe the old guard doesn't want to get out of the limelight yet.

Jack White: I think there's something to this. Wright is now a lot more famous than he was a few weeks ago. And I do think that Jackson, Sharpton and the older generation of black leaders, many of them clergymen, worry about being pushed off stage by young upstarts, who occupy offices the older ones could never get, have realistic dreams of becoming president, and are seen as potential leaders of all the people, not just blacks.


Ottawa, Canada: Is Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. running for president? No. So, what's the big deal? Ronald Reagan, when running for president, was supported by some controversial people. Reagan simply said, "He supports me. That doesn't mean I support him." Why doesn't Obama just say something like that?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I agree! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE , do not vote for Reverend Wright for the US Presidency!

Jack White: Well,I agree that Obama should have done a better job of separating himself. As for Reagan, well, let's just say I don't agree with your analysis. I think he sought the support of some awful people.


Springfield, Va.: I agree with the comment that people will take Rev. Wright's [comments] differently. I have a great understanding of Rev. Wright's points; however, I don't think he helped his case with trying to create an understanding between the races. When you are trying to teach people things you need to talk to people in their own language. He didn't accomplish that today. This could possibly cost Obama the election.

Jack White: I pretty much agree.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Obama received a positive response in his speech for condemning his Wright's words but not the man. Given this latest round isn't it, now, necessary for Obama to somehow condemn the man?

Jack White: No, but he will have to much more forcibly disassociate himself from Wright's views. Remember that Christians believe in hating the sin, but not the sinner.


Durham, N.C.: Why is Barack Obama being held accountable for the words of his former pastor? To me they seem so different? Why is it difficult for most of America to see them as different people?

Jack White: Simple. If he had belonged to a secular organization, regularly attended its meetings and paid it thousands of dollars in dues, it would be fair to raise questions about his membership, wouldn't it? I think people see them as different people. But some want to know why he continued to support an organization led by Wright. It may not be fair in the strict sense, but what is? Even Obama says that it's fair to raise the issue.


Jack White: Well, I gotta go. It's been interesting batting this issue around with all of you. I look forward to seeing how the Obama campaign is going to respond to this issue. It could be make or break for him.


York, Pa.: I've seen the PBS interview and the speech in Detroit and I read the transcript of today's speech and Q and A. Not taking it out of context, it's not that controversial? Why can't the message that it isn't that controversial get legs?

Jack White: Well, yours is a singular view. A lot of folks disagree with you.

_______________________ Melissa Harris-Lacewell had to leave the discussion due to her schedule. We thank her for participating.


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