Up to now, no one has demanded that a candidate renounce his pastor as the punditocracy suggested Obama do. No one demanded it of George W. Bush, no one demands it of Hillary Clinton, and no one demands it of John McCain. But it is expected that Clinton and McCain, like Bush, will sweep into countless churches without ever asking what their pastors say. They will go to some churches, like Rod Parsley’s World Harvest Church or John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church, where the pastors are on the record demanding “the false religion” of Islam be “destroyed,” or that New Orleans was pummeled by hurricanes because “it had a level of sin that was offensive to God.” McCain’s occasional criticism of religious right leaders did not prevent him from going to Liberty University and asking Falwell and his students to support the war in Iraq. But if McCain’s experience so far is a guide, all the candidates will have to do is disagree with the bad stuff and they’ll get a free pass to campaign.
Why is that? Why is Barack Obama’s 20-year fellowship a mark on his character but the drive-by and politically motivated fellowship of every presidential candidate simply expected? I understand the argument that Obama might have been influenced by Wright in the pews. I understand it and I don’t buy it. The candidate has had 12 years in government to demonstrate his Wright-inspired AIDS conspiracism or race hatred, and he hasn’t done anything of the kind. The only possible conclusion is that he disagrees with Wright’s occasional outbursts. After the senator’s “More Perfect Union,” former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson argued that the fair-weather support of Republicans for Jerry Falwell was excusable in a way Obama’s relationship was not, because those Republicans “didn’t financially support [Falwell] and sit directly under his teaching for decades.”
That’s a red herring. Republicans, led by George Bush, gave Falwell political access: visits to the White House, jobs for Liberty University graduates, actions that amplified his voice and strengthened the bonds between church and state. The financial aid that Obama gave Wright was a part of his private faith. The attention lavished on Falwell, one among many religious-cum-political leaders who built bonds with the Bush White House, had a public effect on who sits on federal benches, on which charitable organizations get taxpayer cash, and on how much credibility we give to ideas like abstinence education.
Wright apparently sees this nation as defective and divided beyond repair. Obama thinks the defects are only a part of the story, and that a unity transcending ancient racial distrusts is achievable.
What has fueled his candidacy is neither black anger nor white guilt, but a desire by people of different complexions to minimize the role of race in our society. In his book, “A Bound Man,” Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele writes that Obama is “a living rebuke to both racism and racialism, to both segregation and identity politics. . . . [H]e also embodies a great and noble human aspiration: to smother racial power in a democracy of individuals.”
If the pastor truly believed his more vitriolic comments, he would have no choice but to treat Obama as a fool for aspiring to the presidency. Instead, Wright has been forced to entertain the notion that white people would choose a black male for the most powerful office on Earth.