Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The least expedient church to join....

One of the common right-wing smears attached to the Wright scandal is the assertion or insinuation that Obama joined Trinity United Church out of political expedience. A year ago, that possibility was debunked by Wright himself -- though its very preposterousness suggests other problems for Obama. Here, from a March 2007 interview (hat tip Andrew Sullivan), is Wright's take on that question:
I am not your typical garden-variety African-American clergy person, and because I'm not -- he was talking about organizing the churches in those early days. I said, man, you don't know who you're talking to. They don't like me. I'm not well liked in the city of Chicago, so you tell them you're a member of Trinity, you're going to turn off preachers before they ever get to know you, 'cause they're going to associate you with me, and just that association could be a negative in terms of how you are perceived in their eyes before you open your mouth -- "Oh, you go to Jeremiah's church." That kind of negative imaging I said might be harmful to him in terms of what he was trying to do in building coalitions and getting other churches to do things, again, for the benefit of the people. That would never happen just because they're going to associate your name with mine. That could be detrimental, I told him back then. It holds just as true, even more so, now. In fact, I just shared with, I was trying to remember who it is, somebody in public life was asking me about Barack, and I said listen, Barack might be forced by the media and/or by supporters to be very absent from this church and to put distance between our church and himself. As a politician, he might be forced into that. I have not talked to him about that at all. It's just that my read just of the blogs and what the right-Christian-wing leaders have said about him being a part of our church over past three months says this is -- you think it's ugly now, it's going to get worse, it's going to get much worse. For survival's sake, as a politician he just might have to not -- not that I love you less, I love me more. I'll never get elected as long as they keep harping on this. And that's -- again, I haven't talked to him about that at all.
To me, this passage does raise some questions about judgment, even as it puts to rest the question of expediency (other than the kind of 'expediency' that lets desire to believe and belong have its sway) . It also implicitly belies Wright's current claim that the attack on him is an attack on the black church as a whole. According to David Mendel's Obama biography, recently cited by Noam Scheiber, Obama was attracted to Wright and Trinity by the same qualities that reprelled many others: Wright's non-literal approach to Biblical interpretation, his opposition to school prayer and advocacy for gay rights, his "intellectualism and black militancy." Well, maybe - but what about that so called 'militancy'? -- were many in the black church community in Chicago repelled by the same crackpot and quasi-Nation-of-Islam ideology that has stunned the country as a whole twenty years later? Were many people -- with far less intellectual firepower than Obama (that's almost all of us) aware that Trinity's social activism was embedded in Wright's paranoid theoretical framework? Could Obama really not have been aware of the full crazy sweep of Wright's world view? Did he willfully blind himself because of the strength he drew from the man and the church community?

These questions do not shake my own support for Obama. I find him fully credible when he says that Wright's offensive beliefs "contradic[t] everything that I'm about and who I am." I can forgive him for turning a blind eye to someone whom he found compelling and attractive in powerful ways. But I do believe he did a number on himself by failing to see destructive elements of Wright's world view.

The ambiguous voice in the latter part of Wright's riff above could cause further problems for Obama:
For survival's sake, as a politician he just might have to not -- not that I love you less, I love me more. I'll never get elected as long as they keep harping on this. And that's -- again, I haven't talked to him about that at all.
This is spoken in the "first person speculative" -- Wright here imaginatively mimics Obama's internal voice. He seems to recognize this ventriloquism as a dangerous move, because he protests both before and after, "I haven't talked to him about that at all." But he seems to have settled Obama's thought process in his own mind. Alas, with what bitterness this preemptive interpretation spilled out fourteen months later!

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