Friday, March 21, 2008

Swiftboating Faith: WSJ's Riley smears Obama

A hit job on Obama by a Wall Street Journal opinion editor -- who cares? Well, this one, by WSJ deputy Taste editor and Fox News panelist Naomi Schaefer Riley, tests some lines of religious attack we're sure to hear a lot more of.

In her rush to belittle Barack Obama's integration of faith in his political persona, Rileydisplays a breathtaking --probably willful -- ignorance of Obama's religious practice, his stated beliefs about how faith should and should not inform politics, and of the multi-staged process of conversion he details -- without self-aggrandizement -- in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father.

Riley's premise is that Democrats can't do religion because they don't mean it. Her core charge is that Obama's membership in Wright's church was a matter of expedience:
As Mr. Obama recounts in his memoir, he went to meet Pastor Wright because he was advised that it would "help your [community organizing] if you had a church home. . . . It doesn't matter where really." So he became a member of the largest black church in the neighborhood, thereby furthering his activism and eventually getting the votes of Trinity's 8,000 congregants. Which is fine, but such an attachment is more utilitarian than religious, and sooner or later its true character will show.
"So he became a member..." What a wealth of Rovian distortion in that little conjunction of causation. Never mind that Obama chronicles the pressures, chronicles his doubts, chronicles much of Wright's doctrine and his and others' reaction, chronicles even how his own wariness of yielding to expedience delayed his commitment. Then, finally, chronicles a fully credible conversion experience that conjoins the content of the sermon that prompted it (in fact a beautiful, nonpolitical sermon of Wright's (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) about the power of hope in people who had suffered greatly), the experience of the parishioners and the community in which Obama had immersed himself, and the associations aroused in his own mind. Obama quoted the conversion passage from Dreams in his speech on race, to extraordinary effect:
People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note - hope! - I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild.
This from a young man who had chosen a line of work that engaged him day-by-day in the experience of the people of the South Side of Chicago. I do think that that Obama's desire to belong, and to be effective in his organizing work, played a part in this conversion, which was spurred by a willing imagination. Obama acknowledges as much in Dreams, which is pervaded by awareness of the complexity of motivation generally. What person who takes religious experience seriously would cast a motivational stone at Obama?

Second, Riley offers a ridiculous comparison with that man of the spirit, George W. Bush:
If you want to speak the language of religious people, substance matters more than style. Some religious leaders hoped early on that Sen. Obama's speeches would be peppered with the biblical language he had picked up in church, as President Bush's speeches have been. But there is no sign of that so far. Sen. Obama may have the smooth cadences of a black preacher, and his public appearances include a certain kind of call and response, but his biblical references are so commonplace that it's hard to call them biblical anymore. They tend to include the Golden Rule and regular admonitions to "be our brother's keeper."
This style-substance bifurcation omits an inconvenient truth: Obama, unlike Bush, has actually belonged to and attended a church for more than 20 years. In itself, I don't regard that as anything to boast about But when you're talking about "substance" of religious experience, it's germane.

Finally, there's the question of why Obama incorporates only the most "commonplace" Biblical references. It's deliberate-- a matter of the ground rules that Obama has set out for invoking 'religious' values in a political arena. According to Obama, it's fine to be inspired by the scriptures and tenets of a particular religion. But in politics, the values absorbed in this way must be translated into universal terms and argued on their intrinsic merits. Here's how Obama puts it in The Audacity of Hope (p. 219):
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
The 'universal' vocabulary of faith that Obama regards as valid in politics also describes the content of his beliefs. In Audacity, after chronicling his doubts, he has this to say about the content of his faith:
This is not to say that I'm unanchored in my faith. There are some things that I'm absolutely sure about -- the Golden Rule, the need to battle cruelty in all its forms, the value of love and charity, humility and grace.
Or, as Riley calls them, the 'commonplace' doctrines of the Golden Rule and being our brother's keeper. Dull stuff, that. Wouldn't want our politicians pushing such tired platitudes.

Leave it to Bush to inject the unctuous and intrusive preacher's vocabulary into his speeches. Obama aims to connect with Americans of all faiths and no faiths. Looks like he is succeeding.

Related Post:
Audacity of Obama: Embracing Wright and Grandma


  1. That's the first time I've heard George W. Bush accused of being substantive.

  2. When I saw the post by Dick MOrris, and then heard it by some right-winger on CNN, I knew this was their next line of attack:

    Obama as cynical politician who joined Trinity for political reasons.

    I'm from Chicago.

    If Obama, in the mid-80's, wanted to join a church for political reasons...


    Trinity DID NOT have the 8000 members that it does TODAY.

    Trinity was never one of the 'politically connected' churches, because Jeremiah Wright didn't play the game with the political establishment. It is well known that Wright refused to 'Prositute The Pulpit' - the well-known practice of politicians of every color, showing up right before election time to get the votes of the congregation. Wright didn't play that game.

    There are plenty of other churches, whose pastors had the political hookup that Obama could have joined.

    I think he joined Trinity because it exemplified the best of the Black Christian Activist Church Tradition.

    Trinity is an affluent church, full of ' Strivers' like Barack and Michelle Obama. It's full of The Talented Tenth. They could very comfortably practice 'Checkbook Christianity' at other churches. They wanted a more activist church, a more 'grassroots Christianity' - which Trinity offers.

    Oh, and before you believe the LIE that Obama joined Trinity to beef up his 'Black Cred' for political reasons...

    The race in which the ' Is he Black Enough?' memo circulated on him was the 2000 Congressional Race against Bobby Rush. You're going to tell me that Obama joined a Church over a decade before for a race that he LOST? Does that make any sense? No. Just another GOP lie.