Speaking truth to power

obamacrossThere have been more than a few stories about Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s spiritual mentor and pastor. A survey of broadcast media left me a tad unimpressed with the journalistic treatment. It seems news outlets are either exploiting the political rhetoric of Wright without any context or soft-peddling it to the extreme.

This weekend I contemplated the similarities between the political statements of Wright and other pastors. ABC News last week quoted Wright speaking about America:

“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people,” he said in a 2003 sermon. “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

Now consider what Jerry Falwell said after 9/11. Like Wright, he though the attacks showed that some chickens were coming home to roost:

But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. 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.”

And yes, I know Falwell apologized the next day whereas Wright seems pretty defiant about the correctness of his views. But comparing the rhetoric of these two pastors is an interesting exercise. Think about how often the media cover the controversial statements of American evangelicals such as Falwell. Now think about how often the media cover the controversial statements of those in the old mainline churches.

More than a few observers on the weekend shows have defended Wright’s rhetoric as typical and even moderate. And if that is true, it’s just downright bizarre that it hasn’t been mentioned by the mainstream media before. If it’s not true, and if Wright is an aberration, one wonders why the Chicago media, among others, have been asleep at the wheel on this story.

As a confessional Lutheran, the sermons I hear are much more likely to be about the sins being committed by, well, me than the political wrongs of others who aren’t in attendance. But political condemnations are a regular feature for many Protestants. The United Church of Christ is hardly an exception. My mother, who was raised in (what became) the UCC, used to tell me of her family’s shock at being told by church leadership that they should support Angela Davis. That was four decades ago. Of the many family members who left the UCC, some did so because of the extreme political rhetoric they were hearing each week. If the mainstream media would cover more than the UCC’s ad campaigns, this Wright story might not be such a bombshell.

As I noted earlier, Falwell retracted his comments and was roundly condemned by more or less everyone. A different story is playing out with Wright. But as some news outlets overplay the Wright story and other outlets underplay it, it might be worth considering how the story was handled for Falwell. Were his comments placed in context and defended as the prophetic speaking of truth to power? Were they overplayed for shock value? Why do the media pay so much attention to folks like Falwell and so little to those on the other side of the American Protestant coin?

And what can news outlets do to cover this story properly? Many readers have already offered thoughtful criticism of how this story is being handled. But as it develops — which is likely — what questions should be asked? What questions shouldn’t be asked?

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  • David F., Evanston IN

    http://www.UCCTRUTHS.com has had good coverage as well

  • David F., Evanston IN

    http://ucctruths.blogspot.com/2008/03/ucc-leaders-serve-up-lame-cover-for.html

    UCC leaders serve up lame cover for Wright, Trinity

    It took five days to muster something up, but the leaders of the United Church of Christ are rushing to the defense of Jerimiah Wright and Trinity UCC. From UC News:

    “Trinity United Church of Christ is a great gift to our wider church family and to its own community in Chicago,” says UCC General Minister and President John H. Thomas. “At a time when it is being subjected to caricature and attack in the media, it is critical that all of us express our gratitude and support to this remarkable congregation, to Jeremiah A. Wright for his leadership over 36 years, and to Pastor Otis Moss III, as he assumes leadership at Trinity.”

    Thomas says he has been saddened by news reports that “present such a caricature of a congregation that been such a great blessing.”

    “These attacks, many of them motivated by their own partisan agenda, cannot go unchallenged,” Thomas emphasizes. “It’s time for all of us to say ‘No’ to these attacks and to declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends.”

    In typical UCC style, the national office huffs and puffs that it won’t let the attacks go “unchallenged” but does nothing to actually challenge or put into context the outrageous statements that have come from Wright which have been widely publicized by the networks.

    This is a big mistake and it will reflect poorly on the whole United Church of Christ, not just Trinity, Wright or Thomas.

    Some UCC insiders might say that the national office is no position to challenge Wright or Trinity since each local church has a level of autonomy. However, UCC leaders have never had a problem chastising other local churches and their leaders when it suited them – particularly conservative churches that considered affiliation with the Evangfelical Association (see September 15, 2005 archive). We also cannot forget Thomas’ angry Gettysburg College speech and other repeated calls to “distinguish loving critics from hurtful ones”. Without doubt, the national office would quickly chastize any local UCC church that would say anything on par of what Jeremiah Wright said if it were directed towards gays and lesbians (as they should). The hypocrisy here is that UCC leaders are not only silent on the actual comments Wright made, they plainly support him and Trinity UCC.

    99 percent of UCC ministers would never come close to saying the things that Wright said. This weekend when UCC’ers meet for coffee in their fellowship halls, the topic of Wright and Trinity UCC will come up and most pastors will distance themselves and deflect by claiming that each UCC church is autonomous. This is where the gap between the national office and the pews will be at its greatest.

    UCC leaders could have affirmed Trinity UCC but made it clear that Wright’s opinions were not widely held across the UCC. This would have been a unifying statement that could have been broadly supported by most people in the UCC. Instead, the national office and our leaders have plainly demonstrated just how disconnected they are from the rank and file of the UCC.

  • Sarah P.
  • Sarah P.

    Sorry, the first link there is the Sheaffer piece. Somehow I managed to insert it with the text intended for the next one.

  • Sarah P.

    And good grief – his name is spelled Shaeffer. My apologies.

  • Sarah P.

    Oh I give up. It’s too late at night. Schaeffer.

  • ashes2fire

    One reason the media has made little of Wright and Trinity UCC in the past, and now only because of Obama’s candidacy, is that Wright and Trinity have worked faithfully over the years to make a positive difference in Chicago and have not been hungering after the exposure that Falwell so desperately craved. Wright hasn’t been “mentioned in the mainstream media” simply because he hasn’t been about putting out press releases and the media haven’t been sitting in the pews at Trinity waiting for a story to break.

    Falwell was always in the news because Falwell made sure he was in the news. When reporters didn’t come looking for him, he’d go to them. The press corps in Lynchburg always knew that he was good for some bit of blather they could use on otherwise slow days.

    Mark Silk, rather than Mollie, has it right on this one, I think.

  • http://www.bridgeway242.org danr

    “God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people”

    America (and her damnation) is specifically in the Bible? Is he teaching from the “New Anti-American Standard Version”?

    The differences in the nature, timing, and volume of media response between the Falwells and the Wrights are complex, but surely attributable to
    a) racial sensitivities,
    b) Falwell pushed conservative morality hot-button issues (abortion/school prayer/gay rights) and his stances don’t align with the media’s (by and large), whereas
    c) Wright’s rhetoric is directed against American overseas military aggression and domestic social and racial injustice – liberal causes that transcend religion/denomination.

    So to many in the media, and Obama’s supporters at large, the reverend said the wright thing in the wrong way.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    Ashes, above, is right, and Mark Silk is even more to the point. Not much I can add but to say that another reason MSM hasn’t reported much on sermons like this before is not because of some liberal conspiracy — Wright’s sermon isn’t liberal — but because of the subtly racist narrative of black churches as places of great music and generic hope. That’s the story that appears month after month in mainstream media. This narrative obscures both African American conservative fundamentalism and the African American prophetic tradition.

    Re: Your parents’ dismay at being told to support Angela Davis: May I respectfully inquire whether memory hasn’t blurred things a bit? Reason I ask is two-fold — One, not even Jeremiah Wright tells his congregation, “Support X or Y.” Not even Jerry Falwell did that. Two: Ted Haggard told me the exact same story. Said his family walked out of mainline religion after being told to support Angela Davis.

    Now, either Angela Davis had some serious pull in the white mainline churches of the midwest, or there’s some blurring of memory here, the sort that settles on a symbolic story that accounts for a range of sentiments.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    My mother has the best memory of anyone I know. And she has never lied to me yet, but maybe Jeff knows something about my mother that I don’t.

    But why wouldn’t my mother’s family been told to support the cause of Angela Davis? She did have some serious pull among certain political types. I mean, in hindsight Angela Davis might not have been the best person to get behind but she certainly was a celebrated cause at one time.

    Also, this was in the West, not the Midwest. Although my mother also attended UCC churches in the Midwest.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    And not that Ted Haggard is known for his truth telling or anything . . . but if two people have the same story, it might be because it’s true.

  • Amy P

    Jeff,

    Listen to a few more Wright clips. He does very clearly tell his congregation to support Obama, for instance in the clip when he talks about how HRC has never had a taxi whizz by her because of the color of her skin.

  • http://lowly.blogspot.com Undergroundpewster

    what questions should be asked? What questions shouldn’t be asked?

    Questions of free speech, questions of how to respond when one disagrees with your religious leaders. Should one sit on their hands in the pews? How does one identify the authentic voice of prophesy prospectively? Questions of how religious leaders respond to dissent.

  • Michael

    Wright’s sermon isn’t liberal — but because of the subtly racist narrative of black churches as places of great music and generic hope. That’s the story that appears month after month in mainstream media. This narrative obscures both African American conservative fundamentalism and the African American prophetic tradition.

    What a great observation. In cultural criticism, there is the “Magical Negro” archetype, a subservient African American character who brings enlightenment to the well-meaning white person. The Black church is usually depicted in “Magical Negro” splendor with pretty hats, good music, and convenient social conservatism.

    What America is now experiencing is the reality that there is genuine anger in Black churches, the kind of anger that oppressed people feel, that King understood, and Wright articulates. Comparing him to Falwell underscores the disconnect between the “Magical Negro” understanding of the Black church and the reality.

    As I’ve said before, this is a difficult story to tell because it is so wrapped up in race. The conservative media and blogosphere–which has been leading the drumbeat on this story–had handled it horribly by overplaying it. I’m curious for examples of “underplaying” the story. What is considered “underplayed”? How is that measured? Against what yardstick?

  • Jerry

    The conservative media and blogosphere—which has been leading the drumbeat on this story—had handled it horribly by overplaying it.

    I certainly agree with that. It does not matter what anyone says, it’s clear that the swiftboat types won’t be satisfied and will say so loudly and repeatedly.

    I do like the way that Mollie has pointed out that preachers of all stripes have said similar things about America. It’s also worthwhile noting again that old Testament prophets and John’s Revelation have trod this ground as well. So I think that we need a large perspective on this and Mollie has made a great first step in that direction.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I’m not sure what Jeff means by saying that Wright’s sermons are not liberal. I mean, I love the point about the media’s not so subtle racism against black churches, and I completely agree that this is a story about race in a campaign that oddly hasn’t been so much about race. And journalist get very weird when they are covering race.

    But the Schaeffer piece Sarah P links to seems to get what I was pondering in my thought exercise:

    When Senator Obama’s preacher thundered about racism and injustice Obama suffered smear-by-association. But when my late father — Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer — denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr.

    It is interesting to consider the different ways the media treat the political rhetoric of the religious “right” and the left. If they’d been paying attention to black churches as places where stuff *other* than nice music happens, this might not have been such a dramatic story. Similarly, if people had put Falwell’s comments in the prophetic tradition, he might not have been forced to apologize within hours of making those statements.

    Michael asks for examples of underplaying the story. My impression of the broadcast media I watched this weekend was that Fox News was playing snippets of Wright’s sermons — and their thunderous reception — around the clock. When I went to see how other media outlets were treating the story, I found it somewhat difficult to even *find* a story about Wright.

    I actually think that might even be a greater sin against fairness than the Fox schtick.

    I keep imagining half of America watching snippets of Wright simulating sex while talking about Bill Clinton “riding dirty” or talking about AmeriKKKa and the sinfulness of White people, etc., and just having their jaws drop open in shock. It’s a huge conflict with the Obama campaign’s carefully-crafted image. People are going to freaking talk about this whether CNN mentions it or not. And in the same way that we’ve seen how rumours of Obama not being a Christian or not saying the pledge of allegiance or what have you have spread like wildfire, underplaying this story only makes its discussion go underground. I don’t think that’s necessarily good for anyone involved.

  • Michael

    I’m not sure what Jeff means by saying that Wright’s sermons are not liberal.

    Personal responsibility, moral responsibility, taking responsibility for your community, churches–and not the government–doing the work of the Scriptures. If you pay attention to his career of preaching–and the church’s work–and not the 20 second snippets on Fox News, it’s a fairly conservative message. Not a religious right message necessarily, but conservative nonetheless.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Okay, so Jeff said he thought my mother’s memory was faulty.

    I knew it wasn’t. The woman remembers *everything*.

    The implication that my mother was lying or misremembering has caused me to Google “United Church of Christ” and “Angela Davis.”

    And I found out that the UCC and other mainline churches’ support of Davis was a huge news story during its day.

    From the book Faith in Politics by James Reichley:

    Part of the reason that political stands taken by the mainline denominations at the national level did not cause much immediate controversy in local churches during the 1970s was that, except in a few highly publicized instances like the Angela Davis case, most church members were hardly aware of the political activities being carried on in their churches’ names.

  • FW Ken

    It’s not the UCC, but the first time I ever heard of the Episcopal Church, some friends of the family remarked that they had left it over a donation to the Angela Davis Defense Fund made by the Episcopal bishops. I think the amount was $50,000. We are talking the 60s here, when $50,000 was some real money. :-)

    I think the Rev. Wright story is being covered (and commented upon) in a manner totally congruent with people’s pre-existing politics. Political liberals ignore or justify Wright (and Obama), conservatives condemn.

    Totally predictable.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Michael wrote that when Jeff said Wright’s sermons weren’t liberal, he meant this:

    Personal responsibility, moral responsibility, taking responsibility for your community, churches—and not the government—doing the work of the Scriptures.

    Michael, if anyone here at GetReligion said that liberals were against person responsibility, moral responsibility and taking responsibility for the community, you would be apoplectic with rage. And rightly so.

    So color me still confused.

  • http://www.InklingBooks.com/ Mike Perry

    There’s nothing new about the MSM spinning a religious story based on its source. A century ago, the New York Times treated even the silliest statements by modernist Episcopalian pastors with great deference, while virtually ignoring everyone else. Here are my remarks in a just-out book, Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II (p. 398), on the newspaper’s coverage of an important post-WWI peace proposal.

    ****
    Chesterton would have found amusing how naively the better class of church pulpits in New York City responded to Hughes’s call for a “naval holiday of ten years.” At the [Episcopal] Cathedral of St. John the Divine, for instance, Bishop William Manning was engaged in extraordinary leaps of thought. “The peoples of the world,” he said, were behind the proposal and “the very boldness of it is its assurance of success.” He went on to commend the “courage” of the proposal and the “leadership” of those advancing it. In his extraordinary gush of praise, he failed to explain how it could be a bold display of leadership to propose an scheme that was both assured of success and adored by the entire world. Nor does he seem to be aware of a critical factor—that millions of Germans and Japanese did not agree with the scheme. “Hughes Arms Plan Praised in the Pulpits,” New York Times, (November 14, 1921), 4. During this era, the New York Times often regarded the sermons of the city’s liberal Episcopal clergy as if they were the voice of God. In this article, Episcopalian bishops were given some 14 column inches compared to less than an inch each to remarks by Catholic and Methodist leaders.
    ****

    Returning to the matter at hand, keep in mind the reasoning that’s going on in the minds of many liberals. Until the 1960s, liberals rationalized the ugly fact that they shared a political party with virtually all the country’s racists with the claim that Southern poor whites had it rough in life, so their anger, bigotry and hatred had some justification. FDR was elected President four times because he never made the slightest effort to stir up the hornets’ nest of racism in the South. That’s also why today’s Democratic leaders have no problem with an elderly former Klansman still occupying a position of power in Congress. Wright was right then, so he can’t be wrong now.

    For ordinary people, the rules are different. When racial polarities flipped in this country during the 1960s, these rationalizations by Democratic party liberals also flipped sides. Anger, hatred and bigotry by poor whites became as intolerable and unacceptable as those of troublemaking blacks had been a generation earlier. Black anger, hatred and bigotry became acceptable because of black suffering for precisely the same reason that similar white attitudes had been acceptable. Never forget that the first extensive use of the “whiny, whiny, play the victim” card in our political discourse was by white Southerners after a lost war. It worked so well, Southerners used it for the better part of a century. Let’s hope the black people of this country aren’t that foolish.

    In short, nothing’s really changed. It’s the same perverted game I saw growing up in the segregated South, where my first remembered political thought was “That’s sick,” when I saw a page in the local newspaper with the logo of the Alabama state Democratic Party. It was a rooster crowing “White Supremacy for the Right.” Then the rooster was white, now it’s black, but it still crows the same ugly message of bigotry based on color.

    I can remember my fourth grade teacher saying that she was twelve before she realized that “Damn Yankee” was two words. Before that, she’d never heard the second word without the first. Judging by this popular black preacher, politically correct bigotry now “damns” America much as it once damned Yankees.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

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  • Jerry

    As Mollie alluded to, Fox is playing guilt by association to the hilt. Take it away from the political realm for a few seconds and see how it plays by way of getting perspective. For example, how many people who disagree with the Episcopal Church’s view on, say, gays, are still members of the Church in spite of it? How many Catholics who get abortions still attend Church in spite of the Church’s teachings?

    So to harken back to an earlier topic here where the question was raised about reporters not caring about religious stories unless they have a political hook, we can see operating now what happens when there is a political hook involved. This is the other side of the coin. Other religion stories are ignored because no politics is involved. This story is used a weapon in a political arena.

  • http://www.bridgeway242.org danr

    Jerry, point taken but you’re comparing continued general affiliation with a denomination, with (in Obama’s case) continued membership in – and longtime personal mentorship by – a specific church and pastor respectively, whose preachings are at question. Specifically, they’re anti-American (to put it graciously), and Obama happens to be running for POTUS.

    Perhaps a better analogy would be a member of a church, who was personally mentored by the staunchly pro-life pastor, running for director of Planned Parenthood or NARAL. Maybe he/she would sincerely differ, but the questions would still seem more relevant.
    I agree some outlets (conservative and/or Clinton-campaign-fed) are overplaying the guilt by association card. But guilt by association is slightly harder to deflect when the association is that much more direct.

  • paul carden

    I think you meant “soft-pedaling,” not “soft-peddling.”

  • Jerry

    danr,

    Your basic point is valid. The issue should be not what the preacher said in a sermon, but what Obama really believes and how those beliefs would manifest if he became President. In making that judgment, the influence of his pastor is one influence out of many that should be given appropriate weight.

  • http://blog.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    Maybe I missed some development, but I haven’t been able to figure out why statements Wright made years ago are all of a sudden newsworthy. Obama himself denounced some of Wright’s views in 2007, and Wright’s views have never been a secret.

    That said, Wright is no more out of the mainstream of the activist religious left than Robertson, Hagee, Dobsons and others are out of the mainstream of the activist religious right. And they, too, have said things that are no more or no less outrageous. What really matters is what Obama thinks about these issues, and all this focus on Wright doesn’t elucidate that subject very much.


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