There 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.
“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?