Wright stuff: Reassessing the prophet

LincolnArtI am completely confused by the media coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. I feel as if the media went from providing a bit too much context for his incendiary remarks to completely abandoning the man. Is there any substantial difference between what he said this week at the National Press Club and what we saw in televised snippets from his sermons? Has he said anything different about his famous parishioner Barack Obama than he did in his old interviews with the New York Times or Rolling Stone?

Did the mood change because he went after the media in their own house? Did the mood change because the media support Obama and it’s clear Wright is hurting Obama? It all seems a bit unfair. From my view, Wright hasn’t changed one bit and now, all of a sudden, he went from being a prophetic preacher to a really bad man. His only media friend is PBS’ Bill Moyers. Why has the mainstream media changed its tune?

The real point of this post, however, is to look at how Bible verses are created in the media. Lynn Sweet, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Wright at the press club event as follows:

During a question and answer session after his speech, Wright was asked why he waited so long to try to explain himself: “As I said to Bill Moyers — and he also edited this one out — because of my mother’s advice to me. My mother’s advice was being seen all over the — all over the corporate media channels, and it’s a paraphrase of the Book of Proverbs, where it is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. The media was making a fool out of itself because it knew nothing about our tradition.

The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank paraphrased the paraphrase in his piece denouncing Wright for praising Louis Farrakhan, defending the view that Zionism is racism, accusing the United States of terrorism, repeating his view that the government created the AIDS virus to cause the genocide of racial minorities, standing by his previous remarks (e.g. “God damn America”) and holding himself out as a spokesman for the black church in America:

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, explaining this morning why he had waited so long before breaking his silence about his incendiary sermons, offered a paraphrase from Proverbs: “It is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Linking to Milbank is Dayo Olopade at The New Republic:

Breaking his silence to the DC press corps today, Wright had the audacity to cite Proverbs: “It is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

As Nathan Goulding pointed out at National Review, the problem with that last reference is that Wright was citing President Abraham Lincoln, not the Book of Proverbs. Lincoln was referencing Proverbs, of course. Proverbs 17:28, to be precise:

Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace;
When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.

Image via the Lincoln Art Gallery

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Do reporters and editors not know how to use search engines? Does the National Press Club provide Wi-Fi access to the Internet? If not, I presume that Internet access is readily available in newsrooms. These days, it is inexcusable to fail to check and verify supposed quotes from the Bible, whether they come from Pelosi, Wright, or some other public figure.

  • Stephen A.

    This, above all else, illustrates the concept that the media doesn’t “get” religion, or at least doesn’t know how to research it using the tools the Internet so generously provides.

    Oh, and I always thought Mark Twain said this modern version of the Bible verse. Googling it shows multiple origins, Twain seemingly formest among them, but also Lincoln and others.

  • Clare Krishan

    Thanks for making this point better than I could, I tried to deflate Rod Dreher’s vitriolic bubble in the same vein – whatever we may consider of the bent of the opinions of the man, they’re religiously-formed opinions, consistent and transparent for over twenty years (heck how many of your local ministers could withstand the scrutiny of an AV-taped history of his or her *every* preached word?)

    IMHO Barack Obama comes much more damaged than Rev.

  • Stephen A.

    With all due respect, Chris, I’m sure none of the local pastors of this blog’s regular posters have ever implied that the CIA created AIDS in a lab JUST to kill black people, or that being in the middle class was somehow too “white” to be considered worthy of aspiring to.

    The material begs to be reported, and legitimately so, especially when that man is (now ‘was’) the spiritual advisor to the leading candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination.

  • Michael

    Is there any substantial difference between what he said this week at the National Press Club and what we saw in televised snippets from his sermons?

    The difference is the context. He was speaking to a conference on the Black Church (thus, his line about this being an attack on the Black Church). Journalists (and professional pundits) got to hear him say all the same things, but not as part of a larger sermon or body of work and preaching.

    So it makes sense that contextualizing snippets reported over and over on Fox and in the National Review that are part of a 30 year career as a minister is different from reporting on his recitation of the snippets in a defensive speech before his allies (and the press, which has turned into his enemy).

    I’m not sure that the reporting has changed all that much. I think the professional commentary has changed, especially by moderates and liberals, as well as by African Americans. When Eugene Robinson of the WP says enough is enough, you know that the apologizing for Wright has ended.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Yeah, everyone I ask says that same thing: the difference is the context of the NPC event.

    I guess I don’t see it as enough of a difference to warrant turning so violently on the man. Why is it okay to say the government manufactured AIDS in church but not at the Press Club? The first almost seems worse to me. And why would he believe it and preach it at church but not at the Press Club? I don’t quite get it.

    You say that it makes sense that “contextualizing snippets” of the sermons is different than reporting on what he said at the press club. I’m not sure entirely what that means. Is it sort of like the press was willing to give the benefit of the doubt that these things were said (earlier) in some larger, nuanced context that made them less “hateful” and more “prophetic” — but when they realized he was saying the stuff no matter the context, then the game changed?

    I think I can understand that argument.

  • Michael

    I still argue that the press hasn’t turned on him, but instead his allies have turned on him. I think the mainstream press is also reporting that his speech just brings up a problem the Obama campaign hoped would go away. That’s not turning on Wright, but instead noting Wright is becoming a bigger problem.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I can see your point on whether “the press” has turned on him. I detect a pretty significant tonal change but, as you note, very much of that is with the pundits.

    But was I correctly understanding your argument about why some feel that Monday’s remarks were different than previous remarks? I’m trying to understand.

  • Michael

    It’s one thing to say those comments as part of a 30-year history as a prophetic minister. The snippets were part of 30-40 minute sermons and therefore lacked the greater context of his ministry and even the individual sermon.

    But his Press Club speech didn’t need a lot of context. It was in front of a friendly audience–Black ministers–and apparently was well-received. But for the press listening in, it was just the recitation of the comments without the context. Arguably, the ministers understand the context and can handle the “short hand.” For a lot of African Americans (and progressives), they understand the context of those strung together comments or didn’t find them all that shocking to begin with.

    But the press just hears the comments without the context. They don’t “get religion” so they don’t have a framework for understanding his anger, his defense, and his audience. The speech also just looked bad because Wright came off as egomaniacal.

    The mainstream press understands the conservatives would love to Swiftboat Obama with Wright. They realize that Obama is being hurt by Wright. I sympathize with people I interview and cover and it has nothing to do with bias; I tend to be the most sympathetic to people who I have the most disagreements. So to see Wright appear unrepentant changes the viewpoint.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I guess I just don’t understand what you’re saying.

  • Michael

    I’ll try again. The comments are no different. The content of the comments are no different. Lots of people are still unfazed by the comments and are baffled by the outrage.

    But at this moment in the campaign, the comments take on a different meaning. They aren’t part of a sermon, but a part of a defensive speech that’s seen as a speech designed only to help Wright. So while the context is still there, context matters less as oratory than it does as a sermon.

    People also believe Obama is vulnerable and is being unfairly saddled with Wright. Even an objective reporter can feel sorry for the guy who is being Swiftboated from the right and sideswiped by Wright on the left. So the coverage of Wright becomes more critical, especially in terms of motives. If you read the stories, people are questioning his motives more than the comments themselves.

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    I agree with Mollie: Wright has been consistent. Why should there be an expectation that he would change his message because he’s at the NPC? If he’s a Christian preacher who has been trying to deliver what he understands as God’s message for the past 40 years aned suddenly gets the largest audience of his life, why would anybody expect that he would hit the “mute” button? God’s agenda, after all, is a lot more important to someone who thinks s/he knows it that any particular political contest would be.

    If you go back (as I have) and listen or read what you can of his sermons over the years available online, you’ll see that his performace style has been the same. And broadly speaking, it appears his themes have also stayed the same. The biggest difference (and an important part of what the story has been, IMNSHO) is that more and more whites are getting to hear him and are reacting.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Stephen A., I think that you meant to address your comment (#4) to Clare and not Chris.

  • Stephen A.

    Lots of people are still unfazed by the comments and are baffled by the outrage.

    I would argue that tens of millions of white and black voters are definitely outraged by his divisive, hateful and yes, racist comments.

    Had a powerful white preacher/spiritual advisor to a candidate for president made these comments, they would not be talking about “nuance,” which is apparently the word we trot out when we want to be apologists in a Protected Class. (For example, in the 90s, Farrakhan was portrayed in the press as a minister of “rage” rather than the hate-monger he really was.)

    And while yes, the comments in the snippets and at the Press Club speech were the same, I don’t see the ‘nuance’ or ‘context’ in the statements he made in BOTH venues that the CIA created AIDS to kill blacks, or (less reported upon) that it’s somehow wrong for blacks to apsire to the middle class, or that blacks and white are different because of a crackpot, disproven left brain/right brain theory he espoused in the latter speech.

    It’s hate and he has (now, finally) gotten the same response from many in the press as someone would have gotten had they denied the Holocaust, and justifiably so. There is no middle ground here, even if the guy did some good in his theologically left-leaning church – which apparently gives him a pass for hate speech for some people.

    I suppose with this argument, one could say that the Fundamentalist Church of JSofLDS in Texas “did some good” while they were allegedly abusing children, but I don’t hear any apologists in the media or in politics givng THEM any slack. Hmmm. Wonder why?

  • danr

    For a lot of African Americans (and progressives), they understand the context of those strung together comments or didn’t find them all that shocking to begin with… people are questioning his motives more than the comments themselves…

    Michael, then why has Obama himself expressed “outrage” over the comments themselves, not just the context (or lack thereof) or the “motives” of Wright? Is it genuine outrage, or mere political expediency? Doesn’t Obama understand the context like all of those other African Americans/progressives you mention?

    the guy who is being Swiftboated

    Criticism of Wright from the right: “swiftboating”
    Criticism of Wright from left/progressives/pundits: reasonable and righteous indignation

  • Stephen Abbott

    Chris, you are correct.

  • Dave


    The guy who was being Swiftboated in the cite you clipped was Obama, not Wright.

  • danr

    “The guy who was being Swiftboated in the cite you clipped was Obama, not Wright.”

    Thanks Dave, that’s precisely my point. I was comparing the interpretation of criticism of Wright from two sides.
    From the right, it’s cynically derided as “swiftboating” (of Obama). From the left, it’s justified as valid criticism (of Wright).

  • Dave

    Danr, that’s a false dichotomy. It’s possible to both swiftboat Obama and validly criticize Wright simultaneously. If the only motivation for publishing a valid criticism of Wright is to undermine Obama, for example.

  • danr

    True Dave, of course it’s possible to do both simultaneously, I never argued otherwise. But again that’s my point – some presume to know the inner “motivation” of others criticizing Wright, and use that supposed insight to deflate otherwise valid criticism (“they’re just swiftboating”).

    I could equally, and wrongly, presume this sudden burst of criticism from the previously Wright-tolerant Obama-pundits is mere piling on Obama’s sudden condemnation of his 20-year mentor, to try and preemptively reduce Wright as a liability. I must choose instead to believe that they’re (finally) criticial because Wright’s comments actually objectively deserve criticism.

    Either way, point being the criticism is valid no matter the motivation – regardless of which side of the political spectrum it originates from (and I’m an independent myself).

  • Dave

    Or, in the instance, it’s not valid whatever the motivation.