Newsweek apologia for Pastor Wright

wright 03Newsweek published an interesting but uneven cover story about Barack Obama’s relationship with his father and father figures.

The story was interesting because it contained plenty of good journalism about Obama’s personal relationships, such as a quote from Obama about his faith and the perspective of the teacher whose classroom Obama Sr. met his son for the first time. But it was uneven because it also contained little more than an apologia for the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright.

Toward the end of the story, Newsweek editor and resident civil theologian Jon Meacham got around to explaining why Obama joined Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In the course of his explanation, Meacham described Wright’s theology this way:

Much has been written about the “Africentrism” of Trinity: the African-American Last Supper that hangs in the church lobby and the kente cloth that drapes its altar. But Wright’s ideas about Africa were more than decorative. Wright taught that African- Americans should be proud of their African heritage, of the stories of slavery and freedom handed down by their grandparents and great-grandparents. He also preached that people should feel a financial and social responsibility to their brothers and sisters in Africa, especially those without food and water, those with chronic or incurable disease, those without any education.

He also preached … well, you can fill in the blank (here and here). See what I mean? Meacham did not describe Wright as a journalist would, characterizing the man’s theology in full. He described him as an apologist would, characterizing his theology in the most anodyne and positive terms.

Imagine if Obama had joined the church of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, he of the famous quote about the true origins of Sept. 11. Would Meacham have been so silent about Falwell’s controversial views? I doubt it. As Mollie noted, too many reporters have one standard for old Mainline churches such as the UCC and another standard for evangelical churches.

Newsweek‘s story overall was well reported and informative. But this one flub leaves you wondering whether the story really got religion.

(Photo of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. by talkradionews.com used under at Creative Commons license.)

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  • Stephen A.

    Why is bias at Newsweek a surprise? Like a habitual teen delinquent, we can be disappointed in their continuing anti-social behavior, but I don’t see any need to be so seemingly surprised by it. Meacham and others in the MSM are simply whitewashing (ironically) Obama’s past to boost his chances.

    As the kids say: DUH.

    Apologizing and covering for the Religious Left’s excesses is a full time job of the media – except when they’re ignoring it, or playing up and exaggerating those excesses of the Religious Right.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    It is good that Mark noted that this cover does include some reporting. It is not strictly an essay or opinion piece. It is more like an analysis piece. It could run nicely in the New Republic. Actually, I think that The Christian Century — a mainline journal — would have been more journalistic with this.

  • Dale

    Huh. The most descriptive Meacham gets is “controversial sermons” and “racially-charged stem-winder”. Then, having not even presented the actual offensive statements, Meacham quotes Wright’s friends to put those statements in perspective. I guess one could presume that everyone knows what Wright said. . . .

    But let’s see how Newsweek writers handled the equally infamous (and stupid) comments of Jerry Falwell. Six years after Falwell’s specious account of 9/11 as divine judgement, Jonathan Alter repeats it verbatim in Falwell’s obituary:

    On September 13, 2001, Falwell said this on Pat Robertson’s show, “The 700 Club”: “The enemies of America give us probably what we deserve.” When asked to elaborate, Falwell added, “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.’”

    Notably there are no quotes from Falwell’s friends explaining how his less-than-gracious perspective may have been shaped by factors other than the obvious fact he was a bad, bad man.

    Apparently not satisfied with memorializing such statements on his gravestone, Newsweek reporter Lisa Miller feels it necessary to resurrect them in particularly snarky and mean-spirited piece on Macel Falwell, Jerry’s widow:

    In life Falwell could be a bomb-thrower and a loudmouth, a man who made evangelical Christians seem to many in the mainstream world both mean-spirited and politically avaricious. “Jerry Falwell expressed great hate for a lot of his fellow Americans,” wrote Alan Wolfe in Salon. “It is no wonder that so many of them will greet his death with something less than love.”

    Who better, then, to set the record straight than Falwell’s own wife of 49 years and the mother of his three children, a sheltered Christian beauty named Macel? Her new book, “Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy,” is poignant in its earnest defensiveness, a kind of “you don’t know him like I know him” Christian memoir. Though boosted with blurbs from a who’s who of social and religious conservative heavy hitters—James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, Franklin Graham, and Karl Rove—and introduced by right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity, the book is lightweight and probably of interest only to Falwell’s followers. Mrs. Falwell’s enduring grief at her loss, however, is real.

    What a sweet way to start off an interview with a man’s grieving widow–calling his husband a bomb-thrower and a loudmouth (adjectives equally attributable to Wright, though noticeably absent from Meacham’s story), patronizingly describing her as a “sheltered Christian beauty”, and dismissing her book as lightweight and of little interest.

    But that’s not enough. Lisa Miller, brave soul that she is, has to call Macel Falwell to account for her husband’s stupid 9/11 theories. Perhaps the reader has forgotten them, even though her magazine has summed up the man’s life by quoting them. Not cowed by Mrs. Falwell’s “enduring grief”, the intrepid reporter asks:

    After 9/11 he blamed the attacks on paganists, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians. This has not helped his legacy. Did he mean what he said?
    I think it was such a horrible time … I think the whole nation was in shock. In hindsight Jerry would rather have said things a bit differently. But then again, everyone makes mistakes.

    No, Mark, if you see any bias in the way Newsweek writers depict obnoxious statements by religious leaders, its entirely in your imagination.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Thank you Mark Stricherz for the analysis. And thank you Dale for the great material you provided in your comment above.

  • Stephen A.

    I also thank Dale for that devastating expose of bias. And it completely relates to this blog posting! Thanks so much for posting this! That’s the kind of analysis that I LOVE to read here, from both sides of the spectrum.

  • Dave

    In both quotes of Falwell’s post-9/11 blather, Dale includes his accusation against Pagans. I appreciate that; we get left out when most small-screen talking heads recall the remark, let alone the fact that we got top billing. Thanks.

  • Linda

    The title Newsweek apologia for Pastor Wright has nothing to do with the Newsweek article. I am curious how many people actually read the Newsweek article. The subject was conjecture about the forming of Obama’s personality/temperament characteristics. The article includes almost nothing about Rev Wright’s theology, which was not the intention of the article.

    The title of the article Newsweek makes huge assumptions about an extremely complex subject that are based on next to nothing.

    On His Own, Cerebral and cool, Obama is also steely, and his strength comes from the absence of a father. The making of a self-reliant man.

    A large part of Obama’s personality/temperament was present the day he was born to be shaped by life experiences. Even if his father had been in his life, Obama may still have been cerebral, cool, and strong. Obama’s personality was shaped long before he met Rev Wright. From Neil Abercrombie’s description of Obama’s mother and father and other things I have read, it is easy to see that Obama has characteristics from both of his parents.

    Obama has written about and described the reasons he chose Rev Wright’s church. The above Newsweek quote touches on the primary reason:

    people should feel a financial and social responsibility to their brothers and sisters

    The title Newsweek apologia for Pastor Wright also passes judgment on Rev Wright. I am also curious how many people reading and making comments on this website have ever listened to entire Rev Wright sermons. How many people have read in any depth about Rev Wright or his ministry? How many people have picked out the truths in things Rev Wright has said rather than rejecting him as the devil?

    “The Faith of Barack Obama,” by Stephen Mansfield

    http://www.amazon.com/Faith-Barack-Obama-Stephen-Mansfield/dp/1595552502/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1217862248&sr=1-1

    Mansfield is a pro-life conservative Republican that does not plan to vote for Obama. Mansfield demonstrates a true Christian attitude of not demonizing people that have different views. Mansfield has received death threats since writing the book. Mansfield states in the following video: (not 100% word for word)

    What really disappointments me in the church today is the level of hatred about politics. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am not allowed to hate someone that kills my wife, steals my property. Hatred in the church about politics is sin and it’s got to go.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFFWS6ioHJc

    The book is educational, easy to read book, and especially good for people unfamiliar with black churches. I learned about Black Liberation Theology, which is much different from what I heard on TV. The author is objective and helps answer why Obama stated in Rev Wright’s church for 20 years. He discusses things that shaped Obama’s religious views, how they will inform the way he governs and why he may be a compelling leader not just to liberal Democrats but also to some conservative evangelicals.

    The book also has a very interesting chapter about the religious faith of John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and George W Bush.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Linda writes,

    The title Newsweek apologia for Pastor Wright has nothing to do with the Newsweek article. I am curious how many people actually read the Newsweek article.

    It is true that the vast majority of the article does not deal with Wright but rather the subject you mentioned. However, it is also true that Obama’s relationship with Wright is a key part of the story.

  • Dale

    Linda wrote:

    I am also curious how many people reading and making comments on this website have ever listened to entire Rev Wright sermons. How many people have read in any depth about Rev Wright or his ministry? How many people have picked out the truths in things Rev Wright has said rather than rejecting him as the devil?

    Linda, substitute “Jerry Falwell” in all of the above questions, and you might see my point. Nobody is perfect, and nobody is completely evil. Why, then, when certain public figures make obnoxious comments is it repeated ad nauseum by Newsweek, and its journalists feel completely comfortable attacking the public figure’s character, while equally offensive comments by others are downplayed or explained away, as Meacham clearly does in his Newsweek article? If Wright’s offensive statements aren’t germane to the story of Obama’s development, then why does Meacham quote Wright’s friends to explain those statements?

    I’ll bet that Wright’s obituary won’t be dominated by a verbatim quote of his theory of AIDS as a genocidal plot.

    I’m not asking people to hate Wright; I’m asking why the difference.

  • Linda

    First issue – AIDS

    Dave

    I’ll bet that Wright’s obituary won’t be dominated by a verbatim quote of his theory of AIDS as a genocidal plot.

    There have been books and research about the origination of AIDS. Since I have not read any of the information, I will not try to judge whether Wright theory has any merit. While I do not agree with every Rev Wright statement or his emphasis on certain race issues, I do attempt to step into his shoes to understand his reasons for the theory. I think about all the atrocities against African-Americans and many others. One only needs to go back to the Iraq war to see clear evidence of a government that lies and murders innocent people for unjust and unnecessary reasons.

    Tuskegee Experiment http://www.politicsinblackandwhite.com/BlogViewer.aspx?id=13

    Tuskegee’s Long Arm Still Touches A Nerve

    “The impact of the Tuskegee Study, in which Blacks in the South were not treated for syphilis as part of a government study, continues to be felt as the mistrust it generated interferes with attempts to combat AIDS in certain Black areas. AIDS education programs in Black communities have often prompted the topic of Tuskegee.”

    New York Times April 13, 1997

    Controversy over Pastor Wright’s sermons highlight deep racial divide, April 11, 2008
    http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/DN-conspiracy_11met.ART.South.Edition1.4637bf1.html

    Many white people reacted to sound bites from Dr. Wright’s sermons with, “Is he crazy? How could anybody be so wrong?” Many black people said, “He may be wrong on some details, but there’s nothing crazy about his message.”

    History fuels the distrust – particularly the infamous Tuskegee Experiment. For 40 years, beginning in 1932, nearly 400 black men with syphilis were enrolled in a health study to be treated for “bad blood.” They were never told they had syphilis and were not treated for it because the doctors wanted to do autopsies on men who died with the disease.

    The government admitted what happened in 1972, only after The Associated Press broke the story. The near-universal knowledge of that experiment among blacks grants credence to other health-related conspiracies.
    “Certainly not in my lifetime will there ever be a sense of resolution and total trust in the medical system because of that,” Dr. Reed said.

    Meanwhile, racial inequities in health care continue to be documented. Just last month, a study of California’s Medi-Cal managed care program identified significant differences in care for poor blacks, compared with poor people of other races.

    “No matter how you slice it – in terms of the disease burden, outcomes, access to care – there is a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and particularly on the African-American community,” Dr. Rawlings said.

    In “Dreams of My Father” written when Obama was approximately 31 to 33, he said Black Nationalism did not work because it sometimes increased lack of accountability. Obama wrote that it was wrong for black politicians to use race-baiting by “peddling conspiracy theories all over town—the Koreans were funding the Klan, Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus.”

    In Obama’s April speech about Rev. Wright’s statements, “spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country … is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

    Although attitude towards African-Americans has significantly improved, we would be burying our heads in the sand by ignoring the fact that there is still considerable racism in America. As Christians, we are called to combat racism rather than fuel it by judging Rev. Wright’s words rather than trying to understand the reason for his words, which could facilitate improvements in race relationships.

  • Linda

    Dale said:

    Linda, substitute “Jerry Falwell” in all of the above questions, and you might see my point.

    There is a major difference between what Rev Wright and Rev. Falwell said that most people do not recognize. Rev. Falwell blamed the American people: paganists, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians. Rev Wright blamed the U.S. government.

    I applaud Rev Wright’s sermons on the Iraq war and think all pastors had a moral responsibility to teach why the war was against the teachings of Christ.

    Shouldn’t all preachers exercise their prophetic call to encourage this country to live up to its own principles?

    We must remind America of what true patriotism is, and more important, what it is not!

    This controversy is important because of the way we define the role of ‘religion’ in politics.

    People were so angry about what the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright said and reporters seemed to be so confused because they perceived his words to be an assault on the United States of America. That’s not patriotic to them, and we all know folks can get mighty testy about patriotism.

    I grieve over the shallowness of our national pride. The selfish rhetoric about the greatness of our country pales in comparison to the atrocities we have committed throughout the world. Instead of trying to live up to what we stand for as a nation we defend our bad behavior, and hardly ever admit when we are wrong.

    I doubt I would ask God to “damn America,” but I am asking God to “help America” recognize its own arrogance. We have been guilty as a nation of the very things we claim to oppose. We can’t promote high moral ethics when our national behavior contradicts our words.

    When our country conducts itself as less than that, preachers must call it to account and urge the necessary changes for it to be so. Real patriotism settles for nothing less. It takes a lot of courage to preach a sermon demanding that.

    I deplore television preachers who have become famous and wealthy riding the wave of a prosperity gospel. I applaud and admire any preacher who becomes a modern-day John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. Such homiletics are truly a statement of honor and a badge of courage.

    I love the United States of America. I cherish our Constitution. But, like Dr. Wright, I must express outrage in the pulpit if my country demonstrates conduct that contradicts the essence of that very Constitution.

    Shouldn’t all preachers exercise their prophetic call to encourage this country to live up to its own principles? Isn’t real patriotism much more than waving a flag and reciting the pledge of allegiance?

    Patriotism as the people of God might define it is when we work for justice, when we hunger for peace, when we share our blessings, when we love mercy, and when we walk humbly with our God. I know this is a far notion from a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage. But that is what I think of when I hear Kate Smith sing “God Bless America.”

    http://www.umc-gbcs.org/site/c.frLJK2PKLqF/b.3794227/apps/s/content.asp?ct=5182351

    Part of a sermon at my church on the Sunday after Bush started the Iraq war:

    If it is something we give up for lent, maybe it is something we need to give up forever, but that is too tough for us, if we want to draw close to God, it has to mean changing who we are, all the time, we just give it up for Lent and go on being who we were.

    The war is something we have watched as a movie. We have not been called on to sacrifice ourselves. The war is not one that we are fighting, because we want to just make our offering, and let someone else fight the battle.

    Is it our own desires for oil for our SUVs that caused the war to happen? Is it something about the way we live our life – that we haven’t made our own life clean and pure yet that is somehow allowing a tyrant to be in control of people in Iraq because of the natural resources that are there? Tough questions for us, questions that are hard to get a handle on because we want to think we are doing things the right way, because we always want to think we are the good people.

    If we really want to win the battle on terrorism, injustice, and oppression, we have to be some of the ones willing to fight the battle. We have to learn to live in relationships that are equal in power in the world. We have to listen to God’s call to be filled with compassion to feed the hungry, to see to it that others are not in need. We must tie together our wealth and someone else’s poverty. It is not enough to pay our taxes so that others can do the battle, it is much more complicated, it is giving up the live that is unfulfilling, unhealthy, and be reconciled with God

    The entire audio for two Wright sermons:

    Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermon delivered on April 13, 2003, titled, “Confusing God and Government”

    The link below includes written detail about the sermon.

    http://essence.typepad.com/news/2008/03/the-full-story.html

    Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermon was delivered on Sept. 16, 2001 titled, “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall

    Wright’s scriptural focus was Luke 19:37-44 (reading from the New Revised Standard Version).

    “War does not make for peace. War only makes for escalating violence and a mindset to pay the enemy back by any means necessary,” he said.

    Wright criticizes the Bush administration and it supporters for using Godly language to justify the war in Iraq. He equates using God in America as condoning the war in Iraq to the same perspective of Islamic fundamentalists.

    “We can see clearly the confusion in the mind of a few Muslims, and please notice I did not say all Muslims, I said a few Muslims, who see Allah as condoning killing and killing any and all who don’t believe what they don’t believe. They call it jihad. We can see clearly the confusion in their minds, but we cannot see clearly what it is that we do. We call it crusade when we turn right around and say that our God condones the killing of innocent civilians as a necessary means to an end. WE say that God understand collateral damage. We say that God knows how to forgive friendly fire.

    “We say that God will bless the shock and awe as we take over unilaterally another country, calling it a coalition because we’ve got three guys from Australia, going against the United Nations, going against the majority of Christians, Muslims and Jews throughout the world, making a pre-emptive strike in the name of God. We cannot see how what we are doing is the same thing is the same thing that Al-Qaeda is doing under a different color flag – calling on the name of a different God to sanction and approve our murder and our mayhem.”

    Long history of government lies.
    “Prior to Harry Truman’s government, the military was segregated. But governments change. … under Clinton blacks had an intelligent friend in the Oval Office. Oh, but governments change.”

    “Where governments change, God does not change. God is the same yesterday, today and forever more. That’s what his name I Am means. He does not change.”

    Note that the “chickens coming home to roost” comment was attributed not to Wright but former Ambassador to the Iraq, Edward Peck.

    http://essence.typepad.com/news/2008/03/listen-to-rev-1.html

  • Dale

    Linda:

    This blog is for discussing the way the press covers religion, including religious figures like Jerry Falwell and Rev. Wright. I have shown you a glaring contrast between the way Newsweek covered offensive statements by both men. I am not interested in debating you over the merits of Rev. Wright’s ludicrous theories on the origin of AIDS or the 9/11 attacks, just as I’m not interested in debating Jerry Falwell’s ludicrous theory that abortionists, pagans, gays, feminists, the ACLU and People for the American Way caused God to smite the U.S. on 9/11. If you are unable to discuss the imbalance in the press coverage, then further conversation about this post is pointless.

    As Christians, we are called to combat racism rather than fuel it by judging Rev. Wright’s words rather than trying to understand the reason for his words, which could facilitate improvements in race relationships.

    I reject your charcterization of my criticisms as “fueling racism”. If you reread my posts, you will see that my sarcasm is directed to the Newsweek writers, all of whom have achieved elite journalism jobs at a prestigious news magazine, and would claim some level of objectivity in their reporting, which, in my opinion, is so lacking that it’s both maddening and humorous.

    Simply put, they are big boys and girls, and I think they can handle a little sarcasm aimed at them, particularly when they are so casually rude and cruel to a man’s widow.

  • Dale

    Linda:

    There is a major difference between what Rev Wright and Rev. Falwell said that most people do not recognize. Rev. Falwell blamed the American people: paganists, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians. Rev Wright blamed the U.S. government.

    That makes his comments no less false and contemptible. By perpetuating them, you are committing the sin of false witness.

  • Linda

    Dale says:

    That makes his comments no less false and contemptible. By perpetuating them, you are committing the sin of false witness.

    Would you explain exactly why Rev Wright’s statements are false and contemptible? Would you also explain exactly how I am committing the sin of false witness

  • Chris Bolinger

    I am curious how many people actually read the Newsweek article.

    Life is too short to spend even three minutes skimming a Newsweek article. Sorry, but there’s no pony in there.

  • Dale

    Linda:

    I do this reluctantly, because under the terms of use for this blog, the comments are to be limited to press coverage, not debating the substance of issues.

    The Rev. Wright’s theory about AIDS:

    “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied.”

    False according to any reputable medical source. For this assertion, Wright relies upon a book written by Dr. Leonard Horowitz, a dentist (now that qualifies someone to write authoritatively on AIDS). Here’s Horowitz’s website. As you can see, Horowitz also writes authoritatively on how LUV is the “real” DaVinci code, yadda, yadda, yadda. Sorry, but it’s hard not to be sarcastic about this quack, especially when his own website makes him look ridiculous.

    The truth? As far as medical experts can determine, HIV showed up in Africa in the 1950s, and most probably crossed over from other primates to the human population. HIV is a retro-virus, which is basically a strand of genetic material encapsulated in a protein shell. Considering that we had just isolated and discovered DNA’s double helix in 1953, it’s not surprising that no human technology existed at the time AIDS appeared to create a retro-virus.

    Why is this a contemptible falsehood? Because it accuses other human beings of plotting mass murder (the current estimate is 25 million dead) with no credible evidence. If that’s not a problem for you, I don’t know what to say. And it’s no excuse to say that he’s blaming the “government”–that’s still other human beings.

    When confronted, Wright refuses to admit his error.

    The historic fact of the Tuskegee experiment does not make his claim about AIDS any more credible or excusable. The fact that a person or a group of people committed one moral wrong does not make automatically guilty of whatever other moral wrong you choose to accuse them with, especially if you’re accusing them of mass murder. In fact, prior bad acts are admissible as evidence of a crime only in very limited circumstances.

    Why are you bearing false witness? Because you present and defend Rev. Wright as a credible man, even though you carefully avoid forming or expressing an opinion about his outrageous AIDS comments. In doing so, you are willfully perpetuating a false accusation of murder against other human beings.

    Now, I’m done with this.

  • pen brynisa

    This blog is for discussing the way the press covers religion, including religious figures like Jerry Falwell and Rev. Wright. I have shown you a glaring contrast between the way Newsweek covered offensive statements by both men.

    But you are contrasting the coverages of apples and oranges. This Newsweek article was not covering the Rev. Wright per se, it was covering Senator Obama. It only approaches the Rev. Wright through the lens of his impact on Senator Obama.

    If Wright himself were the subject of the article in question, as the Rev. Falwell was during the coverage of the remarks he made on television in the aftermath of 9/11, then I would certainly expect a fuller account of his theology. But as it is, I don’t see it as a matter of uneven standards but of uneven expectations.

  • Dale

    pen brynisa wrote:

    If Wright himself were the subject of the article in question, as the Rev. Falwell was during the coverage of the remarks he made on television in the aftermath of 9/11, then I would certainly expect a fuller account of his theology. But as it is, I don’t see it as a matter of uneven standards but of uneven expectations.

    If Wright’s scandalous comments were not germane to the article, why were his friends quoted by Meacham to explain them? Why did Meacham use a relatively mild description of Wright’s words and then quote verbatim the rationalizations for them?

    Regarding my expectations, perhaps they haven’t been adjusted low enough.


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