I have frankly been a little bit confused by the reaction to Reverend Wright's recent comments around the sphere and even here on this blog. I thought most people in the Netroots were big Obama supporters and yet they defend Reverend Wright, which I find rather surprising considering what he did.
It's true that after Obama's Philadelphia speech, I too defended Wright's sermons and even got a more positive sense of Barack Obama's worldview as a result of hearing what he'd said and listening to Obama's explanations for them. Other than a vague sense that he was something of a showboater, I was not hostile to to the man.
But Wright's latest round of media appearances have not seemed to me to be any kind of defense of liberalism or the black church or even Black Liberation Theology so much as one man's desire to deny a rival his destiny. This was personal and I find it very creepy.
John Amato shared some of my impressions:
Seeing Wright go on Moyers Friday night—at first, I didn’t understand why he’s doing this. Why did he need to come out now and use such loaded rhetoric that the media would pounce on? In the middle of a ugly primary race, he makes himself the story for another three news cycles. Then after I watched his National Press Club appearance, I wondered if he was actually trying to hurt Obama’s chances of winning even the primary because his ego wouldn’t allow him to hang back until December to have his say. It seems Obama has the same feelings.
And rightly so. Reverend Wright called into question the entire premise of Obama's campaign, a campaign built on changing the very nature of politics, when he said, "he did what politicians do." There was no need for him to speak out now except to gin up the controversy at the worst possible time. Any person of sensitivity would have at least waited until this tough, hard fought primary had ended. It was a self-aggrandizing, personal attack and it says something important about the man.
Obama said yesterday:
What mattered was him commanding center stage...
I don't think that he showed much concern for me...
[T]here wasn't anything constructive out of yesterday. All it was, was a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth. And you know, I can construct something positive out of that. I can understand it. I, you know, the -- you know, the people do all sorts of things and, as I said before, I continue to believe that Reverend Wright has been a leader in the South Side. I think that the church he built is outstanding. I think that he has preached in the past some wonderful sermons. He provided, you know, valuable contributions to my family. But at a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that's enough. That's a show of disrespect to me.
Clearly he sees it as a betrayal and a deeply personal one. And so it was. So much so that I felt uncomfortable even watching it. Obama trusted Reverend Wright. As he pointed out, Wright had married him and Michelle, baptized their children, prayed with them over major events in their lives. Obama was very generous with him in his Philadelphia speech, offering a personal endorsement of his good character. And yet, knowing that Obama is fighting this ridiculous rumor about being a Muslim, Wright shows up at the National Press Club with bodyguards from the Nation of Islam and praises Farrakhan? Outrageous.
I watched Obama today and felt very sorry for him on a human level. As Joan Walsh pointed out in a series of sensitive posts on the subject, this is a guy who has written a book about being abandoned by his father and here comes father figure Wright, so self-centered that he apparently couldn't accept that his own star burned less brightly than the younger man who was very possibly on his way to becoming America's first black president. James Carville famously called Bill Richardson "Judas" recently for endorsing Senator Obama over Hillary Clinton. I would say Wright has a much greater claim to the name.
We don't know how much Obama has been politically hurt by this. But we can be sure that the right wing will flog it with everything they have in the fall. They can't run on issues and their candidate is second rate (although he's the best they can hope for, which says something.) They can only win by attempting to destroy the Democratic candidate. And as bad at governing as they are, they are very, very good a character assassination. Wright seems intent upon helping them --- perhaps so that he can drag Obama down into his martyrdom with him, I don't know.
I also think this is a direct result of the image makers in the party deciding that religion needed to be brought front and center into Democratic politics and I want to thank them for that. Walter Shapiro wrote a nice piece on that today:
"The single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans is ... between those who attend church regularly and those who don't. Democrats, meanwhile, are scrambling to 'get religion,' even as a core segment of our constituency remains stubbornly secular."
-- Barack Obama, from "The Audacity of Hope"
This is a week when the Illinois senator probably wishes that he could say, "I'm from the stubbornly secular wing of the Democratic Party." Back in the days when religion in presidential politics was mostly limited to greeting Billy Graham when he arrived for an Oval Office photo op, White House candidates did not have to worry about off-the-reservation reverends. But that was before the 2008 Democrats called out the image engineers to bridge the God Gap. In Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democrats boast the most overtly religious cross-on-their-sleeve presidential candidates since Jimmy Carter prayed alone.
The point is not Clinton's and Obama's private religious beliefs, but their political calculation in searching for every possible forum to signal to religious voters that Democrats too are devout. The Republicans have long blurred the line between God and GOTV (Get Out the Vote), with Mike Huckabee, the runner-up for the GOP nomination, becoming probably the first major presidential candidate since William Jennings Bryan who unequivocally does not believe in evolution. Until recently -- with the exception of Jimmy Carter's 1976 born-again boasting -- the Democrats in their role as America's secular party have been far more reticent about reveling in religion.
In a sense, the Democrats have been lucky since they are blessed with two candidates who have been walking the pews of religion for decades -- from Obama's lyrical autobiographical account of joining the Trinity United Church of Christ to Clinton's public flirtation with the religiously based "politics of meaning" during her early White House years. But now the Democrats may be dealing with the dread consequences of answered prayers.
Amy Sullivan, one of the primary proponents of putting religiosity at the center of Democratic politics doesn't seem to know what to make of the problems Wright has caused for Obama. Apparently, she never considered the possible downsides of hewing so closely to religion that people think it's definitional. She and he friends didn't seem to realize that all the blather about secular Democrats was never about religion, but about social conservatism. You get no points for going to the "wrong kind" of church. You'd think they would have figured that out a long time ago.