Barack Obama has run a campaign based on a simple premise: that words of unity and hope matter to America. Now he has been forced by his charismatic, angry pastor to argue that words of hatred and division don't really matter as much as we thought.
Obama's speech in Philadelphia yesterday made this argument as well as it could be made. He condemned the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's views in strong language -- and embraced Wright as a wayward member of the family. He made Wright and his congregation a symbol of both the nobility and "shocking ignorance" of the African American experience -- and presented himself as a leader who transcends that conflicted legacy. The speech recognized the historical reasons for black anger -- and argued that the best response to those grievances is the adoption of Obama's own social and economic agenda.
It was one of the finest political performances under pressure since John F. Kennedy at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. It also fell short in significant ways.
The problem with Obama's argument is that Wright is not a symbol of the strengths and weaknesses of African Americans. He is a political extremist, holding views that are shocking to many Americans who wonder how any presidential candidate could be so closely associated with an adviser who refers to the "U.S. of KKK-A" and urges God to "damn" our country.
Obama's excellent and important speech on race in America did little to address his strange tolerance for the anti-Americanism of his spiritual mentor.
Take an issue that Obama did not specifically confront yesterday. In a 2003 sermon, Wright claimed, "The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color."
This accusation does not make Wright, as Obama would have it, an "occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy." It makes Wright a dangerous man. He has casually accused America of one of the most monstrous crimes in history, perpetrated by a conspiracy of medical Mengeles. If Wright believes what he said, he should urge the overthrow of the U.S. government, which he views as guilty of unspeakable evil. If I believed Wright were correct, I would join him in that cause.
But Wright's accusation is batty, reflecting a sputtering, incoherent hatred for America. And his pastoral teaching may put lives at risk because the virus that causes AIDS spreads more readily in an atmosphere of denial, quack science and conspiracy theories.