WASHINGTON -- In the last few weeks Barack Obama has learned the political perils of condescension.
His Philadelphia speech on race was filled with it. People who don't share Obama's views were not refuted, they were explained.
Lower income whites, he argued, "feel their dreams slipping away" and so they turn to resentment against busing and affirmative action, "anger over welfare" and "fears of crime." And Obama not only understands these angry and manipulated souls, he defends them. They should not, after all, be labeled as "misguided" or "racist."
This is the same argument, expressed more bluntly at a San Francisco fundraiser, that Obama made about bitter, small-town Americans who cling to guns and religion. He does not even admit the possibility that these folks might have actual convictions on issues of affirmative action, welfare, crime, gun ownership or the meaning of the universe. The only thing more insulting than being attacked is being explained.
In his Philadelphia speech, Obama applied the same lofty discernment to his own racial and religious community. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- and other African-Americans guilty of "bitterness and biases" -- was described as a product of a difficult experience. Wright "came of age in the late '50s and early '60s, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted." Obama urged a large-hearted tolerance for Wright's foibles instead of engaging his arguments.
Obama's response, I believe, provided a justification for Wright's media campaign to describe black liberation theology. Wright may be a camera-seeking egotist. He is certainly a showman, enjoying his moment. But his main argument seems to be: "No, Barack, I actually hold these theological convictions. You may need to attack me for political reasons.
But don't you dare dismiss me as a batty uncle."
It is a tribute to the power of the Christian message that there is such a thing as African-American Christian theology at all. Christianity was the religion held by slave masters -- often distorted into an ideology of oppression. But African-Americans found a model of liberation in the Exodus. They discovered that Jesus more closely resembled the beaten and lynched slave than their pious oppressors. And African-Americans -- by their courageous assertion of God's universal love and man's universal dignity -- redeemed a nation they had entered in chains.
But black liberation theology takes this argument a large step further