The reactions to Barack Obama’s widely celebrated Philadelphia speech have generally fallen into two categories.
First, and most obviously, we’ve been deluged with rapturous and emotional responses, as sometimes tearful commentators described the address as a life-changing, history-making, barrier-busting, altogether unforgettable experience. To TV producer Norman Lear, “Obama reached for the stars. And he found them.” On MSNBC, Sally Quinn hailed the speech as one of the greatest in all human history, then later retreated to proclaim it merely “the greatest in 45 years.” Andrew Sullivan expressed similar enthusiasm, and delivered the verdict that “this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation.”
More analytical comments from political insiders evaluated the speech in a practical perspective, admiring Obama’s deft effort to minimize the damage to his candidacy from the widely-condemned, outrageously anti-American comments by his long-time “spiritual mentor,” Pastor Jeremiah Wright. In this regard, the Senator clearly attempted to end the argument by changing the subject – deflecting questions about his twenty-year involvement in a radical Afro-centric church by broadening the discussion to cover four hundred years of race-relations in America. While even the most cynical observers acknowledged the talk’s soaring ambition and lucid prose, they divided on whether it would achieve its principal purpose by closing the book on the Wright controversy and restoring momentum to the Obama campaign.
Both of the common reactions to the Philadelphia speech – either praising it for its emotional and inspirational impact, or analyzing it in terms of its strategic political consequences – fail to come to terms with its substance, or to recognize the more troubling elements in the address. Barack’s big moment features content that is shamelessly manipulative, blatantly misleading, deliberately deceptive and even dishonest.
Misleading Comparisons. At several points in his talk, Obama directly equates the controversy over the Reverend Dr. Wright to the dispute over remarks by Geraldine Ferraro suggesting that the candidate wouldn’t be a leading presidential contender if he were white. After lamenting the fact that “the discussion of race in the campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn,” the Illinois Senator notes that “on one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action….On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential…to widen the racial divide….” Later, he pushes the same equation between comments by Ferraro and the unhinged sermons by Wright. “We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.”
The comparison between the two firestorms amounts to a slick but unfair attack on Geraldine Ferraro and, by implication, her candidate, Hillary Clinton. No one in either campaign has defended the enraged remarks by Jeremiah Wright (“God d---n America!” or blaming the government for deliberately creating the AIDS virus) as legitimate or worthy of serious debate, but many responsible politicos and pundits agree with Ferraro’s observation that his race played an essential role in Barack’s rise. Moreover, Wright’s comments reflect a long, consistent career of impassioned hostility to the “white power structure” that runs “the U.S. of KKK- A,” while no one had ever before accused the reliably liberal Ferraro of racial animus of any kind.
An even worse comparison involved Barack’s exploitation of his own grandmother (who is still alive) to make a political point. Regarding his on-going relationship with his former pastor, Obama sonorously declares: “I could no more disown him than I can my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me….but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
This wretched analogy should make all of us cringe: there’s no arguable equivalence between his grandmother’s very private kitchen-table remarks (no matter how insensitive) and the very public and thunderous sermons of a famous clergyman addressing thousands of his congregants and later selling his hateful remarks on DVD. There’s also a world of difference between breaking with a blood relative whose home you occupied as a child, and creating distance with a religious mentor you selected as an adult. No one gets to choose his grandmother, but we do choose our pastors, priests and rabbis. Obama’s selection of Wright as his guide and guru says something profound about his judgment and outlook, while his connection with his grandmother reflects only the accidents of his birth and upbringing.
Distortion of Wright’s Afro-Centric Theology. In his address, Obama many times references the “comments,” “remarks” or “statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy.” He speaks of “the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube” as providing the basis for “the caricatures being peddled by some commentators….”
Regarding this claim that revulsion to Wright emerged from a few randomly “cherry-picked” declarations, Pastor Frank Pina, a dynamic church leader who heads a vibrant multi-ethnic congregation in Everett, Washington, sent me an insightful e-mail.
“What I heard coming from Rev. Wright was not just a phrase taken out of context, but a philosophy,” he wrote. “And if you listen to all the different controversial statements, the GD America Sermon (not just a few statements) pretty much sums up the philosophy. And the way the congregation responds lets us know that the philosophy is not just the pastor’s, but the church’s. The point I’m trying to make is that making an inflammatory statement (or two) is not the same as a church’s or pastor’s philosophy. And if Obama didn’t know the pastor’s philosophy after being a member of the church for over 20 years…it speaks to the lack of judgment he has.”
Even the most cursory examination of the character of Wright’s congregation, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, demonstrates that Reverend Pina’s point is both valid and powerful. The website for the congregation begins with an introductory paragraph under the heading, “About Us,” that unequivocally proclaims: “We are an African people, and remain ‘true to our native land,’ the mother continent, the cradle of civilization.”
For many years, the next paragraph (recently removed due to the Wright controversy) appeared on the website and shamelessly explained explained: “Trinity United Church of Christ adopted the Black Value System….We believe in the following twelve precepts and covenantal statements. These Black Ethics must be taught and exemplified in homes, churches, nurseries and schools, wherever Blacks are gathered.” Those “precepts and covenantal statements” include, “Commitment to the Black Community” (Number 2), “Disavowal of the Pursuit of ‘Middleclassness’” (Number 8), “Pledge allegiance to all Black leadership who espouse and embrace the Black Value System (Number 11) and “Personal Commitment to embracement of the Black Value System.” (Number 12).
A simple thought experiment can clarify the questionable nature of the ideology of Jeremiah Wright’s church. Try replacing the word “black” in the material above with the word “white,” and you’d see a perfect definition of the spiritual approach of the “Aryan Nations” or “Christian Identity Movement” or other neo-Nazi fringe groups.
Could the American people truly accept a President who chose long-term affiliation with an organization that says that “Black Ethics…must be taught” and requires “Personal Commitment to embracement of the Black Value System” --- not the American Value System, or the Universal Value System, or, pointedly, even the Christian Value System.
Obama’s church publicly and unapologetically promoted a “Value System” based on racial identity, not common heritage or American patriotism
The additional “10-point Vision” of Revrend Wright (still featured on the church website) specifies “A congregation with a non-negotiable COMMITMENT TO AFRICA.” Nowhere in the “10-point Vision” or the “twelve precepts” or the 25 course offerings for religious education or in any other church materials do the organizers of Trinity mention anything at all about loyalty to the United States of America, or service to the nation that hosts the church, or gratitude to the amazingly benevolent society that has embraced one of the congregation’s members as a leading presidential candidate.
If Joe Lieberman had affiliated for twenty years with a synagogue that never offered prayers for America and its government (as nearly all Orthodox Jewish synagogues do, in fact), but instead emphasized a “non-negotiable COMMITMENT TO ISRAEL,” wouldn’t voters have questioned his outlook and judgment when he ran for Vice President?
In his speech, Obama suggests that his fellow citizens recoiled against Reverend Wright only because they failed to understand that his bitter rage stemmed from centuries of oppression and injustice. “The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.”
Does Obama decry, or encourage, that segregation? If he condemns it, then why would he maintain a long-term commitment to a purposefully segregated, race-based congregation that elevates a mystical sense of “blackness” above Christianity, Americanism or common humanity?
Changing the Core Message of His Campaign. In all the ecstatic praise for Obama’s speech, there’s been little comment on the way the talk signals a dramatic, permanent, and possibly fatal alteration of his race for the presidency.
Until today, the Illinois Senator enjoyed spectacular success with his determination to run as the first-ever “post-racial” candidate for the White House.
He refused to allow himself to be pigeon-holed as “the black candidate,” and tirelessly emphasized his desire to unify the nation (“We’re not red states or blue states—we’re the United States of America!”). His campaign succeeded in large part because he implicitly promised to move our society beyond the long and tragic centuries of racial agitation and pain. Yes, he won overwhelming support in the black community, but he also drew huge majorities in states like Iowa, North Dakota, Idaho and Utah, with miniscule populations of African-Americans.
For more than a year, Obama has been offering a weary nation an irresistible deal. As Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele observed in his superb book “A Bound Man,” Barack represented the ultimate “bargainer” in a long history of African-American leaders who became popular by suggesting they could reduce white America’s burden of guilt. By generally avoiding discussion of race or race relations, Obama suggested that in supporting his candidacy, Americans could finally escape from the hurts and resentments of the past.
Here’s the deal, he seemed to say: if you elect me, we can at last put an end to all the lectures and breast-beating about our brutal racist history. When I stand on the steps of the Capitol building and take the oath of office as your president, that very act will put an end- forever- to the idea of African-Americans as second-class citizens. Rather than endless recriminations and accusations, we’ll all stand together as equals in the eyes of God and the U.S. Constitution.
Millions of Americans – including some conservatives who should have known better- rushed to take that deal, and embraced Obama’s candidacy.
But now, at a decisive point in the race, the candidate has abruptly changed the bargain.
Rather than promising less race consciousness, he now insists we need more. Instead of bidding to lead a post-racial-- or at least a post-racist—America, Obama’s speech tells us we must go back to picking at the old scab.
Actually, Barack was right the first time: putting race aside, affirming our common Americanism and humanity, can serve to heal old divides. Obsessing on racial divisions, focusing on “blackness” or “whiteness,” perpetuating the eternal cycle of grudge and guilt, only intensifies the fever associated with the nation’s most menacing disease.
Bill Clinton also believed that we needed more talk about race, and as president he participated in a series of televised “public dialogues” (amounting to tiresome gripe fests) that achieved nothing at all other than underlining Slick Willie’s enlightenment and compassion.
If the Obama campaign follows up on his over-praised speech and makes intensified race-talk into a new national priority, he may well destroy his chances of winning the presidency. The most “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party could celebrate prospect that a President Obama would get countless opportunities to deliver more lectures on slavery, Jim Crow, oppression, and race differences.
But less politically correct Americans may prove notably less eager to seize the chance for additional solemn scolding sessions like the one they just heard in Philadelphia. Most voters, black as well as white, feel weary and wary of the destructive cycle of accusation and apology, so that Obama’s new implied promise of a presidency of endless race-based agitation may well constitute an offer that we easily can refuse.