Paul Greenberg

Barack Obama's speech last Tuesday is still the talk of the country - and should be. Because what started as a political necessity in a presidential campaign went on to become an appeal on a higher level than politics.

The immediate, precipitating reason for the address were some of the outrageous comments of his former pastor - comments Barack Obama's critics had seized upon. That matter he handled with dispatch:

"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."

Lord knows that's true enough. Who has not been embarrassed by a minister's using the pulpit to parade his politics? That doesn't mean we love our preachers less, but only that we notice, and cringe, when in the hold of some political fixation they go right over the rhetorical cliff. Just as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright did. Again and again. It's an old distinction, but still one worth preserving: Hate the sin but don't stop loving the sinner.

Which is just what Barack Obama has done, refusing to turn his back on the man who brought him into the church, who officiated at his wedding, and who baptized his children. What kind of man would do that?

But the senator and presidential candidate did more than say something about what personal loyalty means. He reached across the race line to forge a bond with all of us, black and white and other, when he referred to what is surely a common experience in every family, in every congregation. We've all been embarrassed by someone close to us, and we may confront them, but we don't disown them. We recognize that they're still part of our family, our community. What the wise do is just love the sins of others to death.

Explaining why he wouldn't disassociate himself from his pastor, but only from his pastor's politics, Barack Obama put it this persuasive way:

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.