Paul Greenberg

If the Rev. Jeremiah Wright will just keep talking, talking, talking on television and in the pulpit, before the National Press Club and who knows where next, he may yet succeed not only in sinking Barack Obama's presidential campaign but stirring such a reaction that, against all odds in this year's anti-administration climate, he'll succeed in electing the Republican presidential nominee.

It's happened before in a way. All the yippiefied tumult at the Democrats' Daley-dominated convention in 1968 drove Americans to reject both warring factions, recoil in disgust from the whole orgy of anger and disorder on display, and elect the original comeback kid, Richard M. Nixon, president of the United States.

A spectacle that could make the ungainliest of politicians, our own Richard III, look irresistible had to be mighty repellent indeed - much like the rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago. As a preacher he's one heck of an effective politician - for the opposition.

A former congregant of the Rev. Wright's is now of some prominence in national affairs. The Hon. Barack Obama first tried to dismiss his old mentor as some kind of eccentric uncle. But the senator may have grievously underestimated both Jeremiah Wright's staying power and his sheer, inexhaustible capacity for embarrassing the nice, reasonable Barack Obamas of this world. For the senator's opponents, the reverend is the gift that never stops giving. More, surely, is to come. And the senator's critics can't wait.

The Rev. Wright's latest tour de farce took place at the National Press Club in Washington, where he claimed his critics were really attacking his church: "This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It is an attack on the black church."

Goodness. I've been in more than a few black churches in my superannuated time - and have found myself unable to keep my arms from flying up in autonomous exaltation at certain uncontainable moments. Nor could I keep from joining the chorus of affirmation after affirmation (A-men! Yes-s-s-!), and from wanting to shout Hallejuah! at climactic points. Just writing about the black church makes me long for its warm comfort and restoring strength.

And the music! If you have not prayed with Mahalia Jackson, wanting deep in your heart to Move On Up a Little Higher or sought strength to Keep Your Hand on the Plow despite everything, well, you have a wealth of spiritual renewal ahead.

But as usual, I've gotten carried away when the subject is the black church, which, come to think, may be the whole object.

And yet for all the stirring sermons and songs I've heard at such churches, at little AME chapels in the heart of Dixie or in the majestic halls where famous gospel singers perform, not once, never, have I ever heard anyone demand that God Damn America a la the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Or try to deflect criticism by saying it's really his church that is being attacked.

How brave of the Rev. Wright to hide behind his church. As if it were responsible for his offenses. And what a slander to blame the black church for his own cheap provocations, his base entertainments offered in the guise of spiritual nourishment like stones in place of bread.

At the National Press Club, the reverend said he would "try to respond in a non-bombastic way," but of course he failed. He could no more stop being bombastic than he could stop being the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Faith? Hope? Charity? Love? His bombast obscures them all. But not till his performance at the press club had I realized the extent of his blind rancor, his addiction to empty polemics above all, his spiritual bankruptcy.

Barack Obama was quick to respond this time. He's learning. The senator said he was "outraged" by his former pastor's attempt to blame his own failings on the black church.

Not just Barack Obama should be outraged, but all Americans who understand that the black church, like the black family, is an institution and inspiration that all of us should support, for on its health depends so much of this country's. Jeremiah Wright has defamed his church, not glorified it by identifying his hateful views with his church's invaluable and eternal teachings.

In short, when Dr. Johnson famously noted that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, he may have overlooked the rich possibilities of the church.


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.