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.
Obama's speech implied that these toxic views are somehow parallel to the stereotyping of black men by Obama's grandmother, which Obama said made him "cringe" -- both are the foibles of family. But while Grandma may have had some issues to work through, Wright is accusing the American government of trying to kill every member of a race. There is a difference.
Yet didn't George Bush and other Republican politicians accept the support of Jerry Falwell, who spouted hate of his own? Yes, but they didn't financially support his ministry and sit directly under his teaching for decades.
The better analogy is this: What if a Republican presidential candidate spent years in the pew of a theonomist church -- a fanatical fragment of Protestantism that teaches the modern political validity of ancient Hebrew law? What if the church's pastor attacked the U.S. government as illegitimate and accepted the stoning of homosexuals and recalcitrant children as appropriate legal penalties (which some theonomists see as biblical requirements)? Surely we would conclude, at the very least, that the candidate attending this church lacked judgment and that his donations were subsidizing hatred. And we would be right.
In Philadelphia, Obama attempted to explain Wright's anger as typical of the civil rights generation, with its "memories of humiliation and doubt and fear." But Wright has the opposite problem: He ignored the message of Martin Luther King Jr. and introduced a new generation to the politics of hatred.
King drew a different lesson from the oppression he experienced: "I've seen too much hate to want to hate myself; hate is too great a burden to bear. I've seen it on the faces of too many sheriffs of the South. . . . Hate distorts the personality. . . . The man who hates can't think straight; the man who hates can't reason right; the man who hates can't see right; the man who hates can't walk right."
Barack Obama is not a man who hates -- but he chose to walk with a man who does.