Unless I have missed something (if so, please correct me), the Washington Post has a mere six news stories and columns in today's paper about The Speech by Sen. Barack Obama. This may seem a bit out of line, but somewhere out there in evangelical-land there has to be a twisted, right-wing novelist or a screenwriter who is thinking about writing some kind of sequel for the "Left Behind" series. This was one amazing speech. Following the lead of the Divine Mrs. MZ, your GetReligionistas will be looking at the coverage of the speech today -- seeking different takes on the religion elements of the story in various publications. So I think I will try to handle the wave of Post coverage, starting on A1 and working our way inside.
It's hard to take the religion angle out of a story about years of controversial preaching and, if you stop and think about it, the conversion of an adult to Christianity. That's what the relationship between the senator and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. boils down to -- the birth of Obama's faith. So what does the Wright controversy tell us about what Obama actually believes?
That's the story. But there is little new we can learn from the main report by Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz. It's politics, baby. There is this coverage of some basic facts.
Obama was emphatic ... in his criticism of what his former pastor has said, but he refused to walk away from the man who had brought him to Christianity, performed his marriage and baptized his children. He spoke from a biracial perspective, as the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother.
"Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive," he said, "divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems."
Obama acknowledged that he had heard his pastor say controversial things with which he disagreed, but he also said that in personal conversations he never heard Wright speak in a derogatory way about any ethnic group. And the senator described his congregation as typical of African American churches in embodying "the struggles and successes, the love, and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America."
Things get a bit more interesting back on A6, where reporters Alec MacGillis and Eli Saslow dig into the actual rhetoric of the speech and how it might have played with different audiences.
That's a solid angle and here are the transition, summary paragraphs:
As skilled an orator as Obama is, he has faced few moments as fraught as yesterday's. The clips of his longtime spiritual mentor declaring "God damn America" for its mistreatment of blacks and saying that the country had provoked the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks threatened to undermine Obama's promise to bind up racial and political fissures.
Obama needed to address several audiences with the speech: undecided white voters in Pennsylvania, whose Rust Belt cousins Obama struggled to win over in Ohio even before the Wright controversy; African Americans aggrieved by the opprobrium being heaped on Wright; and staunch supporters ... who needed reassurance about their candidate.
His solution was to grapple broadly with the nation's racial problem, beginning with slavery and Jim Crow and the inequities they produced, but to also acknowledge the roots of resentment among struggling whites who "don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race." He admitted a fundamental disagreement with Wright that went beyond the angry sound bites, saying the minister had made a "profound mistake" in doubting that the United States could be redeemed over time.
Yes, yes, but what about the actual religious content of the speech? In this case, the Post found someone rare -- an expert in political speechmaking who also happens to be an articulate Christian. (Personal confession, this source happens to be a friend of mine.)
So this is promising:
Martin Medhurst, an expert in rhetoric at Baylor University, was struck by the religious intonations as well as the echoes of John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on his Catholicism, particularly the summons to overcome divisions to confront common threats.
Will yesterday's speech be remembered along with Kennedy's? "If Obama goes on to win the presidency, it will," Medhurst said. "If he wins the presidency, this will be seen as a very important speech."
Yes, yes? But that's it?
You know that if Medhurst said he was impressed by the religious themes of the speech then he probably offered a few specifics. Can we please read a few paragraphs of that?
Here is my point: Did anyone consider that one of the audiences Obama needed to reach is made up of, well, people in pews? This audience is black, white, brown, tan, you name it. But there are lots of readers out there -- voters even -- who would want to know how this remarkable candidate handled the faith elements of this controversy (which, again, is rooted in his own coversion to faith).
What about the folks in the Style section? A news feature by Kevin Merida offered this headline: "Obama, Trying to Bridge America's Racial Divide -- Pastor's Remarks Spurred Need to Address Subject."
Yes, this controversy was caused by sermons -- s-e-r-m-o-n-s.
(Obama) had been pushed to this moment by a controversy over video snippets of sermons given by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While condemning Wright for comments that were "not only wrong but divisive," Obama also sought to put the minister and the black church in context. In doing so, he seemed to recognize that only a frank public disquisition of America's racial problems and challenges might move the national dialogue forward. ...
Obama said that his church home, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, "contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and the successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America. ... And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Rev. Wright. ... He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served so diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."
Yes, yes? The story does raise the point that the pulpit, in African-American churches, is a logical place for prophecy and even anger. Take, for example, a famous sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose "I Have A Dream" text included some tough, even angry language.
King, from 1963: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But what does it say that King's sermon is best remembered for the passages that are rooted in faith and hope, passages that are quoted today by Americans of every color and creed for the precise reason that King used the language and logic of faith to reach out to those who were not already part of his flock? Was Obama able to build a similar bridge of faith language?
In other words, was this speech about religion as well as race?
The facts are, I will confess, striking:
One of Wright's sermons was the most viewed video online in recent days, according to Viral Video Chart, a daily catalogue of popular videos on Google Video, MySpace and YouTube. On Sunday, days after Wright's remarks had been replayed on cable shows and dissected in print and online, type "Wright" and "Obama" on YouTube and some 300 videos popped up. Another 500 videos were uploaded the next day. By early Tuesday, hours before Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech in Philadelphia on race, the tally had risen above 900.
This is the nation that we live in, these days. I would also imagine that people who love Obama, and people who do not, were talking about these videos in the pews.
Moving on to the editorial pages, Eugene Robinson played the ultimate insider card in this kind of Beltway situation:
Yesterday morning, in what may be remembered as a landmark speech regardless of who becomes the next president, Obama established new parameters for a dialogue on race in America that might actually lead somewhere -- that might break out of the sour stasis of grievance and countergrievance, of insensitivity and hypersensitivity, of mutual mistrust.
"My goal was to try to lift up some truth that people talk about privately but don't always talk about publicly between the races," Obama told me in a telephone interview later in the day.
Once again, however, this unique access to Obama is used for a discussion of race -- period.
Then, a few inches over on the op-ed page former White House scribe Michael Gerson weighed in, under the headline: "A Speech That Fell Short." Gerson hit hard on one of the facts behind some of Wright's rhetoric. This is a case where the specifics really sting:
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.
And Gerson also returns to the lessons of King.
... 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."
In other words, there are theological differences between King and Wright. Has anyone written about that? What are the differences? Where do the doctrines clash? And what does Obama believe? That's a story that needs to be written.
Believe it or not, but today's Post needed a seventh story or column.