For their story about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s comments yesterday, Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin of The Washington Post focused on the politics of his appearance and speech. Their emphasis is understandable for obvious reasons. Yet the reporters underplayed the religion angle in their story -- and thus also weakened their political angle. Murray and Slevin gave readers the gist of Wright's remarks -- attacks on Wright are an attack on the black church:
Speaking before a sold-out gathering that was broadcast live on cable news networks yesterday, Wright told a mostly African American audience that his preaching has been misconstrued by journalists and political pundits who do not understand black religious tradition, which he said was founded amid slavery and racial intolerance and "still is invisible to the dominant culture."
"Maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country but for all the people in this country."
In his prepared remarks, Wright traced the origins of the African American church in a measured tone and academic language.
To their credit, Murray and Slevin also quoted a fellow black pastor, albeit one with close ties to the Rev. Wright:
The Rev. Deborah F. Grant, a close friend of Wright's and the pastor of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ga., said the scrutiny of Wright is unfair, because he is being examined through a political lens. "He has not been called to be a politician. He's been called to speak the gospel."
Yet Grant was the lone voice on behalf of black churches. This is a failure of reporting. Murray and Slevin should have given readers a much better idea of whether Rev. Wright is typical of black pastors. They needed to include the voices of more black pastors and an expert on black American Christianity. Do they view Rev. Wright as left-wing anomaly or a mainstream figure?
This is an important question not just religiously but also politically. Suppose Barack Obama disavows his former pastor, as the Post implies that he should. Would Obama face massive defections from ordinary black Christians? Or would he meet resistance from a few stray black-liberation adherents?
Like any good politician, Obama knows how to count. So you can bet that he knows where his former pastor fits in the black Christian universe. Reporters should also know -- and tell their readers accordingly.