Obama's latest pastor problems

wrightpflegerobamafoxWhat do you think of the media coverage of the latest religious news being made by and around Sen. Barack Obama? I suspect that I am not alone in thinking that the coverage of Obama's church, pastors, and religious advisors isn't going to win any awards. But what do you think could be done to improve it?

I'll admit I was totally obsessed with the Scripps National Spelling Bee yesterday (go Sameer!) but my survey of mainstream media over the last few days didn't turn up much about the incendiary sermon preached from the pulpit of Obama's church last Sunday. Obama's long-time friend and fellow community activist Rev. Michael Pfleger preached a sermon there that you can watch a portion of for yourself. It's been all over the political blogs and opinion media but solid mainstream stories have been harder to come by. Of course, now that the Obamas have resigned their membership from Trinity United Church of Christ, coverage is definitely picking up.

Here's how MSNBC reported the original story:

Saying he was seeking to "expose white entitlement and supremacy wherever it raises its head," Pfleger mocked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for appearing to weep at a campaign appearance before the New Hampshire primary in January, saying she was crying because "there's a black man stealing my show."

"She always thought, 'This is mine. I'm Bill's wife, I'm white and this is mine,'" Pfleger said in his fiery sermon.

As the racially mixed congregation responded "Amen!" and "Yes, sir!" Pfleger pretended to cry and shouted: "And then out of nowhere came him, Barack Obama. And she said: 'Damn! Where did you come from?! I'm white! I'm entitled! There's a black man stealing my show!'

"She wasn't the only one crying!" he said. "There was a whole a lot of white people crying!" . . .

After conservative commentators and Fox News Channel latched onto Pfleger's remarks, which received wide circulation on YouTube and conservative political blogs, Obama released a statement late Thursday repudiating the priest, who resigned from the campaign's pastoral advisory committee several months ago.

That last paragraph forced me to emit a groan. If it's true that only conservative commentators and the Fox News Channel care about remarks such as these, I'm not sure I would be highlighting that fact. It seems to me that the media are in the bag for Obama and as a result willfully avoid reporting some negative news surrounding him. I was one of the folks calling for the media to put Rev. Jeremiah Wright's remarks in context (I didn't know how overboard the media would eventually go in context-providing) but that doesn't mean that the remarks weren't newsworthy. Same here. This reporter's attempts to downplay the significance of Pfleger's relationship to Obama seems a bit much. Particularly since it was only Friday that Pfleger's testimony was scrubbed from the's web page on Obama's web site describing the support he's received from religious leaders. And brutally mocking Obama's opponent for the Democratic nomination and calling her a racist from the pulpit of Obama's church? Surely it's not just conservatives who care about such things.

One of my favorite political reporters is ABC News' Jake Tapper. Sometimes I think he's the only mainstream-based reporter who won't look back on his performance this year as embarrassingly uncritical of Obama. Not that he's unfair to Obama, he's just tenacious with all of the candidates he covers. He's also done a good job covering the religious angles to the various horse races (perhaps related to his self-description as a "person of faith" here?).

Rather than unnecessarily downplay Obama's relationship with Pfleger, he explained in his first post on the matter that the Obama campaign brought Pfleger to Iowa in September to host an interfaith forum, and:

Their relationship spans decades. Pfleger has given money to Obama's campaigns and Obama as a state legislator directed at least $225,000 towards social programs at St. Sabina's, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Tapper paints a picture of a complex priest, beloved for his social work and criticized for inviting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to speak at St. Sabina's. It's certainly much better than this puffy Washington Post video report of Pfleger.

Lynn Sweet, who blogs for the Chicago Sun-Times wrote up the controversy. I found it noteworthy on two fronts. Describing Pfleger as a headline-making household name in Chicago, she provides context for how the controversial priest's 20-year association with Obama has been underreported:

Pfleger's crusades against guns, prostitution, porn and tobacco have made good copy for years for a fairly admiring local press corps hooked on cheering for the underdog, the poor and the powerless.

She also nails the largely religious impact of the remarks with a remarkable efficiency of words.

farr and pflePfleger's comments, she reports, come at a time Obama has been trying to reach out to working-class white voters, he spoke from the pulpit of Trinity, show a troubling connection with Obama, they drive a wedge between women and Obama and they forced Chicago Cardinal Francis George to reprimand Pfleger at a time when Obama is trying to win Catholics over. It would be nice to see a bit of context and analysis of the story -- that doesn't shy away from the religious impact -- in more straight news accounts.

This connects to the even bigger -- and related -- news that the Obamas just resigned their membership at Trinity United Church of Christ. It occurs to me that if Pfleger's remarks were enough to get the Obamas to quit their church, perhaps that might signal to the MSNBC reporter that they were newsworthy? Who knows.

This Washington Post story covers the Aberdeen, South Dakota, press conference Obama held to announce his resignation from the church. It's fine, but I think it's much better to read the full transcript. It's noteworthy both for the less-than-stellar questions posed by the reporters and the religious content of Obama's answers:

Q: We talk about some of the sacrifices running for president. Are you surprised how deep this has cut into your personal life and family? Obviously it's under a lot of scrutiny now you are giving up a church.

BO: I have to say this was one I didn't see coming. We knew there were going to be some things we didn't see coming. This was one. I didn't anticipate my fairly conventional Christian faith being subject to such challenge and such scrutiny. Initially with e-mails suggesting I was a Muslim, later with the controversy that Trinity generated, and the interesting aspect of this is that as some of you know I have been somebody who really has insisted that the democratic party reach out to people of faith and to take issues of faith more seriously and have written and spoken about this in fairly extensive terms. It is something that I still believe that faith is a powerful force in our lives and should be part of our public conversation. This also indicates the difficulties at least in a presidential campaign around these issues. This isn't the first time this has happened. Obviously colleagues of mine who are catholic for example have had to deal with their public positions on issues verses the decisions the Holy C (sic) has taken predominantly on abortion and contraception. We work these through.

Not all of the questions were that poor but what I really found missing was any discussion of what changed between Obama's defense of Trinity in his Speech Heard Round the World and now. It's not like Pfleger's comments were different in substance or style from what's he's delivered over the years. The parishioners at Trinity clearly approved of the comments and they didn't strike me as different from other comments we've heard from that pulpit. If Rev.s Wright, Pfleger and Moss haven't changed over the years, I'd ask Obama what has changed.

So how do we improve coverage of religious news around Obama? Jacques Berlinerblau of the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith experiment has a few questions he'd like answered.

One of the minor stories I'd be interested in is an exploration of Cardinal George's relationship with Pfleger. This weekend wasn't the first time he's publicly criticized him. I know people are really focused on the political ramifications of Pfleger's sermons but what about the theological questions? A discussion of Pfleger's Catholicism is just as interesting as his use of the pulpit for politicking. But that's probably a minor story line here. What do you think? Do you like the coverage? Do you think it's bad? What questions would you like answered?

As always, keep your comments focused on the media coverage of the religious angles, not your personal support for or opposition to Barack Obama.

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