16 March 2008

Reverential Outrage

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Back in the confusing days following September 11, 2001, a lot happened and much was said, including this:

“God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve...” “... I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Can you guess who said this outrageous bit of nonsense? If you answered – given the current news hysteria – that it was Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor to Senator Barack Obama, you would be totally wrong. The statement above was made by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, on Thursday, September 13, 2001, on an appearance on Pat Robertson’s show “700 Club.” (The full transcript is available here via Common Dreams; Falwell, and Robertson, were also quoted extensively in The Washington Post here, and many other places, including Beliefnet here.)

Hysteria is a good word for what has happened in the last few days, as Senator Obama has been called upon repeatedly to reject statements made by Wright, his long-time pastor, about the September 11th attacks, and about American foreign and domestic policy. Wright was quoted as saying things like “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards,” and “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” (Both quotes taken from the New York Times here. See Agence France Press reports too.)

There is a certain similarity to these statements, a thematic connection driven by the apparent belief – on the part of Falwell and Wright – that the attacks against the United States were part of some divine plan for retributive justice. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the details, the underlying message is hard to miss: that we have been attacked because god believes we have acted immorally. Depending on one’s perspective, you might be inclined to agree with Falwell, or with Wright; both pairs of statements lean towards the absurd. Of course, Wright’s comments might be attracting more attention now because elements of them are harder to dismiss: we have supported Israeli oppression against the Palestinians, and we did for many years support the oppressive and racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. (And while I’m not black, I can understand intellectually the sense of rage at aspects of American society that feel threatening and oppressive to black Americans, particularly young men.)

There are also differences – and significant double standards – in play. In 2001, no one required President George W. Bush to “reject” or “denounce” Falwell for his outrageous statements. Although the same Washington Post article notes that a “White House official called the remarks ‘inappropriate’ and added, ‘The president does not share those views’,” there was no effort to push beyond this simple statement. Robertson was not driven off the air, Falwell was not forced to retire, and while one might argue that god got his / her own back against Falwell, neither did anyone demand the en masse renunciation of their views by their many followers and parishioners. Indeed, some people continue to believe that much of what Falwell said had more than a little truth to it: for example, see this review of God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith, by Steven J. Keillor.

Which makes one wonder why it is different this time around, for Wright and Obama. Obama rejected his pastor’s statements, in clear and unmistakable language – terms much stronger than Bush used for Falwell – saying that they are “inflammatory and appalling,” and that he “reject[s] outright the statements by Rev. Wright.” (He did the same with Louis Farrakhan, very publicly, during a televised debate.) Yet the news cycle continues, with story after story after story to remind audiences that Obama’s pastor said something we should take note of – and draw scrutiny to whether Obama has done enough to distanced himself from it all. Bloggers, like this one, raise similar questions. (Via.) True: Falwell was not Bush’s pastor the way Wright has been Obama’s. But Falwell and Robertson were crucial to rallying the religious right in support of Bush’s candidacy, and wielded greater influence in electing Bush than Wright will ever have by supporting Obama.

There are likely many unpleasant things said by many clergy across the country, statements that others might find offensive depending upon their own personal, religious, and political views. Nor do people necessarily and implicitly support every argument that their clergy puts forward, even as they continue to attend that person’s religious services. (For a good essay about this in a Jewish context, read M.J. Rosenberg, here; via The Nation.) It is important to know whether candidates for president of the United States agree with statements made by their clergy, and to make an effort to assimilate those perspectives into our broader understanding of the candidate. However, we should also be cautious about the application of a double standard, of demanding more – more renunciation, and more soothing words – from one candidate just because we find unnerving speeches that touch directly upon the racism that continues to be a plague on our nation.


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