Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright and the Black Church

As I write this, I am watching Sen. Barack Obama's speech. He's talking about his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the preaching that has now become an issue in his campaign. But Obama is also talking about who he is and what his unique racial legacy means.

We need to decide if we want to revise, or somehow revisit, the conversation we had this morning about what constitutes proper speech in a religious context, and how much political leaders need to be held accountable for what their spiritual advisers may say or preach.

Our guests this morning, if I say so myself, are some of they key leaders in contemporary religious thought: the Rev. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners; Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., of Hope Christian Church (you recently heard both of them on this program talk about how the evangelical movement can refresh itself), the Rev. Renita Weems, a blogger and a major voice among progressive religious leaders, especially among African American women, and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue, here in Washington, D.C. (you have also heard before on this program talking about whether baseball should have "religion" days, and modern matchmaking services).

We debated all weekend about how to respond to the Jeremiah Wright story. We were troubled that so much of the conversation we were hearing seemed not to understand or acknowledge traditions of the black church. And yet, one must recognize that a presidential campaign is not a private affair, and all relationships and contexts in which these candidates operate will be scrutinized.

Our question: what's legitimate speech? ... What's not? ... What crosses the line?

And, who gets to decide?

I think we'll let the conversation stand.

I also hope you'll enjoy the conversation with newsmaker U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The Democrat is the first woman elected to the Senate from Michigan. We spoke with her in honor of Women's History Month, and her own accomplishments.

Plus, another woman making history Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A new documentary tells the story of her first year in office.

... I'm still listening to the Obama speech. Tell us more about what you think.

And, tomorrow, we'll start talking about the 5th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war. We have stories for you ...



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It's hard for me to seperate Obama with his close preacher/ religious leader, how can Obama say that he doesn't agree with what the pastor said, I know that if I went into church one day and heard my priest say God Damned America, or make fun of black republicans I would be sick to my stomach. I think that if Obama was a White man attending a church where the pastor said hateful things, no speech in the world could save his career. I can understand why some things were said by the pastor, however, a pastor is a leader a mover of people and he just like Obama should be a bit more careful on what is being said and how he is leading his people. I don't have a strong view on Racism, there are no slave owners in my family, I come from a hispanic family, I don't think Race should be the most important issue in this campain, Lets see what we can do about the price of gas! Damnit God Damn the price of GAS!!

Sent by A.V. | 5:05 PM | 3-18-2008

There are three central themes to the Jeremiah Wright controversy that have yet to be discussed. The first is - how have his words affected the Americans that attend his church? Have they bombed the churches of white people? Have they attacked whites for racism and drugs? Or have they built their communities brick by brick despite these atrocities being visited upon them. Number Two - What happened to free speech? People say and do ignorant things on a daily basis. We want to hold Barack, who is running for president to a higher standard than we do the current president. If we were going to distances ourselves from inflammatory remarks, we would boycott the mainstream media and become Canadians. Finally, who the HELL wrote the play book on what could or could not be said behind the pulpit? If Wright is a nut and his comments are untrue; why all the hoopla? Black people follow God and they know that their pastors and fellow parishioners are fallible. That is why the Black Church has survived and continues to thrive. We know we are imperfect but we strive for perfection. WHY WOULD ANY GOOD CHRISTIAN LEAVE THEIIR CHURCH HOME BECAUSE OF THE COMMENTS & BELIEFS OF THEIR PASTOR. He is a HUMAN spiritual leader who is entitled to his opinion - not GOD. He led Barack to his faith, married him, baptized his children and gave him space to serve God and community. In the case of Jeremiah Wright - ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER than Words.

Sent by Stefani Z | 3:12 AM | 3-19-2008

I just watched Barack Obamas speech on race relations in America.

It has been a very long time since a public figure has come out to speak so honestly and proactively about the issue of race in our country with an intent to open up dialog and bring us together. This has been so desperately needed.

I think this speech left a lot of us, white, black, Latino and Asian, feeling heard for the first time in along time. Left us feeling acknowledged, rather than pandered or talked down to. Left us feeling included and not nearly as different from our fellow humans as we sometimes feel. I think this speech is far more important to our society than it is to this election.

It is my hope that regardless of who wins this election, or which candidate we as individuals root for, that this speech breathes new life into Americas fight to unite and rekindles our deep desire to heal and move forward together as a nation. ...

Sent by Emily R. | 8:41 AM | 3-19-2008

I was wondering how long it would take before race would be the central theme in this election cycle. The Clinton's realize that the only way to defeat Obama is to play on the racial divide that exists in America. Clinton is willing to win at any cost and worry about fixing things later. I think she forgets that to win a general election she needs the Black vote to put her over the top. The damage is done. This entire process has once again proven that race can and will be used as a wedge issue in America. The Clinton political machine wants the voting public to look at Obama as simply a Black Man who really hates all that America stands for and the comments of his pastor only help to perpetrate the fear that whites have of Black America and the fear of the Black Man.Xenophobia can be used as a powerful tool in politics. Bush utilized it to win a second term in office. I've have voted religiously for 30 years and I never thought that I would forgo my right to vote. As a Black Man, I'm watching them tear down Obama, only because he is black and I'm not sure I'll vote in the general election if he is not the candidate. I equate this to a public lynching of man that is truly intent on doing something positive for AMERICA. It's unfair to simply attach Obama to the pastor and not look at Obama's works as a state legislator or senator. I think Obama's public record speaks for itself. He has been a public servant to all people regardless of their ethnicity. Obama is America's only true sense of hope and change since Martin Luther King and John and Bobby Kennedy. This time instead of a bullet, race is being used to kill the hope.

Glenn D

Sent by Glenn Dunlap | 3:12 PM | 3-19-2008

We will be lucky to have Sen. Barack Obama make it into the White House. The nation needs healing and unity now as much as any time, and Barack seems to understand this. When will we actually stop talking about Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, Arab, etc etc etc and begin to realize an American is an American, all trying to live out our lives in honor, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It will happen when our leaders lead us to that thought process, rather than into more hatred for a boogey man, real or perceived, somewhere out there. Thank you Barack for inspiring one American, and making me proud that anyone can run for President in this fine country of ours. Now let's hope whoever gets elected siezes the day to make real change happen.

Sent by Phil B in Detroit | 10:14 PM | 3-19-2008

I think Obama gave a historic speach. If the Democratic Party nominates Clinton I will sit out this election and let the chips fall where they may. Its time for America to wake-up to its war, its racism and its hypocrisy.

Artis Q
Harlem, NYC

Sent by Artis Q | 10:48 AM | 3-20-2008

Obama is practicing what he preaches, an aspect of his Jeremiah Wright speech that has been overlooked. A theme of his book "The Audacity of Hope" is that we need to get away from the politics of exclusion. In the last couple of decades we have increasingly had a politics of no compromise, of demonizing members of the opposing party, and of totally denouncing anyone who disagrees on one hot-button issue.

We seem to have forgotten that this country was founded on the principle of compromise. When the writers of the Constitution made it impossible for anyone to monopolize power in an evil cause, they also had to make it impossible for anyone to monopolize power in a good cause. Compromise is essential to the processes of American government.

Obama is calling us to become more temperate in our approacch, to dialog with those who disagree with us rather than to cast them into the outer darkness. If he were to renounce Wright as a person, rather than just forcefully disagreeing with him in public, he would be playing the same "you are either with us or against us" political game he is trying to avoid. If he did not stand up also against those who say "you have to completely wash your hands of anyone whose opinions we dislike," he would be cutting away the very ground on which he hopes to build a revitalized political future.

Sent by Lowell Hagan | 11:50 AM | 3-21-2008

Glenn D when you write "As a Black Man, I'm watching them tear down Obama, only because he is black and I'm not sure I'll vote in the general election if he is not the candidate. I equate this to a public lynching..." you are pretty much reflecting the Jeremiah Wright response of pulling the race card when things don't go your way and that is the problem that a lot of people have with this kind of response. I too am an Obama supporter, but you and I would rightly be screaming bloody murder if Clinton or McCain took their families to a church for 20 years that endorsed hateful and conspiratorial rants about blacks the way Wright has done about whites. I think we all want to eliminate a double standard in behavior and to say that it's OK for blacks to talk this way in public, but not whites, is just not OK 45 years after the civil rights movement began. Obama is only being held to the same standards as other candidates would be. If you brand yourself as transcending race than you are expected to practice what you preach. I think Obama's speech on race was brilliant and I wish he would have gone further in disassociating himself from Wright, but I accept that he wouldn't see it like I would, and I still support him strongly. But just as he's been the media's darling sometimes, it is fair that he be held accountable as other candidates would. Sure there are some that are fanning the flames on this issue, but that's the world of politics. I think Obama knows this and his supporters should too. Too often people on the left want everything or nothing and that's why the Republicans are in power most of the time. We can't afford to elect another Republican president just because our candidate may not be the one to carry the torch.

Sent by WillfromSF | 10:48 PM | 3-21-2008

Watch Rev. Jeremiah Wright's 9-11 sermon in context

Jeremiah Wright's God Damn America in context

Sent by Betsy | 9:17 PM | 3-22-2008

Well said, @Lowell Hagan, @Artis Q, better a Dem in office than another Repub, Obama or not! @Stefani Z, I hear what you're saying, but geez, Obama is trying to work here, and Wright just continues to run off at the mouth. This Wright-Obama thing reminds me of scenarios most African Americans fear, when some crime occurs in the 'hood, and the news reporters scurry to find someone to interview, which happens to be, an African American, who gets on camera and embarrasses us as a whole. I don't care who you are, a Pastor or not, you have to be diplomatic in your approach and in the comments you make. Wright needs to stick to pastoring and keep his opinions to himself. Enough with his conspiracy theories. Another case of crabs in a pot of water, and the African American community. We can't work together, we'd rather attempt to hold one another back, instead of uplifting the other.

Sent by Mara Poo | 2:35 PM | 4-30-2008

If Senator Obama can't even lead his family to a decent church, where will he lead a nation?

Would you take your family to listen to Jeremiah Wright's tirades every Sunday? Would you give 10% of your income to support Jeremiah Wright?

Obama has shown incredibly bad judgment over 20 long years. Why would his judgment as president be any better?

Sent by mark | 11:55 PM | 4-30-2008

I come from a church in Greensboro NC where the Pastor talks just as inflammatory and he is now the President of the NCAA in Greensboro NC. But just as well, like Rev. Wright, he has served his community, and is well respected. There have been many sermons that my Pastor has preached which I did not agree with. But it still has no bearing on how I effectively do my job. If people or so ignorant to vote or not vote for someone based on someone else's opinions and not look at Senator Obama's track record in public office. He has done his job, and done it well. His agenda after the 2004 Democratic National was to be a Senator, which he did well. For those who say bad judgment on Obama's part. I really want them to grab a video of some of Rev. Wright whole sermons and not sound bites. Get the whole picture, then make your assessment. Believe what you want to believe, you already had your doubts from the beginning so you found your tipping point. The problem is that many people want our President to be a god. I'd rather he/she be human. People may think Bill Clinton is a slimy old coot. But they weren't complaining about the economy then. The United States of America was built on continuing change. Change is scary, but I'd rather face a hope for change than to continue in this current disaster.

Sent by Andrew | 4:26 PM | 5-6-2008


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