Obama Speaks About Faith, Race in America

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This week Sen. Barack Obama delivered a personal speech about his faith and his relationship with pastor Jeremiah Wright. A rountdable of reporters and political analysts discuss what the controversy means for the future of his candidacy.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. By now, we can probably just refer to it as The Speech. The speech, of course, was given by Senator Barack Obama on Tuesday. The basic purpose was to respond to the controversy surrounding remarks made by his long time pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Did I know him to be an occasional fierce critic of American, domestic, and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely.

MARTIN: Many view the speech as crucial to Obama's presidential campaign and as a critical test of his ability to defuse the fears some whites may yet have about voting for an African-American to be president. But many observers are also thinking about the speech in terms of what it says about how race is really lived in this country. Joining me to talk about all this are Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, Luis Clemens, editor of Candidato U.S.A., an online publication dedicated to covering news, of, by, and about Latino voters, Republican strategist and commentator Tara Setmayer, and we also expect to be joined by NPR's political editor Ken Rudin.

Welcome, and thank you all for joining us.

Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Columnist, Washington Post): Good to be here, Michel.

Ms. TARA SETMAYER (Republican Strategist, Commentator): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. LUIS CLEMENS (Editor, Candidato U.S.A.): Happy to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Gene, you talked to Senator Obama before the speech and, I think, after. What was he trying to accomplish?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well you know, the first thing he had to do was to address this controversy over Reverend Wright, which you know at the moment, really threatened to kind of hijack his campaign and take it in a direction that he didn't particularly want to go, on terms that he didn't want to particularly have it, you know, be fought on. But what was fascinating to me was that he did a lot more than that. He didn't restrict himself to the Reverend Wright controversy. He gave this kind of disquisition about race in America in the 21st century - how the country has changed, where the country needs to go, suggesting some directions.

At least for the conversation, acknowledging that not only African-Americans, but white Americans have legitimate issues that need to be discussed. It was, you know, I thought it was really quite an amazing moment in this political season and maybe, you know, maybe we'll look back on it in a few years and see it as a real moment in terms of our dialogue about race in this country.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you. You said it was amazing, but how effective was it? And I want to hear from everybody on this point. How effective was the speech in your opinion?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I think it was very effective in speaking to Obama's supporters. I think it kind of reassured and re-energized some of the supporters who worried about the campaign and worried whether it was losing its footing. I think it reached out to some other Democrats. You know the big question is how was it received by white working class voters, specifically in Pennsylvania, but in other states as well? You know, how did they hear it? Did they hear a black man who was once again reciting the litany of black grievances about race - historical grievances about race that they've heard before and that they're tired of hearing about? Or did they hear him open a door to a different kind of conversation?

MARTIN: Luis, how did you hear it?

Mr. CLEMENS: As a citizen, the speech was masterful. It was impressive to hear a speech that was about race by a presidential candidate who went on at length. However, there were gaps, I think. There were perhaps blind spots and since I covered Latino politics all the time, that's my perspective. And there was not a lot said about Latinos even though they're the largest minority group in the states now.

MARTIN: And Tara, what about you?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well I, initially, it was the type of speech that you would expect Obama to give. He's a very good orator. However, if you listen to this speech, there were times where I was rather infuriated by a number of aspects of this, and particularly coming from a man who is supposed to represent unity and everyone. He is running for president of the United States. He's not running for a local office.

He's not running to represent a specific group, and this was, throughout the speech, it was very much about justifying the black experience in the black church and trying to unequivocally explain why it is we should be accepting of this black experience. I find that to be a paradox in terms because 85 percent of America cannot relate to something that he is trying to justify and something that he has sat under in a very segregated type of environment that preached very segregated types of experiences and perspectives.

And he's trying to justify this, but yet turn around and say that he's condemning it. I think it was problematic in that way, and I don't think that it was effective for the white swing voters in places like Pennsylvania, because their looking at this and saying it's exposed Barack's weaknesses in the area of I am running as a black man, but I'm not running as a black man. Don't look at me that way. I'm the uniter.

I'm representing everyone, but yet he has his entire belief system - spiritual evolution for the last 20 years, he sat under someone who has preached from a specific black perspective. It's a problem for him.

MARTIN: I guess what I'm asking is it a problem for him? I'm wondering, so, Tara, as a person, and do you mind if I mention your own identity here?


MARTIN: That you, in addition to being a Republican strategist and a commentator, you also share his biracial history. It's such an odd term anyway in this country if you consider that all of us have strains of, you know, of all races, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. But for some people it's kind of more overt than others. And I guess what I'm wondering is that in order to appeal to everyone, does that mean that one has to reject that which is important to some?

Ms. SETMAYER: No, it's not a matter of rejecting it. It's a matter of choices and perspectives. If you are - I fully embrace my biracial heritage, and I'm proud of that. It gives me a perspective to see things from multiple views, but I'm not running for president of the United States to represent 300 million people who come from every background. You know, this is something that he has tried to - he's tried with the very eloquent speeches, and his Harvard education, and his ability to use linguistics effectively, has gotten him to the point he's at.

If you were to strip away the fact that he is an African-American man, would this same criteria, the same discussion, take place explaining away sitting under someone like Reverend Wright, who he has embraced and compared to his grandmother and said, you know, a part of this speech, and I mentioned this yesterday in the pre-interview, but part of the speech that I was upset with, one of the examples, when he equated Rev. Wright and his incendiary comments to his own white grandmother.

I have - my grandmother grew up in a similar environment where they shared those same types of disturbing images of African-Americans during those times. It was part of the culture. However, you don't choose your grandmother, but you do choose your pastor. You do choose who's going to be your spiritual leader, and he chose this man and chose to sit under him for 20 years. That is - this is something that I think is going to be difficult for him to explain to the white swing voters in this country that he expects to look at him, not as a black man, but as someone who's going to represent everyone.

MARTIN: OK, let's bring in another voice. Let's bring in Celinda Lake. She's a Democratic pollster, she's joining us from Chicago. Hi, Celinda, thanks for joining us.

Ms. CELINDA LAKE (Pollster, Democratic Party): Hi, how are you? Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, your take on the speech. Was it effective? First of all, two questions, the same questions I asked Eugene. To whom was it intended, and was it effective?

Ms. LAKE: I think it was intended to the entire nation, and I think it was designed to really make a statement about what was important to him, to Democratic primary voters, and general election voters. But more important, I think it was meant to end a style of politics and to diminish a style of politics.

I think Barack Obama had the unique voice here. I think he's one of the few people in the country that could have done it. I think it was one of the most moving speeches, literally, that most of us will have seen in our lifetime. And I think it was very, very effective. And I think the commentation - comment afterwards has been very, very powerful and reinforcing.

MARTIN: What about Tara's point that there are just aspects of Jeremiah Wright's theology and world view that are just simply unacceptable to many, many Americans who Senator Obama would want to lead? And then, in having chosen to associate with this man, however important he may have been in his life, but that's just as a deal breaker for a lot of people. What do you think about that, Celinda?

Ms. LAKE: Well, I think that there are three things that Tara's asserting, and two of them are right, and one of them is wrong. I think that there are many views of the Reverend that would be unacceptable, particularly taken out of context. I mean, let's understand these were isolated quotes taken out of context that would be unacceptable. Now, in the context in which they were said in a sermon to a largely African-American audience, that's something different. But as a quote, and this is the congregation, let us remember, that is 90 percent white, and this was…

MARTIN: Maybe not a congregation, but you mean a denomination.

Mr. ROBINSON: Denomination, right.

Ms. LAKE: Denomination.

MARTIN: Denomination to which he belongs, it's 90 percent white.

Ms. LAKE: Right.

MARTIN: OK, United Church of Christ.

Ms. LAKE: And so, but in any event, the point of the matter is, out of context, yes, some of the quotes are unacceptable. But Barack Obama himself said he disagreed with some of those quotes, and this is a man who's, from day one, said that he is willing to meet and willing to work with people who have very different views. He doesn't have to always agree with them. I mean, this is the one - this is the man who said as an early distinction in his campaign, I will meet with our enemies. We should meet with anyone. And Hillary Clinton tried to attack him on that and frankly, it wasn't successful. People thought, yeah, we should talk to anyone.

And is it a deal breaker? I think the speech turned that around. I think it contextualized it. I think it's told us something fundamental about the character of the man, and I think it moved it. It inoculated it against it being a deal breaker.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask all of you to stay with us. We're going to continue this conversation after a short break. I'm speaking with Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, Republican strategist Tara Setmayer, and Luis Clemens of Candidato U.S.A. about Senator Barack Obama's speech on race, and our national conversation on race. Stay with us, we'll be right back.

I'm Michel Martin, the conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News.

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about what the controversy means to voters as well as to our national conversation about race, and politics, and faith. I'm joined by Luis Clemens, editor of Candidato USA, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, Washington Post columnist, Eugene Robinson, and Republican strategist and commentator, Tara Setmayer.

Eugene, do you think there's perhaps a division? I know this is a subjective question, but do you think there might be a split between what the media thinks is important about this speech and what the general public is taking from this?

Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, I think that's always a possibility. We see that crop up all the time. You know, we hear one thing, you know, because we're in our bubble, in our media bubble here in Washington, or in New York, or Los Angeles, Chicago, wherever. And in the rest of the country, things are heard very differently. You know, I think, you know, one interesting thing about the speech is that to me, it was - yes, he wants to represent all 300 million Americans, but it was also an acknowledgement that each of us comes from somewhere.

We have a starting point, and we have to expand from that starting point, and that's not necessarily something that happens automatically. We have to work at it. I've always thought that race and diversity, all those issues are a process, not a destination. You know? And that you have to kind of keep working at it. I did want to mention one thing that Luis said, though, which is that there - you know, I think there was only one, maybe two mentions, of the Latino community in the speech and while I could understand, as a former editor, I understand the urge not to give a speech that goes on for hours and hours.

And indeed, that would have added a lot to the speech, a lot of time. In fact, I do think one thing Barack Obama has not done enough of is really speak directly to the Latino community. And I think that has hurt him politically, that he hasn't made that effort.

MARTIN: I wanted to mention that, because he said, one of the things he said in the speech is we want to break out of the past patterns of the dialogue, and the past pattern of dialogue has been this binary black-white conversation.

Mr. ROBINSON: And that was the context of the controversy was a binary kind of black-white issue. But I think it was an opportunity to, at least, mention the fact that it's not just black-white anymore. I mean, that's one of the things that has changed, as he mentioned, that the nation has changed a lot. That's one thing that has really changed, and there are other issues, and specific kind of issues, that are dealt with by the Latino community that he could have mentioned and talked about.

MARTIN: I want to hear from Luis on this, but I do want to point out - it's interesting to me because I'm recalling when President Clinton had his national dialogue on race. This was the same conversation. There were people who said why is it the national conversation - it was essentially a black-white conversation. There were many people at the time who said, what about brown?

Mr. ROBINSON: Right.

MARTIN: Why isn't this a three way conversation? Or four-way conversation now? Particularly a three-way conversation, given the emergence of what I would call the Latino Diaspora. Luis, what would you, forgive me, not to make you the spokesperson for the Latino community, but what do you think would have been appreciated by Latino voters? What would you like to have heard?

Mr. CLEMENS: Well, I think first off, you're right that I'm not a spokesperson for Latinos, and it's too diverse a group, and we can't even talk about Latinos as a race. It's an ethnicity. You have black Hispanics. You have white Hispanics. You have Asian Hispanics. You have the full range. That said, when he discussed the immigrant experience, I thought it would have been a natural opportunity to talk about Latinos.

When he talked about the differences, the different responses to racial issues, I thought it would have been a chance to address the fact that Latino supporters, Latino voters, are not supporting his candidacy. I understand the context and very much it was driven by what he's very skilled at, which is political ju-jitsu. He takes a negative. He takes a criticism, and he turns it by a very effective response into a positive.

MARTIN: Tara, you pointed out that Conservative commentators have been all over the speech, that you're - and in fact, I think former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Fox News echoed some of the comments that you made here that it - that this shows his association with Reverend Wright is still a problem for him. Do you think that this is enough to galvanize some Republicans against Obama in the way that Hillary Clinton's sort of unique identity and legacy has been so galvanizing for them to this point?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I don't think that Republicans necessarily need to galvanize against Obama in the same way they did against Hillary based on something like this. I think from just a fundamental policy perspective of what we believe as Conservatives, as far as the role of government, and taxes, and things like that, we just fundamentally disagree with Obama off the top on those issues. So that's not necessarily necessary as far as the same thing with Hillary Clinton.

Her negatives were just - because we've been exposed to her for 16 years, it speaks for themselves. But I think what this does is, and Republicans are not the people he has to worry about, Senator Obama needs to be concerned about the demographics of the upcoming primaries and who will be voting for him. In places like Pennsylvania, that have working, middle class white Americans, this association with Pastor Wright is absolutely a problem, and for the reasons that I enumerated earlier.

And it's interesting to me that throughout this entire discussion, that everyone seems to acknowledge without saying it that they're acknowledging inherently that there is a very specific different experience and a cultural divide in this country. Stereotype along - certain stereotypical lines that separate black America from white America.

MARTIN: And you don't buy that? You don't think that's true? Well, maybe not a cultural difference, but a world view difference that - you don't believe that?

Ms. SETMAYER: I think that that is absolutely true to a certain degree. I think that though - but what makes America America are similarities, which is our desires to have a right to, you know, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and how we get there. And how we get there is where the discussion starts to diverge, and that's the difference between the Democrats, Republicans, Conservative Liberals, but we never wanted to see this. I know that Obama would not have had this speech if he did not have this political problem. It's not…

MARTIN: How do you know that, Tara? Really, I have to ask, how do you know that?

Ms. SETMAYER: Because this is - he made this speech in response to a political problem. I guarantee you they would not have had this speech, this big racial epiphany speech, if he did not have this issue because he's done everything he can to avoid it.

MARTIN: But on the other hand, Tara, I have to say that the Republican candidates, particularly the top tier candidates, have been criticized by people of color throughout this campaign for refusing to, or declining to, engage with audiences that are more diverse than the ones that they typically encounter in Republican primaries. All the top tier candidates declined to participate in invitations to appear in debates. In Iowa, there was a black and brown debate. At Morgan State in Baltimore, there was a debate in which all the Democrats on the other side participated in, and some people think that's a problem for them, that Republicans have not engaged positions.

Ms. SETMAYER: I think that's legitimate criticism, and I've been very critical of the party for ignoring those issues and those communities and - for years. That is absolutely legitimate criticism.

MARTIN: Let me bring Celinda back in. Celinda, what about Independent voters? This has been the kind of a race where we've looked at whether Independent voters, who are an increasingly large part of the electorate, will be attractive to any of these sort of top candidates remaining in the race - John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama. How do you think this - and of course as everybody's pointed out, all voters are diverse. Independent voters are diverse, but how do you think that this discussion is resonating with those voters?

Ms. LAKE: Well I doubt, honestly, that the Independent voters are paying that much attention to the discussion right now. I think that what they do pay attention to, though, is they're just learning about the two candidates. And so, what's important here is the introduction that they get to Barack Obama, and I think that the Clinton people and the right wing people were trying to introduce Barack Obama in this prism of race and also this prism of marginality.

I think it was very, very important that Barack Obama got to speak directly to the people, got to show his character, because frankly, in the end, presidents are elected because of what people think about their character and their likeability. And I think Barack Obama demonstrated strength. He really gave an introduction to himself in terms of his family, very few people know very much about his family. And they don't even know that he's a father of two daughters. He introduced that, his grandmother, etcetera, and he also - so I think it was a very powerful introduction on character, a very powerful introduction on background, and I think it will serve him well just as Independent voters are, frankly, tuning in.

MARTIN: I finally wanted to ask each of you about the conversation that we were having about the role of faith in politics. And whether this kind of discussion about the role of faith - I mean, earlier this year of course, Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, gave a significant address on his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is also a mystery, I think, to many Americans in the same way that perhaps the black church is to many Americans. Do you feel that there are sort of new pathways in the way that we talk about, you know, faith in the context of public life, Gene Robinson?

Mr. ROBINSON: You know, I think there are actually a couple of - it is a very interesting question. There are a couple of ways to look at it. One, are we interested in what a candidate believes? Are we interested in, really, what he or she actually believes? Are we interested in what ministers the candidate associates with? Or what the kind of dogma is of the candidate's religious belief system? You know, is there a line between the two, or does it really matter? Do we just care that the candidate believes something?

I think most Americans - I mean, this is a very religious country. And I think most Americans want their candidates to, you know, to go to church and to believe in god. But what they want beyond that, I'm not sure. And do they measure the candidate's religious experience against their own? I'm not sure.

MARTIN: Tara, what do you think about this? I mean, this has been a sticky wicket for Republicans candidates. As you know, John McCain has been both sort of criticized and praised for his connection to various figures. He's been criticized previously for distancing himself for some sort of figures that have been appreciated in for, say, religious fundamentalists and people in the past. And then he's been criticized for his relationship with others. So what do you think about all this?

Ms. SETMAYER: I happen to agree with Eugene. I think what he said is correct. Because this country is based on a spiritual belief system, a Judeo-Christian one, you know, 95 percent of people in America believe in a god of some sort. That it is about - when you're choosing someone to be your president, there is a certain amount of ability to relate to that person.

And then we also have those who think there should be a separation that, you know, keep the church out of politics, but that's unrealistic. And in this case, it does feed to character. You know, when you are sitting - you know, it depends on why you're going to church on Sundays. Are you going to church on Sundays to - just to listen to a feel-good sermon, or are going there to get fed the word of God, which helps you develop your character, and who you are as a person, and how you choose to make decisions in your life and live your life?


Ms. SETMAYER: And in this case, if we are talking about character and integrity, and if we are talking about what it is that shapes your political maturation, and your belief system in life, and what steps you take, and what factors you use in making major decisions in your life, then absolutely, spirituality, and where you've been fed, and where you're getting that information from make a difference.

MARTIN: OK. I'm going to have to wrap it up here because we have other guests who are waiting to sort of join our conversation. So I want to thank you all for joining us. Tara Setmayer, conservative strategist and commentator. Eugene Robinson, Washington Post columnist, Celinda Lake, Democratic pollster, and Luis Clemens, editor of Candidato U.S.A, an online publication that covers news by and about Latino voters. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. CLEMENS: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. LAKE: Appreciate it. Thanks.

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