MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We're going to move now to the presidential race. Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, is expected to make a major speech today about race. It's in part a response to a controversy over remarks made by his longtime spiritual mentor and pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Mainly, sermons about the U.S. government's conduct around the world and its treatment of its minority citizens.
Reverend Jeremiah Wright (Pastor, Trinity Church): The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law, and then wants us to sing God Bless America? No, no, no! Not God bless America! God damn America! That's in the Bible for killing innocent people! God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human!
MARTIN: Senator Obama has publicly renounced many of Reverend Wright's statements. Reverend Wright has retired from the pulpit and has stepped down from his role in the campaign. But the whole episode has raised questions about what Obama's association with Wright says about his own views and also about whether it is appropriate to scrutinize speech by religious leaders the same we do remarks by politicians. Just how far is too far in the pulpit? And how accountable should politicians be for remarks made by people close to them?
With us today are four religious leaders to help us sort through these issues. Joining me are Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington D.C.'s National Synagogue, Bishop Harry Jackson, Junior, is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church. He's co-author of the new book, "Personal Faith, Public Policy." Reverend Renita Weems is the founder of somethingwithin.com, a blog for women of faith. She's also the author of many books. And the Reverend Jim Wallis is the founder of Sojourners Christians for Justice and Peace, a global faith and justice network.
Thank you all. Welcome so much for joining us.
Rabbi SHMUEL HERZFELD (Washington D.C., National Synagogue: Thank you, Michel.
Reverend RENITA WEEMS (Founder, somethingwithin.com Blog): Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Reverend Weems, I should mention that you know Revered Wright. You've worshipped with him. How do you understand his comments, theologically?
Rev. WEEMS: Theologically, yes, I am familiar with him and have worshipped him quite a few times. And I find that Pastor Wright stands within a particular tradition within the African-American church, of standing within a kind of liberation preaching tradition, which it understands God to be on the side of the oppressed. And that understands itself to be called to challenge the nation in terms of how the nations treats the least of its citizens - the poor, the disenfranchised, those who have no right. And so, I think he stands certainly within that tradition.
MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, what about you? How do you see the theological basis for these comments? And I also want to ask you if you think that they are within the bounds of appropriate discourse?
Bishop HARRY JACKSON (Senior Pastor, Hope Church): Well, I don't like what he said, but one of the issues in our book, "Personal Faith, Public Policy," is religious liberty. And our liberties are being challenged at this time, and I feel very much I need to defend his right to speak. And I think that that's really at the heart of things.
If there had not been a free pulpit in the black community, there would not have been civil rights. We'd still be in slavery, and I wouldn't have a right to vote.
So although I disagree with the Reverend, I would have to say that his religious right to speak within the context of his congregation about his view of culture, and I agree with the Reverend who spoke right before me, that his remarks talk about how he views racism, and classism, and sexism in American.
MARTIN: Reverend Wallis, what about you? Your new book, "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, " is all about the relationship between faith and politics. Do you think that Senator Obama should be held accountable for the remarks made by someone with whom he's been so close?
Reverend JIM WALLIS, (Founder, Sojourners Christians for Justice and Peace): There is a real difficult problem here, I think. I'm a white man. I'm speaking as a white man, and I want to say that most white people in America, on most Sundays, would be uncomfortable with what is said in black churches. You know, Jeremiah Wright is speaking out of the prophetic black pulpit position. He's speaking to people that, every day, are beaten down, and prophetic truth telling is what comforts people who are beaten down.
There is anger and frustration in the black community and that's the elephant in the room here that white people are often in a state of denial about, and Barack Obama speaks a different language. Not of anger and frustration, but opportunity, hope and unity. And yet, he is being attacked now for the anger and frustration that is very, real even though he speaks a different language. There's a generational shift here.
Barack Obama is trying to turn the page. His generation is doing that and yet now, he's being held accountable for the anger and frustration that is very real, and white American is saying, why are people being so angry and frustrated? Well, if you look at what Jeremiah says, a lot of what he is saying - I'm a white man, and when he says America is run by rich, white people, that's true. And the anger and tone is what offends here. And Barack has a very different tone, which you'll hear today.
MARTIN: Well, I think that - but, that is the question, though. Given that he has such a different tone, is it reasonable for people to say, which is the real you? This person with which you have been so close, or the person that we hear on the campaign trial? Is that a fair question Reverend Jim? Reverend Wallis?
Rev. WALLIS: Well, you know, he is rooted in the prophetic black church tradition, and in fact, this is a church - this church is not a different kind of black church than other black churches. It's in the mainstream. Jeremiah Wright is mainstream, and that combines a critique of white America and the experience of racism that black congregations have. Second, a sustenance of black people who are beaten down week after week, and third, God's promise for the future, God's promise for a better future.
And Barack focuses on number three. He's in that prophetic tradition, but he's a new generation. He talks about hope, and unity, and opportunity, and less about anger and frustration. But he's rooted in the black church, which he should be.
MARTIN: Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld? I'm sorry. I do want to bring Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld in here. I know that - I have to assume that some of Reverend Wright's comments about Israel were personally offensive to you, those that you have read. What is your take on this?
Rabbi HERZFELD: I have a little bit of a different take. I think that Reverend Wright's comments are, at least the ones that I've seen. I haven't seen the totality of his sermons, but the ones that I've seen, are sometimes extraordinarily offensive and go to the core of who I am. And I think that we have to be very clear about saying that Reverend Wright is wrong. And even though there is a need for social change, I'm not saying Reverend Wright is a bigot, but I think Farrakhan is a bigot. And when he praises Farrakhan, he's wrong. And the fact that we need social change should not excuse bigotry because is no bigot who doesn't cloak their bigotry within social change, but that...
MARTIN: I think we're talking about two different things, though. I just want to point out that what he says on the pulpit as opposed to his association with an award-winning magazine he was involved with, gave to Farrakhan. I just want to sort of make that emphasis. Go ahead.
Rabbi HERZFELD: But the point is, the question is, do we hold Senator Obama responsible for what Reverend Wright has said? And I think that that's very unfair thing to do, because Obama has a right to worship with a person who has inspired him on many levels. And to the extent that he's inspired him, he can strive to emulate those things - the relationship with God, the desire to do good, without being responsible for his pastor's politics.
And I know as a rabbi in my congregation, people who are perhaps running for office, would not want to be responsible for my politics, and I wouldn't want to feel that I have to mute what I say because they might want to run for office one day and would be held responsible by my views.
MARTIN: Reverend Jackson - Bishop Jackson, you have something to say?
Bishop JACKSON: I do. I don't think Jeremiah Wright is mainstream at all. I disagree. Having talked to many African-American pastors with Pastor Wallis, he does represent a group of people, and Dr. Wallis appropriately said that the frustration is real. And I think the nation has the right to ask the question, where does Barack Obama stand? His opportunity today, as I see it, is to articulate his convictions and to build a bridge.
One of the things that I'm convinced about is that only the faith community can heal the race problem in America. And this is an opportunity for Barack Obama to take a leadership role and to frame the way that faith can bring us together. But I do believe that his pastor has been incendiary, and he's not in the mainstream according to my talking with younger African-American pastors. And so Dr. Wallis is correct is that there is a generational change in how the anger, if you will, of living in a dual kind of America, two different Americas, has been played out.
MARTIN: We have to take a short - we're going to take a short break in a minute. Reverend Weems I want to hear from you briefly before we take a break. Reverend Weems?
Rev. WEEMS: I think that obviously we see here that there is no one black church, but I would say that Jeremiah Wright is very much a part of the mainstream, and certainly a part of a mainline denomination. This is not a kook, or a lunatic, or quack, as he has been characterized, but he's a member of the United Church of Christ. He's a member of a predominantly white denomination and has thousands and thousands of members, and is a very well respected, highly sought out preacher. I - so he very much sort of represents a kind of mainline if not mainstream, mainline theological tradition within the black church.
MARTIN: But then would not white people be - would it be reasonable for them to say that I don't agree with this critique? I don't like this critique, and therefore, is it appropriate for them to say that if this represents a core value of Senator Obama's, then I reject him on that basis? Is that fair?
Rev. WEEMS: I think it is important to point out that he, that Jeremiah Wright, we're talking about Jeremiah Wright, is a part of a white denomination that is standing behind him in terms of, certainly, the official denomination. If you go to the web site of the United Church of Christ, they're very much so standing with Jeremiah. And Jeremiah Wright's church also has, I mean this is not what's been said, indeed he has white members. Clearly it is a predominantly black denomination, but certainly he has white members in his church and belongs to a white denomination.
MARTIN: Oh I just thought, just to clarify for folks who aren't aware that the church issued a very long statement on its website establishing that...
Rev. WEEMS: The denomination.
MARTIN: The denomination, establishing its support for Reverend Wright. I'm sorry. We need to take a short break with all of you. We've been speaking with Reverend Renita Weems, Reverend Jim Wallis, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, and Bishop Harry Jackson. We're going to take a short break, but we're going to continue this conversation about Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the politics of the pulpit when we come 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 going to continue our conversation about the controversy surrounding Senator Barack Obama's long-time pastor and spiritual advisor, Reverent Jeremiah Wright. With me are Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington D.C.'s National Synagogue, Bishop Harry Jackson Jr., senior pastor of Hope Christian Church, Reverend Renita Weems, religious scholar and founder of the blog somethingwithin.com, and the Reverend Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, Christians for Justice and Peace. Thank you all for staying with us for a couple more minutes.
Let's return to you, Rabbi. You've written about this. You've written about the fact that houses of worship should not be politicized, but many Jewish congregations are involved in matters pertaining to Israel. And many congregations have signs saying that we support Israel in its fight for a sort of peace and security. How do you draw the line in your preaching of overly politicizing something, but something which is very deeply held and which you believe has a strong spiritual foundation?
Rabbi HERZFELD: That's the challenge that we all face because certainly when we talk about Israel, its not just the political issue. This goes to the core of who we are as religious souls, as human beings. And what the issue comes down to is I feel strongly that a house of worship needs to be a place where everybody can join. Everybody can come and pray to God, no matter what their political views are.
And so therefore, we have to be able to create a tone within the community that the preacher has the right to say what they want. In our case, it's the rabbi has the right to say what they want because it relates to our relationship with God. And yet, people have the right to be able to be there, even though they disagree vehemently about politics.
I think when we talk about Obama, his responsibility it to say those things with which he disagrees with Reverend Wright. But just because he's prayed with Reverent Wright, doesn't mean he agrees with everything he says.
MARTIN: Reverend Wallis?
Rev. WALLIS: Yeah, I think the whole career of an African-American preacher, who's very reputable, has been reduced to a few angry sound bites. Now I want to say that I think these sound bites have been repeated over, and over, and over again. They're designed to scare white people and make people be afraid of Barack Obama by association. The irony, the tragedy here is that Barack Obama speaks in a whole different way.
He perhaps is the black leader who could most help this nation turn the corner on race. Begin to heal the anger and the frustration and call us all to a new kind of unity and hope. And yet, this has been designed to make us afraid of him. The Rabbi's right. Barack Obama is responsible for what he says. And he can disagree with his pastor. He can be rooted in that tradition, but he's responsible for what he says. And I think, you know, this idea of, you know, there's anger and frustration. White people have to understand the anger and frustration in the black community is very real, based on real concrete experience.
And here's a black man who's not running as a black man, but a new kind of political leader with a new kind of politics to call us all to a new sort of unity and healing. And he's being pulled down now by the existence of frustration and responsibility as if we should be surprised by that.
MARTIN: Just to be clear, Reverend Wallis, are you a supporter of Senator Obama's? Would that be accurate?
Rev. WALLIS: I don't endorse. I've known Barack for ten years. I've known Hillary for ten years. I don't endorse candidates. I try to - you know, King never endorsed a candidate. He made them endorse his agenda. So I work with them both on poverty and the agendas I care about. I don't endorse anybody. But I'm defending his faith here, defending Barack against these attacks.
MARTIN: That's reasonable. I just thought that people deserve to know that if anyone had that question, I thought it was important to frame that.
Rev. WALLIS: I'm a friend, but I don't endorse. I'm a friend of Hillary's too.
MARTIN: Speaking of accountability though. Here's a statement that was also sort of widely discussed by another religious leader dating back to 9/11, because that is one of the comments for which Reverent Wright is being criticized. But here's another religious leader. Let me play it.
Rev. JERRY FALWELL: 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 try to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say that you helped this happen.
MARTIN: That of course is the Reverent Jerry Falwell speaking with Reverend Pat Robertson on the 700 Club in the wake of 9/11. A lot of people criticized that, Bishop Jackson, said that that was out of bounds. What do you say?
Rev. WALLIS: Well, I knew Jerry Falwell. I'm at an event today speaking that a year ago, I spoke with Jerry on the platform. I think that's his point of view and again, this from a religious liberty point of view, I think we should all have an opportunity to speak. I think we need to be careful and one of Falwell's mistakes in my view is to characterize people who happen to be gay, and others, with a broad brushed kind of statement that could seem a prejudicial or mean spirited.
And I feel like the religious right, and one of the reasons we wrote this book "Personal Faith, Public Policy," has too often brought itself into a name calling kind of orientation where people look at us and say you're mean spirited, versus hearing our issues. So if I were to coach Falwell today and others, if I could go back and redo the tape, I'd say you need to share your positive vision for the nation and your positive values and avoid the name-calling.
And so, I don't think in this generation even that kind of discussion that Falwell gave forth would be appropriate at this time.
MARTIN: Reverend Weems?
Rev. WEEMS: It's interesting I mean - thank you for playing that because we see that every Sunday, thousands of conservative preachers, black and white - I suppose, rail against America's sins from tens and thousands of pulpits. And so whether it is challenging America for its injustices against its African-American citizens or it is challenging America and claiming that America is complicit in the murder of the unborn, that is what a number of pulpits do every Sunday.
But I think that one of the things that bears pointing out here is that the lessee is the beauty of the complexity of the African-American church is that out of a church where Jeremiah Right, and I think that Jim Wallace is absolutely spot on to say that we're taking slices of Jeremiah Right's preaching, that we're talking about a man who's preached 36 years. And so, those are two, three, four different sermons out of 36 years of preaching.
But the beauty of the African-American church is that from a very radical pastor like Jeremiah Right, who preaches the kinds of things that he preaches, which is a range of things, but let's look at those four things. To give birth to an Obama, to a Barack Obama, that is the beauty of the black church. I think is that we are people who can go into those communities, those churches, hear those kind of radical preachers, and still people who come out believing in love, justice, equality, fellowship with all people.
So the way black people hear that can be very different. And to say in closing and some as well, that we're not talking about pastors or churches where the people come out and are burning the city of Chicago. They're not coming out saying we'll kill all white people, and white people are all horrible. So we hear those things very differently. They do not galvanize us or mobilize us into race hatred and burning down communities. They give us a framework.
Rev. WALLIS: And Michel...
MARTIN: Reverend Wallis?
Rev. WEEMS: And understanding.
Rev. WALLIS: You know the Falwell quote, I'm glad you raise it, because Senator John McCain went to Liberty to get the support of Jerry Falwell. He really sought Jerry Falwell's support. Now, I would never accuse John McCain of believing those horrible things Jerry Falwell just was - we heard him saying.
MARTIN: Well, some would though. But some would, Reverend Wallis, and I also should point out for those who aren't familiar with your work that you are part of the Evangelical tradition also.
Rev. WALLIS: Right, I am.
MARTIN: But there are those who would.
Rev. WALLIS: Well, I mean...
MARTIN: And so, are they fair to do that?
Rev. WALLIS: He should clarify what he thinks about what Falwell said just like Barack is clarifying what he thinks about Pastor Wright said. But I'm saying, you know, John McCain and Barack Obama should be held accountable for what they say - their vision. Barack Obama should get the nomination and the White House if his positions and his leadership convince the American people he's the best person for the job. Not because of the anger and frustration of the sound bites of his pastor. He should be judged on his positions, on his leadership, and his own vision of racial unity in this country.
MARTIN: All right, and we're going to have to leave it there - very rich and complicated discussion. I hope you all will join us again to talk more about issues like this. We were joined by the Reverend Jim Wallis. He's author of "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith in Politics in a Post-Religious Right America." He joined us from member station WCBE in Columbus, Ohio. We were joined by the Reverend Renita Weems, religious scholar and author of somethingwithin.com, a blog for women of faith. Her latest book is "What Matters Most: 10 Passionate Lessons from the Song of Solomon." She spoke with us from Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. We were joined by Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. His latest book is "Personal Faith and Public Policy," and the Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington D.C.'s National Synagogue, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studio. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.