FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. In a media blitz, Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, told his story on PBS on Friday, headlined a televised event Sunday for the NAACP with 10,000 people in the audience and made another public speech today. At today's event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Wright said the criticism of his sermons is an attack on the black church. In March, that criticism prompted Senator Obama to give a landmark speech about race. So how will voters and Senator Obama react to Wright's new speeches? And what do they teach us about the role of the black church in politics? With us, we've got Melissa Harris Lacewell, she's an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, and Robert Traynham, he is the D.C. bureau chief for the Comcast cable network CN8. Welcome to you both.
Mr. ROBERT TRAYNHAM (D.C. Bureau Chief, CN8): Hi, Farai.
Professor MELISSA HARRIS LACEWELL (Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Hi, great to be here.
CHIDEYA: So, Robert, let me start with you. Why is Wright defending himself now and in so many forums?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well, two reasons. First and foremost, Reverend Wright feels very wronged. He feels as though he needs to go out and speak for himself simply because all of the comments that we have heard over the last couple of weeks have been on a continuous loop. And to use his words, they've been taken out of context, number one. But also number two, and just as importantly, no one really understands the black church except for black Americans. So he chose to come out on his own terms, not through any type of spokesperson or any type of statement. He wanted to literally put his lips to our ears. But secondly, now, simply because he has felt as though is that he has been on the sidelines for way too long, and that he feels very strongly that he should come out now as opposed to letting other folks continue to define him in the press.
CHIDEYA: Melissa, let's listen to a little bit of Reverend Wright defending his comments about 9/11.
Reverend WRIGHT: Have you heard the whole sermon?
Unidentified Woman: I heard most of it.
Reverend WRIGHT: No, no. The whole sermon. Yes or no?
Unidentified Woman: No.
Reverend WRIGHT: No, you haven't heard the whole sermon. That nullifies that question.
CHIDEYA: So it seems as if Reverend Wright really, not just in that clip, but in general, has been saying, do you know what I'm saying? Do you know what I'm talking about? Melissa, to be very honest about this, is this going to change that equation? Are people suddenly going to go on the internet and listen to full speeches of his? I noticed, for example, that CNN did just about wall-to-wall coverage last night of his speech before the NAACP.
Prof. HARRIS LACEWELL: Sure. Even if people do go on and listen to the whole speech, the notion that it is self-evident exactly what is meant or that all people will receive it the same way is, I think, silly. So people may go on and now listen to the whole speech. Some people may feel, oh, of course that explains it. Now, I understand the context. Other people will continue to feel that the speech is inappropriate, or let me be clear, not the speech, the sermon is inappropriate. And so, because people are already coming with a full set of biases and ideas about how and who Reverend Wright is, I don't think there's any possibility here of moving people in a constructive way. It's just more likely to give Reverend Wright an opportunity, you know, to say his piece, to speak his mind.
CHIDEYA: Melissa, you, at one point, attended Reverend Wright's church.
Prof. HARRIS LACEWELL: I did.
CHIDEYA: And when you think about the ways in which, not just Reverend Wright, but other speakers last night at the NAACP event talked about the prophetic tradition of the black church, to a lot of people that really doesn't mean anything. Like what does the prophetic tradition of the black church mean? And so, first of all, explain it for us. But secondly, how do you think it is interpreted by people who don't have a connection to that tradition?
Prof. HARRIS LACEWELL: Sure. I attended Trinity for seven years, during the years that I lived in Chicago, and in fact was sitting there in the pulpit at that sermon right after 9/11. And in fact, I was pregnant with my daughter at the time and feeling very unsure about what was going to happen in the world, very anxious about what it meant to be bringing a child into a terrorist age. And I remember that Reverend Wright's sermon gave me great peace because it addressed fundamentally this question of what happens when we try to take out revenge on the innocent. And I was sitting there as a pregnant woman feeling that I was carrying the innocent of the next generation.
So I think, within the context of expecting, you know, an experience of a sermon to be a sacred and religious experience, to understand the prophetic tradition as the way in which from the Old Testament forward, people who have been on the margins of any given political system feel that it is the requirement of God to speak out against how that political system marginalizes and oppresses people. I think you hear those sermons in that context very differently than in the middle of a hard-fought electoral campaign where race and religion have become central, where questions of patriotism, moralism and ethics. I just think the context is so utterly different that it's difficult for people to hear what those words really were about.
CHIDEYA: Robert, along those lines, again in this address to the NAACP in Detroit, Wright said that black preaching, and I'm quoting here, "is not bombastic. It is not controversial. It's different." And he used this refrain of difference throughout it. And you know, difference in some ways is this hallmark of the Obama campaign. But difference can still be feared. Is this going to do anything to reassure the white swing voters that Senator Obama is not a radical?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: No. Here's why. It's because, well, two things. First and foremost, this is a very common theme that Senator Obama made when he used his platform to talk about race in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago. He said and I'm quoting him. I'm paraphrasing here. He said something to the effect of, is that anyone without the untrained ear, meaning the ear of the black church, the words of Reverend Wright could be a little bit jarring. And Senator Obama is exactly right. For those of the individuals out there who may not have grown up in the black church, to hear some of the comments, could say, oh my goodness. What is going on here? This is something that is out of the mainstream. However, to answer your question specifically, Farai, look, there's no question about it that middle-of-the-road, blue-collar worldwide Americans out there that listen to these comments will probably say, aha.
This is all the more reason why I don't think I should vote for Senator Obama is because of the people that he affiliates himself with. If you're African-American, or if in fact you had the time or the interest or the desire to look at Reverend Wright's comments as a whole, you'll say aha. The media, once again, has taken things out of context. So Senator Obama is in a very interesting box here. A, does he come out today or tomorrow and defend Reverend Wright yet once again? Or two, does he try to distance himself as his campaign has repeatedly done over the last couple of weeks, from Reverend Wright's comments? So it's a very interesting phenomenon and also dilemma that Senator Obama is in, politically and also from a moral standpoint.
CHIDEYA: Melissa, there's that old saying that the most segregated time in America is on Sunday morning when people go off to their own churches. What are we learning here as a nation, not just about religion, not just about politics, not just about race, but about how we live sometimes in separate worlds?
Prof. HARRIS LACEWELL: Well, I do think this goes to the call that Senator Obama put out in that speech in Philadelphia, where he did as many before him have done, asked us to be willing to engage in a national conversation where we would listen to one another carefully as we talked about race and how it felt to be white or how it felt to be black in America. Now the problem is that we don't share a similar vocabulary. It's like trying to have a conversation when each person is speaking a language that is foreign to the other. I think if anything, this is just another indication of what we see over and over again in public opinion polls.
It emerges occasionally in these kind of popular culture moments like, for example, the King Kong film, and whether or not that's a fun family movie or whether or not it's a racist diatribe. The O.J. Simpson verdict, was he guilty or innocent? And in this case, is this a loving, sacred church engaged in a prophetic tradition, or is this just a space of hate-mongering and racism? And the problem is that we're not even using the same terms or have any ability to talk to each other because we don't share similar experiences, either in the secular or in the sacred world.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Farai, may I respond to this?
CHIDEYA: Yes please.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: You know, it's very interesting, because I think, when I watched Reverend Wright last night and again this morning defending himself, he comes across as a very reasoned individual. When he was giving his remarks, I said, you know what, this is actually, this is good. However, when the Q and A came on, he turned very bombastic. He became very antagonistic. And I - it's a very mixed message that he is sending. Because on one hand, he is very thoughtful, very, very articulate and I'm quoting him. He said, "the church stood with oppressed people while U.S. policy supported their oppressors."
Well, that very well could be true. He walks through Nicaragua and Iran Contra and forth. But yet and still during the Q and A part, he almost kind of puts his finger in the eye of the other person by challenging them whether or not they've read the whole entire sermon, or whether or not - how dare you question my patriotic duty when I served in the Army for seven years, where was Dick Cheney? Things like that, although it very well may be true, he kind of like prods a little bit and I think that's what makes the Obama campaign very, very uneasy is because his message, it's very, very true, however his style is very antagonistic.
CHIDEYA: Now, Melissa, Wright said that he told Obama if he's elected in November and inaugurated in January, "I'm coming after you." That's a quote from Wright to saying what he told Senator Obama. He said it's because his difference is not with American people, but with U.S. policies. Now, is Wright's promise or threat something that the Senator should fear?
Prof. HARRIS LACEWELL: You know, I have to say I'm not sure what's going on here. There's clearly a human element between these two men and something about their feelings about one another. But I think the other piece here is that Jeremiah Wright seems to be making a claim. That civil society, the church in particular, and the black prophetic tradition most specifically, should not be constrained by electoral politics. Now I will say, I'm actually in favor of the idea, that just because you are a supporter of someone's campaign, does not necessarily make you an apologist for their administration.
I think that's good democracy that Democrats and Republicans, black and white, supporters of any of these candidates, while wanting their candidate to get elected, don't necessarily have to stand behind their candidate on very single thing that they do. On the other hand, to preemptively say "I'm coming after you" without even knowing yet what a President Obama administration would look like, what its policies would be, I think that strikes me as surprising and surprisingly aggressive in a way that doesn't, for me, fit with the prophetic tradition, which is about speaking out against injustice when it is occurring, not before it occurs.
CHIDEYA: Very quickly, Robert.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well just very quickly. You know, what I find very interesting about his comments was that this a relationship that goes back 20 years. This is a relationship where even Senator Obama said, this was my spiritual pastor, this was my mentor, someone that baptized my children as well as married me. And for someone to quote unquote say "I'm coming after you:" if, in fact, you are elected to the presidency, those are fighting words, both mentally and also obviously physically. So there's something more there that obviously we're not privy to, and I find it very fascinating.
CHIDEYA: Well, Melissa and Robert, thanks so much.
Prof. HARRIS LACEWELL: Thank you
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: We've just spoken with Melissa Harris Lacewell, she's an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University and she joined us from the studios of the CBC in New York. Plus Robert Traynham, he's the D.C. Bureau Chief for the Comcast Cable Network CN8, and he joined us at our headquarter studios at Washington, D.C.