A Closer Look: Race, Religion and Politics Was Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, spewing anti-American sentiment from the pulpit? And how should Barack Obama handle the issue? Joining in the conversation are theologian Dr. Obery M. Hendricks and Newsmax.com correspondent Ronald Kessler.
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A Closer Look: Race, Religion and Politics

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A Closer Look: Race, Religion and Politics

A Closer Look: Race, Religion and Politics

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CHIDEYA: We now continue our conversation about the relationship between Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, with Dr. Obery Hendricks, a professor at the New York Theological Seminary and the author of "The Politics of Jesus" and Ronald Kessler, Chief Washington Correspondent for Newsmax.com, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of "The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack". Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

Dr. OBERY HENDRICKS (Professor, New York Theological Seminary): Thank you.

Mr. RONALD KESSLER (Chief Washington Correspondent, Newsmax.com): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Hendricks, tell us what you know about Reverend Wright.

Dr. HENDRICKS: You know, I first met Reverend Wright at Christian Theological Seminary. He was invited to lecture there. And I know him to be a great intellect and extraordinary servant of his congregation. And you know, a very pointed social commentator and lover of this country in the tradition of Martin Luther King, in which we speak the truth to power in order to make this nation fulfill its creed. So I find him to be an extraordinary man and I am very, very distressed by the way he's been vilified by so many uninformed commentators.

CHIDEYA: What exactly is the significance, both of this denomination and of his church, specifically - the Trinity United Church of Christ?

Dr. HENDRICKS: Well it's a predominantly white denomination. It is a real servant force in its community. It has some 60, 70 different ministries and it's lifted up many, many people. I met one gentleman who had been a drug addict and a convict, who told me with tears in his eyes, how the church inspired him such that he now owns his own limo business.

And so its an important place, an incubator of thought. There are some radical things that come out of it but it's in the tradition of the biblical jeremiads and even in the tradition of Dr. King.

CHIDEYA: Now Ron, you have written some articles that really detailed very specifically the things that Reverend Jeremiah Wright has said. What struck you the most? What stood out to you the most?

Mr. KESSLER: This you know, hatred of America is pretty shocking, and I just don't see how Barack Obama could attend services there, be his friend, unless he in fact shared his views. I don't see how anybody could you know, choose to go to a church like that unless they liked what they heard. And what he says is that America started the AIDS virus. America hires professional - trains professional killers to kill people, America has oppressed blacks throughout the world - on and on and on and on. It's of course disturbing that anybody, anybody would want to go to a church like this. And I quote in my Newsmax story, Juan Williams, who's gone into this in one of his books called "Enough" which addresses this whole black victim or victimology attitude, you know, that well of course there's been racism in society and you know, the Jews have been, six million Jews were killed - but that doesn't mean that you go around you know, assuming that this is a horrible country.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask you very specifically about one part of your reporting. You did something on Newsmax that appeared on Sunday, March 16th, that said that Obama was in the audience on a July 22nd sermon. And Fox News, the next day said, well you know, we looked into this and it appears that he was in Miami. Have you reconciled what your reporting said versus reports that your reporting did not - you know, was not accurate when it said that Obama was in the church at that time?

Mr. KESSLER: I quoted an article by another Newsmax correspondent by the name of Jim Davis. And he has been contacted by Newsmax and we are going to run a clarification, because Davis said that this did happen but originally he didn't have the date of the service. And the story and I just said well what was the date? And he came back with a date and he says he may have been — he now says he may have been wrong about the date but it definitely did happened. And you know, I think obviously the larger picture is, he simply couldn't belong to his church and not hear these kind of spewing of hate.

CHIDEYA: So you are acknowledging that one of the details in one of your articles may have been wrong but you say that the overall point is right. Is that accurate?

Mr. KESSLER: Yes, yeah.

CHIDEYA: Please Obery go ahead.

Dr. HENDRICKS: I beg to differ. First, there was no spewing of hate. First Dr. Martin Luther King said in his "Paul's Letter to American Christians" sermon, he said your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, the Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God. And if any earthly institution conflicts with God's will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. And what we hear from Dr. Wright is that jeremiad you know, to keep this country from becoming too self-congratulatory and too self-righteous and to — and you know, in order to keep us from forgetting that, we also fall short of the glory of God in the justice department.

This is no hatred of America, no wanting to destroy America. He's an American. His children are American. His congregation is American. It is an indictment of America that is consistent with a biblical witness. And that's what so upsetting is that we have these folks talking so self-righteously against him and against his Christianity without there seeming to have any sense that this is what a Christian, particularly ministers, are called to do - to speak truth to power, to make, to afflict the comfortable and to comfort afflicted…

CHIDEYA: Dr. Hendricks, we're going to have to take a break. Ronald Kessler we are also going to have to take a break. So gentlemen please stick around and we will continue this conversation shortly.

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Just ahead, we continue our conversation about race, religion and politics and Bear Sterns used to be a giant in the financial world. Now it's being sold for a fraction of its previous value. What does that sale say about the finance industry and Americas economy?

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This is NPR News.

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CHIDEYA: This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We're back talking about the comments made by Senator Obama's pastor of 20 years Jeremiah Wright. To continue the conversation we've got Dr. Obery Hendricks, a professor at the New York Theological Seminary and the author of "The Politics of Jesus" and Ronald Kessler, Chief Washington Correspondent for Newsmax.com, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of "The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack".

I want to move on to some of the other specifics of this conversation. Ron, in your article you wrote about a lifetime achievement award that the church's magazine, Trumpet, gave to Minister Lewis Farrakhan. Tell us about that award and its significance.

Mr. KESSLER: I think what's especially significant, I mean besides the fact that Obama didn't leave the church as soon as that happened, which was in December, is that Barack Obama has dissembled about it. When we first broke that story on January 14th, he issued a statement saying that the award was for Farrakhan's work with ex-offenders. That was just false. Both the article in the church magazine and the presentation, never mentioned ex-offenders. It just talked about his lifetime achievement, his wonderful influence on the African— American community. It had quotes heaping praise on him from Reverend Wright himself. So that's a very disturbing aspect of this that Barack Obama has not been you know, truthful about what the real issue is here.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Hendricks, when you look at the big picture here, there is always going to be a huge amount of tension. I don't want to say always, because I'm not God. But there certainly has been historically up until this moment and no doubt further huge amounts of contention over perception by African—Americans of what is out of bounds when you talk about race, government and responsibility, and by whites. Is this just a question of people listening differently or is this a question of an absolute where Barack Obama is going to have to draw a line in the sand, separating himself from his pastor?

Dr. HENDRICKS: Well just a couple things. I want to respond to the Farrakhan thing. You know, Farrakhan was shown appreciation for his efforts to fight racism. And he's said a lot of controversial things, but he has been a consistent speaker against racism. Doesn't mean though that Jeremiah Wright supports everything that Farrakhan says, or does, or believes in. And by this logic you know, President Reagan was the foremost supporter of South African apartheid in the Western world. He never, ever repented of that. That's on record. By the logic though that Farrakhan must be repudiated and all that, or else you're racist - well by that logic it means anyone who lauds Reagan for his contribution to the conservative agenda must also be a die hard supporter of South African apartheid and all of its institutional white supremacist implications.

So I mean it's ridiculous for them to try to tar Jeremiah Wright, and particularly Obama, with this kind of brush.

CHIDEYA: Doctor, let me get Ron in here. Ron, Newsmax which is your primary outlet at this point is a conservative publication, and that of course there's a role for every ideological publication and politics is all fought and fraught. Do you believe that you were bringing up these issues in a way that is important for the American people to understand? Was this just a case of got ya or was this something that you think all American voters really need to know?

Mr. KESSLER: I do. And in fact my feeling has the opposite situation where the mainstream media have ignored these stories that we have been doing since early January about the Farrakhan award, about this hate America speech, about the fact that this church says on its website and we are unashamedly black and then defines that. You know, it's such crazy talk it's hard to remember what it is. I mean it's just paranoid.

Dr. HENDRICKS: I'm not ashamed to be black, that's not — what's wrong with you?

CHIDEYA: Gentlemen.

Mr. KESSLER: Well if a white sort of said we are unashamedly white, that would be you know…

Dr. HENDRICKS: You don't have to say that because the church has remained white and they continue to support the status quo…

CHIDEYA: Gentlemen I'm going to have to step in. We're running out of time but Dr. Hendricks I have one question for you and it's very specific and I want to try to keep the answer narrow.


CHIDEYA: At this point, looking forward, knowing that there are differences between the way many African—Americans interpret the meaning, if there is any meaning to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and to his member of his flock, what Obama should do as a member of the flock and as a very public politician. What is the responsibility of Barack Obama to frame this discussion and how could he in a way that is respectful of this long term relationship - but also respectful of the fact that he is a man of all people at this point?

Dr. HENDRICKS: Yeah. Well I think he really only has to point to the record of his whole career and the fact that his mother is white. He was raised by white grandparents. And to show, I think that would put the lie to these specious charges. I don't think he needs to talk a lot about his church. I think he just needs to move forward. And when people, you know, raise the question about whether there's racism, there's no need to dwell in it. There's no victimology but yes, there is racism. And we see a lot of it expressed in this campaign.

CHIDEYA: All right gentlemen. Thank you so much.

Dr. HENDRICKS: Thank you.

Mr. KESSLER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Dr. Obery Hendricks, a professor at the New York Theological Seminary and author of "The Politics of Jesus" and also with Ronald Kessler, Chief Washington Correspondent for Newsmax.com and author of "The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack".

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