As I ponder Barack Obama sitting in church listening to his pastor’s hate-filled sermons, I cannot help but think of my mother. I imagine her sitting in the next pew. I know what she would have done.
Our family was Methodist, mostly because the Methodist Church was only three blocks from our house. (There was a Presbyterian outfit on the next corner, but my family wouldn’t hand us kids over to full-immersion baptism.) It was a nice little church, a white working-class congregation, most of whom walked to Sunday services. And in 1960, we loved our new young pastor.
Then, one Sunday in October, something happened. Our pastor preached a sermon on the civic duties of a Christian. At least I gathered that was the subject; at 12, I didn’t listen too closely to sermons, and subtle points tended to get past me.
But not past my mother; when we got home she was fuming. She said the sermon had been an admonition to vote against John Kennedy in the upcoming election, couched in terms of the separation of church and state, “foreign influence”, and other dangers of a catholic in the White House.
(I was shocked; I didn’t hear anything about politics. But then, I was 12.)
The immediate upshot was that my mother would not and did not return to that church until the pastor was transferred (at that time Methodist clergy tended to bounce around quite a bit).
Her view was simple: he had engaged in very un-Christian bigotry, and my mother wouldn’t stand for it.
I don’t think she ever suggested that the rest of the family or congregation should take the same stand; it was a personal matter, and she was no community organizer.
I had almost forgotten the incident until 2004, when a Vermont governor was running for president. Reading the story of his break with his church over an issue involving a bike path, I thought: “Just like Mom – if a bike path were just like anti-catholic bigotry.”
I thought of all this again the other day, when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was briefly in the news (before his image, voice and name suddenly disappeared from the networks).
My mother passed away before 9/11, so I don’t know what she would have thought about the attack. But I’ll bet she wouldn’t have thought it was “America’s chickens coming home to roost”, a punishment we deserved. I never asked her, but I bet she didn’t think the government invented AIDS to exterminate black people. And I can only guess what she would have thought of her minister singing “God Damn America.” But I know she would not have sat in her pew and listened to a sermon depicting black people the way Wright does white people.
Questions were raised by Obama’s participation in the Reverend Wright’s Trinity Church, and remain unanswered today. They stem from the simple math of the matter: 20 years contain 1040 Sundays. Even with time off for missed Sundays, sick days and vacations, that is a lot of sermons. (And the “guest preachers” who occasionally subbed for Wright seem to have been at least as bad).
In fairness, we should presume that the Reverend Wright did not breathe hellfire against white America every Sunday. Many, perhaps most of his sermons must have been more apolitical self-help messages along the lines of “The Audacity To Hope” (the only one I can find online).
But his “God Damn America” message seems so deeply ingrained in the Reverend Wright today that it is hard to imagine him keeping it under wraps for the other 1039 weeks we don’t have on tape.
So, we ask the questions. Did Obama really not notice the Reverend Wright’s bigotry? Or did he really regard it as only a minor quirk in an otherwise great guy?
Perhaps he put up with it because Wright’s church was such a political asset? Perhaps he rejects it now because it has become a liability. Wright seemed to suggest as much when he dismissed Obama’s “saying what a politician must say.”
We’ve seen this kind of thing before. When a white politician belongs to an all-white club for years, and then quits in protest of its exclusionary policy – just before an election – we assume it to be an insincere, purely political act. We also assume he felt pretty comfortable in that club.
Leaving only the most disturbing possibility of all: did he buy into it? Did Wright’s selective hellfire (directed, unlike the earlier Jeremiah’s, not at his audience but at the “other guys” who were to blame for everything) strike a chord with Obama?
Obama says no, sort of. I’d like to believe him, since he’s likely to be my next president.
But he hasn’t answered the lingering question: what took him so long?
I really don’t know. But I know one thing: For my mother, one sermon on one Sunday was enough to recognize the ugly face of bigotry. And to know what to do about it.