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Obama And The 'Pastor Disaster'

Obama And The 'Pastor Disaster'

A reminder about the separation of Church and State (when thinking about US elections).

Paul G. Buchanan

The “pastor disaster” that is Jeremiah Wright, spiritual mentor to Barack Obama, has occasioned a chorus of righteous indignation from US conservatives and a few Democrats about the first viable black American presidential candidate.

White voters have reacted with alarm to Reverend Wright’s harshly revisionist interpretation of US history, and Hillary Clinton’s advisors are no doubt doing a secret boogaloo in celebration of the fact that the latest great presidential hope has finally come a cropper on the issue of racial divisions (of all things).

The Democratic Party—or perhaps better said, the Clinton faction versus everyone else—is tearing itself apart over the matter, with the Republicans and their media running dogs frothing at the prospect that what once seemed impossible given the debacles of the George W. Bush administration—another Republican presidency—is now quite achievable with the “reasonable” candidacy of John McCain. Youth, race and gender are trumped by age, as it turns out, but for all the wrong reasons.

This much should be clear. Race may not be the issue it was in the heyday of the civil rights movement, but it is the elephant in the American room; the great unspeakable that polite folk not dare mention (especially if they are liberal).

Anyone who has spent time on the South Side of Chicago, or in Harlem, or in Watts, or in Atlanta, Detroit, Mobile, Oakland, New Orleans, Washington DC, or any other place where African Americans congregate, will tell you of the power that impassioned denunciation of the white-dominated status quo has on the Afrikan masses (the spelling is borrowed from the Afro-centric literature).

Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright may share a penchant for hyperbole, conspiracy and prejudice in their speeches, but the churches they lead are also responsible for most of the community building within the areas in which they are located. Like revolutionaries, they do what the status quo will not do for the downtrodden and disposed—they feed, shelter, counsel, educate, construct and repair.

They may have views that are abhorrent to the American majority—and the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitic discourse is as abhorrent as that practiced by a number of US allies in the Middle East--but the fact is that within the otherwise forgotten communities that they serve, they do a wealth of good, if not the only good. For their constituents, they speak truth to power, and then deliver on their promises in a way no white man could or would.

For many white Americans pastor Wright’s claims about AIDS being a White man’s plot and 9-11 being a case of the “chickens coming home to roost” are anti-patriotic blasphemies in their own right. But that is to ignore the impact of the Tuskegee experiments of the 1940s on the black collective conscience, or that US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere does, in fact, engender hatred and resistance from the people directly affected by it. Do white Americans really believe that al-Qaeda struck at the US because Islamic fundamentalists hate its purported freedoms, or that the Reverend Wright, Louis Farrakhan and many other African-American leaders are simply lying or crazy to suspect that there is more to the AIDS story than simple sexual transmission?

The latter may have been scientifically proven to be untrue, but then again science was the excuse for Tuskegee (in which black men were deliberately infected with syphilis in order to test vaccines). Al-Qaeda may have a medieval world view, but its actions speak more to rolling back perceived American imperialism in the Islamic world rather than any fear of “freedom.”

Given the myopia and self-centered nature of US politics, striking at the US mainland was, in the minds of Osama bin-Laden and his cohort, the only way of driving their point home (they appear to have failed in that regard). Given Tuskegee, it is not far-fetched for some to think that the disproportionate impact of AIDS on the African-American community is part of a white-made plot. Yet to date no mainstream politician (including Barack Obama) has admitted that there might be a smidgeon of truth behind these views, much less addressed them directly.

As for Reverend Wright saying “God Damn America” rather than bless it, that was an over-the-top reference to the voyage of the damned that brought slaves to the Americas, and to the unpleasant sequels to those voyages which, however in diluted form, continue to this day. It was heavy handed, but as passionate religious exhortations go, it was simply more grist for the mill.

There is a larger issue than the expressed beliefs of these preachers and Senator Obama’s relationship with them. It involves the separation of Church and State. The same conservatives that now rail at Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright stood silent when a variety of Republican presidents welcomed conservative Christian bigots into their fold.

Nixon had Billy Graham with which to share his loathing of Jews, and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush equally courted the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, both of whom stated from the pulpit that they abhor Jews, Gays, Muslims, Mexicans, Marxists, feminists and pretty much anyone else who does not share their dream of a capitalist Theo-patriarchy as the proper social order (in a parallel with conservative Islam, with each side preferring not to admit their commonality because they are too busy demonizing the other). Think Saudi Arabia or any of the other Gulf emirates, then add a fundamentalist Christian twist, and one gets the religiously conservative social agenda that the current US president has so feverishly espoused. The good news is that having been shown the counter-productive nature of a conservative religious-based worldview in the guise of the Bush 43 foreign and domestic policy, the Republican mainstream has opted to the default moderate option.

John F. Kennedy was questioned about his Catholicism. Jimmy Carter was questioned about his Baptist beliefs. Joe Liebermann had his Jewish heritage thrown at him during his ill-fated presidential campaign. Mitt Romney was questioned about being Mormon. What is it about non-Protestant beliefs that so disturb the American political psyche? The answer lies in the separation of Church and State.

In declaring independence from Great Britain, the founding fathers were also declaring independence from the Church of England. After all, their forbearers fled religious persecution from the (Protestant) Crown. They consequently swore to never allow the State to be overcome by religious doctrine. Instead, they envisioned the State as secular and agnostic, rooted in but not reducible to any single religious belief, and in fact devoted to upholding freedom of worship regardless of the nature of the God or Scripture in question. Over the years that principle mutated to the popularly held notion that the US is constitutionally a Christian (read Protestant) nation (later amended to Judeo-Christian), when in fact it is nothing of the sort.

The US constitution merely upholds a belief in God as a foundational principle, which was common in pre-industrial times. The nature of that God and the proper way to worship her was purposely left unlegislated. The sub-text of Protestant belief as the foundation of the constitutional order was based on the notion that it was a more tolerant Christian ideology than others, Catholicism in particular. It did not account for Judaism or Islam, because when the founding fathers wrote the Constitution they had little concern with either.

Thus, either the founding fathers were rank hypocrites who were trying to pass off a Protestant State as a secular one; or they were principled in that they truly believed in what they wrote. Two centuries of common practice and law indicate that they were the latter. Yet, be it in “prayer in school” debates at the local level or in the appointment of Supreme Court justices, conservative Republicans have been trying to overturn that foundational principle for the last 30 years.

In light of that, the current fracas over Senator Obama’s relationship with his preacher can be clarified. As a parishioner, Barrack Obama has the right to sit and listen to whatever sermons come his way. He may agree with what is said, may choose to remain silent, may decide to stage a protest by walking out or shouting down the pastor, or may have a quiet word of difference in the rectory once the sermon is over. He is free to marry and have his children baptized by whomever. In the US, that is any parishioner’s prerogative.

What Obama or all other politicians cannot do is bring personal religious belief into public service, the White House in particular. And yet that is exactly what Reagan and Bush 43 did—they wore their faith on their sleeve (or in the case of Reagan, he acted like he did) and used the White House as a bully pulpit for proselytizing conservative Christian values. Few other than atheists complained about this assault on one of the country’s political foundations, so it is a bit odd that people have reacted so strongly to the “pastor disaster.” But then again, perhaps it is a matter of race and political opportunism combined.

In recent history Democrats have been consistent in not bringing their personal religious convictions to bear on public policy (however they may profess them on the campaign stump). Republicans have been less so. Thus the only important question that need be asked of Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain is whether they will uphold the principle of separation between Church and State should they be elected president. So long as they answer “yes,” that should be the end of the matter.

Paul G. Buchanan writes about comparative and international politics.


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