Presidential candidates cannot be held accountable for everything their supporters and associates say and do. And it’s very tricky to start judging another man’s religion.
But the matter of Barack Obama and his pastor is deeply troubling on a couple of levels.
First there is Obama’s electability, or sudden lack thereof.
We know from recent history that Republican hit squads can destroy once-robust Democratic presidential candidates. We know that the way to do that is to play to people’s fears and cultural aversions. We know that Democrats have a history of nominating candidates vulnerable to those attacks and tone-deaf in responding to them.
We’ve already confronted the matter of Obama’s wife, Michelle, saying that her husband’s political success has given her the first opportunity of her adult life to be proud of her country. Now we confront the fiery and polarizing sermons of Obama’s pastor, Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright.
Obama cites this preacher as a great religious and personal influence, if occasionally a bit the crazy uncle who says things with which Obama, of course, disagrees.
Don’t judge the man’s 40-year ministry by a few remarks, Obama says, even as he finds it necessary to denounce those remarks and explain himself for staying in the church in spite of them.
Wright has preached that America invited the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He has preached that we ought to say “God damn America” instead of “God bless America.” He has preached that Hillary Clinton can’t possibly get it because she’s never been called the N-word, which he went right ahead and said.
I understand what the man is preaching, or, to be more accurate, screaming. I understand that black people often justifiably see this country as not quite as benevolent as the more fortunate of us see it. I understand what Obama is saying when he asks the press to back off because, after all, Wright is retiring.
But here is a political rule of thumb: It would be easier to run for president of the United States if you were not intimately associated with people and comments that were disdainful of the United States.
Here’s another: It undercuts your theme of being a post-race candidate — a man presuming to lift us out of the old black-white quagmire — when your own pastor, a man you embrace as a friend, influence and inspiration, is shouting angry, divisive and racially incendiary things.
Now let’s move to the second troubling factor, less about politics than religion, thus less comfortable to express.
There are those who say a man can embrace and respect a personal religious leader without agreeing on — or being held fairly accountable for — all the political and cultural pronouncements of that religious leader.
I am acquainted with Jewish people who don’t buy all that the rabbi says. I am acquainted with Roman Catholics who differ with the church on defining social issues.
It is apparent, others have said and written, that Obama has a generational gap with this pastor, and has progressed beyond the pastor in his own persona and attitudes.
But, speaking only from my own experience, I simply have a hard time reconciling Obama with his pastor.
I was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian denomination that instilled in me excellent general values, for which I am grateful. But it ventured into extreme right-wing politics and culture.
As an adult, I quit going to this church. I found nothing spiritually uplifting in sitting in a church pew listening to what I believed to be a hopelessly misguided world view.
But there’s this: Some have argued to me that I would have been better off staying in my family’s church despite the stark political and cultural and theological differences, so that those values that had been so positively instilled could have been continuously nurtured.
After all, if you’re waiting for someone with whom you agree on everything, you’re going to be waiting a long time.
Maybe the point is that we simply ought to leave a man alone about the deeply personal matter of what he needs and takes, or doesn’t need and take, from his church.
But I’m rather certain that, if Obama becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, we won’t.