Is Obama wrong on Wright?

Local religious leaders discuss the candidate and his former pastor

Sen. Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Sen. Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

This week’s Higher Ground was written and moderated by Keleigh Friedrich.

What are congregations saying about presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and the contentious pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright?

“I’ve heard Jeremiah speak on numerous occasions,” began the Rev. Jim Truesdell, of Pioneer Congregational Church (United Church of Christ). “If you want the most exciting worship service, you go to Trinity on Sunday morning, and there’s seven to eight thousand African-Americans singing. You feel like you’re lifted right up out of the pew.”

As a fellow UCC minister, Truesdell explained that one of the core beliefs in the Congregational tradition is “freedom of the pulpit and freedom of the pew.”

“If you were a Congregationalist minister in the 1600s, you knew that at the end of your sermon, when you stepped out of your pulpit, the whole congregation stayed and put you on the spot,” Truesdell continued. “You knew you had to face that responsibility whenever you preached.”

In fact, Truesdell said he has “yet to preach a sermon in which everybody agrees. I’d think something was wrong.”

Rabbi Mona Alfi, of Congregation B’nai Israel, comes from a similar tradition of theological debate. In discussing snippets of Wright’s sermons and Obama’s response with her congregants, she found that their primary concern “was not that there wasn’t validity in [the Rev. Wright’s] feelings or beliefs, but what was his ultimate goal? Was it to enrage people or was it to get them to act?”

In contrast to Wright’s evocative remarks, “Obama was offering a message of hope and inspiration and a way out,” said Alfi, noting that the presidential candidate’s speeches resonated with her congregants. “Obama never said that there’s not massive racial divides in the country. But he also talked about, ‘OK, so how do we go on to the next step?’”

Alfi said that the comparisons between Wright and Martin Luther King Jr. reveal a key difference. “There was righteous indignation and anger in a lot of King’s sermons as well. But his end goal was: ‘Let’s do something about it, let’s change. Let’s make things better.’”

“It’s good that [Wright] retired,” Truesdell interjected. “Times have changed.”

“Do I think that the government is giving black people AIDS?” Alfi asked rhetorically. “No. But does he have a place to speak from? Yeah. I mean, our country has been guilty of horrible, horrible things.” She referenced the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, in which nearly 400 black men with syphilis were studied by scientists and deliberately untreated for four decades.

“So you can’t say he’s delusional,” Alfi went on. “It’s not like he’s not coming out of a reality, but is it our current reality? God willing, it’s not.”

Rabbi Mona Alfi: “Obama never said that there’s not massive racial divides in the country. But he also talked about, ‘OK, so how do we go on to the next step?'”

“But he is a sensationalist, there’s no doubt about that,” said Truesdell. However, “radical, sensational African-American sermons” are part of their church’s history. In addition to being the first church to ordain a black ex-slave in 1795, the UCC also ordained women in 1850. Add to that the illegal underground railroad, which was run by Congregationalists, and you’ve got “a buncha crazies,” Truesdell said.

The conversation turned to our third guest, Pastor Andy Flowers of Woodland’s Calvary Baptist Church, who so far hadn’t made a peep. Unlike Alfi and Truesdell, Flowers admitted, “I don’t address those kinds of political issues, from the pulpit or in general. I stay away from that kind of stuff. You get the sense that a lot of it is just very, very politicized.”

Obama’s association with Wright, in Flowers’ opinion, “didn’t seem like a big deal at all. The whole thing just seemed like it got blown out of proportion.”

Flowers conceded that “the things [Wright] said were really, really shocking. But again, it goes back to why he was saying it and what was the point. I think he was trying to be shocking and sensational—to try and move his congregation. Sometimes it gets harder and harder to move people without saying something crazy.”

Alfi brought the issue back to basics. “More important than whether Obama left during a particular sermon is, what does he do? I think his own record is much more important than who he went to listen to.”

“Every little thing is going to become a huge six-week news discussion, because that’s the way things work,” said Flowers, referring to the presidential race. Even though Woodland is “a pretty conservative town,” Flowers pointed to party divisions within his church as reason to “stay far away from anything political.”

Alfi offered the opposite perspective. “We do have a mix of Democrats and Republicans,” she said, “but so many of them work in politics that they love being able to take what’s going on in their world and look at it through the lens of ‘What does our religion say?’”

Alfi’s movement, Reform Judaism, shares UCC’s stance on freedom of the pulpit. In fact, “It’s almost a sport to disagree with the rabbis,” Alfi said.

“I joked with my colleagues that if our congregants agreed with everything we say, we’d have empty pews.”