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Obama's Pastor Problem and the Lessons Learned

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Barack Obama's latest campaign challenge is the recent revelation of tapes showing Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, engaged in strong anti-American and otherwise inflammatory rants during some of his sermons over the past few years. "God damn America," rails Rev. Wright on tape. And it goes downhill from there. I am a staunch supporter of freedom of speech, so why do I find these comments inappropriate? The answer is simple: Because they were said from the pulpit. This is a lesson in the consequences of mixing religion and politics. We should have already learned those lessons from the other side, with the rise to political power of the so-called "religious right" over the past decade. Preaching politics from the pulpit is wrong no matter which side of the political fence you're on. This nation's founding fathers were well aware of the problems that can arise when you mix politics and religion, and they deliberately worked to separate the two, for the preservation of both. And, principles aside, a church risks losing its tax-exempt status if its words or actions get too political. For all these reasons, and because of the effect his behavior could have on the Obama campaign, Rev. Wright should have known better. That said, the media's thinly-veiled suggestion of guilt by association will be a challenge for the Obama campaign. So far, Obama is handling it well. On the Huffington Post website recently, Obama wrote:
[...] Rev. Wright preached the gospel of Jesus, a gospel on which I base my life. In other words, he has never been my political advisor; he's been my pastor. And the sermons I heard him preach always related to our obligation to love God and one another, to work on behalf of the poor, and to seek justice at every turn. The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments. But because Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community, where I married my wife and where my daughters were baptized, I did not think it appropriate to leave the church. Let me repeat what I've said earlier. All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country. With Rev. Wright's retirement and the ascension of my new pastor, Rev. Otis Moss, III, Michelle and I look forward to continuing a relationship with a church that has done so much good. And while Rev. Wright's statements have pained and angered me, I believe that Americans will judge me not on the basis of what someone else said, but on the basis of who I am and what I believe in; on my values, judgment and experience to be President of the United States.
That is good enough for me. After all, a church is more than just its pastor -- it's a community. And, when you have a 20-year history with a community, your ties to that community transcend the occasional off-color remark by one church leader. I know very few churchgoers who will agree 100% with every word of every sermon. Don't Obama's critics feel the same way, or are they mindless sheep who blindly and unquestioningly accept, and live by, every word that they hear from the pulpit of their choice? Now, in closing, here is the good news: With these questions about Obama's brand of Christianity, maybe the right wing (and the Hillary campaign) will have to stop suggesting that Obama is a Muslim.
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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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