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Amid the explosive controversy over remarks made in sermons by Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor, critics are charging that America’s mainstream media has distorted his comments with out-of-context soundbites, failed to understand the African American church, sought to punish the Democratic Party presidential hopeful through “guilt by association,” and gave a free pass to what they say are equally incendiary remarks made by white clergy on the religious right. 

At the center of the storm that engulfed Barack Obama's presidential campaign is his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright is the former pastor of the Obama’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago's south side. He officiated at Obama's wedding and baptized his daughters.  

Parts of Wright’s sermons have been played millions of times on the Internet and on television and have become a major issue for the Obama campaign. Wright's comments prompted Obama to give a groundbreaking speech on race in America – the first time in decades that this issue has been addressed by a candidate for the presidential nomination.

In the speech, Obama said he rejected Wright’s more inflammatory statements, but refused to disown his longtime spiritual advisor. 

Among Wright’s remarks: 

"The government gives them (African Americans) the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, Goddamn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. Goddamn America for treating our citizens as less than human. Goddamn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme." 

"We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans and now (post 9/11) we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost." 

The comments of Dr. George Hunsinger of Princeton University, an ordained Presbyterian minister, are typical of those who believe the American popular media have distorted Wright’s remarks.  He told us, “I think we are looking at some basic questions of fairness. Is it really fair to take a minister's remarks, no matter how provocative or ill-advised, out of context and to broadcast them incessantly, as if they were the only thing that minister ever said or believed? What purposes are served by this sort of propaganda?” 

Hunsinger also raised the issue of faulting Obama for remarks made by Wright. “Is it really fair to slime a candidate with the defamation of guilt by association?  Does anyone really believe that tactics like this belong in a well-functioning democracy?  What kind of media succumbs to these tactics?  Finally, is it really fair to act as though African Americans should all be a bunch of happy watermellon eating black folks with no historic grievances that our nation has yet to address?  What universe are we living in?” 

Another prominent theologian, Rev. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, said he “does not excuse some of the indefensible comments of Wright that have now been bludgeoned into our consciousness to the exclusion of all else. And those comments should not be excused. And they have not been excused by Obama.” 

But he says, “The four S's charged against Wright -- segregation, separatism, sectarianism, and superiority -- don't stand up…” He said Trinity “has made strenuous efforts to help black Christians overcome the shame they had so long been conditioned to experience…People do not leave Trinity ready to beat up on white people; they are charged to make peace.” 

Civil libertarians have also been weighing in on the continuing Wright/Obama controversy. For example, Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, told us, “Wright’s comments were taken out of context to make it seem like he was justifying the 9/11 attacks and was therefore unpatriotic.  But when you listen to his entire sermon, he characterizes them as blowback for a vicious U.S. foreign policy.”   

She added, “The cable (news) stations played the soundbites over and over, distorting their real meaning.  Over the weekend, when news was slow, CNN played one of Wright's sermons in its entirety, which was helpful.” 

In his speech, Obama called an Americans to begin a national conversation on race and ethnicity. Cohn told us that this “is already happening in the corporate media and on the Web among grassroots organizations.  There is so much to talk about, this discourse will, and should, go on for a long time.  We have a long way to go in overcoming racism.” 

But she expressed doubt that the Bush Administration will take any substantive action to encourage the debate. “The Bush administration likes to sugar coat, i.e. spin, the most important problems, such as the failing economy, and the increasingly disastrous situation in Iraq.  By encouraging a national debate about institutional racism, the administration would be admitting to its own shortcomings. It won't happen.” 

The National Lawyers Guild was founded in 1937 as an alternative to the American Bar Association which, at that time, did not accept African-American lawyers as members. 

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)
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