Pastors and the presidency

by Amy Kingsley

Sen. Barack Obama wasn’t smiling when he took his place behind a podium in Winston-Salem’s Joel Coliseum annex last week. In fact, he frowned deep enough to turn his nasolabial furrows into gulches bracketing the hard line of his mouth.

The man hadn’t said a word and already I was shocked. My first good look at the positivity-peddling candidate who turned the monosyllable “change” into a political rallying cry was anything but hopeful.

I was one of the last members of the media escorted to a back room dressed up with folding chairs and curtains. A campaign staffer led a reporter from the News & Record and me through an equipment room dripping with dirty uniforms, down a wide concrete hallway and through an opening in the cinderblock. I dropped into a chair between a bearded member of the traveling press and a staffer in Obama ’08 polar fleece.

For the 15 minutes before Obama’s appearance, the press corps joked in an inside kind of way that reminded me of my theater days. But the mood turned serious when the curtains parted and Obama entered with that wretched look on his face.

“I want to talk about what we saw and heard yesterday,” Obama said. “I have spent my entire life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people. I have insisted that we as Americans share common hopes and dreams. That’s who I am and that’s what I believe. Yesterday we saw a very different version of America. I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened by the spectacle.”

That spectacle would be the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor at Trinity United Church, the man who married Barack Obama to his wife, Michelle, baptized his daughters and raised a congregation that included the Obamas to its feet every Sunday morning for 36 years. Recently Wright has been riding the circuit – the media circuit – justifying his statement that the United States brought the Sept. 11 attacks upon itself. The general public has not received Wright’s message as enthusiastically as the crowds back at Trinity.

In addition to his incendiary comments about 9-11, Wright speculated that the US government had a hand in creating the AIDS virus and called Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan one of the most important voices of the last century. All of which are crazy notions Obama does well to distance himself from.

But before I leap feet first onto the Wright-bashing bandwagon, I’d like to point out that the man is hardly the first whackjob to wear the collar. In 2000, during the Republican primary in Virginia, Sen. John McCain repudiated a couple pastors of his own. Of course, he didn’t go to their church, but McCain still considered Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell a bad enough influence on the Republican Party to deserve a little comeuppance.

A year and a half later it was Falwell who said some pretty crazy things about 9-11. He blamed the gays, abortionists, pagans and feminists. Which is somehow less crazy than blaming the attacks on American foreign policy. He also said AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality.

And yet in 2006 McCain made peace with the two men he denounced six years earlier as “agents of intolerance.” He’s quietly strengthening his bond with Robertson, the surviving half of the duo, as Obama very publicly distances himself from his own pastor.

Before Obama delivered his blockbuster “A More Perfect Union” speech earlier this year, the last bold oratorical campaign stroke belonged to McCain. In 2000, as he denounced Robertson, Falwell and their anointed candidate George W. Bush, he described the origin of his own spiritual beliefs.

He talked about a prison guard at his camp in Vietnam who loosened the torture ropes used to bind the POW overnight. Later the same guard stood silently next to McCain and drew a cross in the dirt.

“This is my faith,” McCain said, “the faith that unites and never divides, the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity. That is my religious faith and it is the faith I want my party to serve, and the faith I hold in my country. It is the faith that we are all equal and endowed by our creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the faith I would die to defend.”

All of which sounds very… Obama. For the next week or so, the candidates will wrangle with each other over the gas tax holiday. Sen. Hillary Clinton has already followed McCain’s lead by saying she would support one.

I suggest that the candidates move off that subject and get back to the twin issues of religion and intolerance. Rev. Wright isn’t the only religious leader in need of a good heave under the bus. If he wants to keep up with Obama in November, McCain may need to march his new friend out to the curb again.

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