Statements by the pastor of Barack Obama’s church, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have ignited a bit of a firestorm, especially at TPM. It really didn’t strike me as comparable with McCain’s endorsements from Hagee and Parsley – McCain, after all, sought and welcomed the endorsements from that pair. Obama, on the other hand, is a member of the church that Wright pastors. After all – a church is a community, not (generally) a band of followers of one charismatic individual.
Writing at HuffPo today, Obama addressed the Wright issue. He begins with an outright rejection of Wright’s statements
The pastor of my church, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who recently preached his last sermon and is in the process of retiring, has touched off a firestorm over the last few days. He’s drawn attention as the result of some inflammatory and appalling remarks he made about our country, our politics, and my political opponents.
Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it’s on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue.
Some people have said that by remaining members of the church, they are somehow endorsing Wright. Obama writes
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.
The key question here is “what is a church?” While it varies from denomination to denomination and from church to church, by an large a church is a community, not a group of devotees of a charismatic preacher. Of course, this is a continuum – most televangelists are the opposite – the preacher is the focus, and often, the church is treated as if it were private property. But this isn’t the case in most denominations – whether the church is connectional (and all property is owned by the broader denomination) or congregational (where the church owns its own property and chooses to associate with the broader denomination), the church is the functional unit. The church employs the pastor…sometimes the local church actually hires and fires the pastor, sometimes it is the denomination that does so. A good pastor can attract and hold crowds. And sometimes, when a pastor leaves, a portion of the congregation goes with him or her.
The United Church of Christ is congregational, so Trinity UCC actually employed Wright. And Wright was pastor there for a long time – his Wikipedia article says that he was pastor for 36 years. It goes without saying that he was an important part of shaping that congregation. And from what Obama says, Wright probably played a significant role in his decision to join and remain in the church
I knew Rev. Wright as someone who served this nation with honor as a United States Marine, as a respected biblical scholar, and as someone who taught or lectured at seminaries across the country, from Union Theological Seminary to the University of Chicago. He also led a diverse congregation that was and still is a pillar of the South Side and the entire city of Chicago. It’s a congregation that does not merely preach social justice but acts it out each day, through ministries ranging from housing the homeless to reaching out to those with HIV/AIDS.
Most importantly, 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.
But a church is a community, it’s a family. It’s far more than a single individual. Obama’s decision to remain a member of his church is in no way comparable to McCain’s decision to seek out the endorsement of bigots.