As happens too often these days, I had to watch the satirical shows on Comedy Central to get the bigger picture on the current Obama furor. In Wednesday night's "The Word," Stephen Colbert called out religious leaders on the right for their hate-mongering over the years. I am not justifying bad behavior by one preacher by pointing at others, but instead, suggesting we put things in context before destroying a man's candidacy for the White House over an all too common American experience.
Without trudging too far back in our history, we can find all the examples necessary to demonstrate how religious leaders have incited division while enjoying powerful relationships with the political class. The Rev. Billy Graham, spiritual advisor to many presidents, was recorded in Nixon's oval office castigating the Jewish "stranglehold" on this country and hoping that Nixon "might be able to do something" about it. He later rejected such divisive rhetoric in favor of a very inclusive, loving religion. Interestingly, his son Franklin protested that such words were, yes, "taken out of context."
Franklin has not shown his father's maturity. A spiritual advisor to President Bush, who delivered the benediction at his inauguration, the younger Graham was quick to speak out after 9/11 on the Islamic faith. "I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." But let's set aside attacks on Muslims. How about his assertion that Katrina was God's vengeance against that sinful city? "God is going to use that storm to bring revival."
Few will forget Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, just three days after 9/11, concurring that the terrorist attack was the fault of the "ACLU, abortionists, feminists, homosexuals and others who provoked God's wrath." Robertson condemned the cities of Orlando, FL (gays at Disneyland) and Dover, PA (rejecting intelligent design) to destruction by hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, even a meteor(!) for their evil ways. And who can forget this? "Maybe we need a very small nuke thrown off Foggy Bottoms to shake things up?"
Rev. Jeremiah Wright has been roundly condemned for suggesting that our government had a role in infecting black men with AIDS. What about Robertson's on-air tirade asserting that Planned Parenthood and the government support 'black genocide'? On May 11, 2006, he stated that this organization has received hundreds of millions of dollars from various Republican foundations because "they were alarmed by the growth of the black community and they didn't want to support a bunch of indigent black babies. I mean that's the dirty little secret. And the government itself has been funding Planned Parenthood...much in excess of $100 million a year. (B)lack genocide, that's what Margaret Sanger wanted. She also says that 'I've got to find a leading black minister to lead the charge,' and they selected Martin Luther King... (I)t's all there. I mean, you talk about a plan. It's a definite plan. I'm not trying to look at conspiracies, but the record is clear."
Robertson has called the Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists "the spirit of the Antichrist." George Bush, Sr. said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots." John McCain's new best friend, Pastor John Hagee, refers to the Catholic Church as "a great whore" and a "cult" complicit in the Holocaust. What was McCain's response? Last week, he simply said, "I repudiate the possibility that some of you took Rev. Hagee's salient but poorly constructed remarks to possible indicate that he may have some anti-Catholic sentiments which he does not." Did he denounce the statements? Yes. The man? No.
Frank Schaeffer, son of the powerful religious leader, Francis Schaeffer, recently penned these thoughts. "When Senator Obama's preacher thundered about racism and injustice, Obama suffered smear-by-association. But when my late father denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, he was invited to lunch with Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr.....Take Dad's words and put them in the mouth of Obama's preacher (or in the mouth of any black preacher) and people would be accusing that preacher of treason. Yet when we of the white Religious Right denounced America, white conservative Americans and top political leaders called our words "godly" and "prophetic" and "a call to repentance."
Mike Huckabee stood up bravely for Obama and even Rev. Wright. He doesn't hold the candidate responsible for Wright's words and made it clear that Obama renounced the incendiary remarks. He acknowledged the emotional fervor that can lead a preacher into inflammatory rhetoric from time to time. And he went further, "I'm gonna probably be the only Conservative in America who's gonna say...we've got to cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told 'you have to sit in the balcony...or use the back door...' Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. I probably would to. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me."
In churches, synagogues and mosques around this country, occasionally, there are words spewed forth that would not look good when plastered as headlines or played back as sound bites. Most of the religious leaders who transgress do valuable work within their communities despite their intemperate rhetoric from time to time. We should freely condemn the language that incites and divides. We should insist that such ideas are not promulgated in thought or deed by our officials. But the expectation that politicians will excise everyone that offends and must ignore any good by these people for the moments of bad, is asking more than most mortals would do.
Barack Obama has done all that he should. He has unequivocally denounced the hateful words of Rev. Wright while speaking eloquently of his own vision of unity, tolerance and understanding. Now if only the media would get back to the substance of this campaign, rather than the ratings-driven vitriol, maybe we could all focus on the truly critical issues we face in the coming election.