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How the Obama/Wright Debate Gets Religion All Wrong


I haven't been following the to-do about Barack Obama's preacher-man very closely, because I've already read enough to know this: people who think that Wright's words have anything to say about Obama don't just misunderstand Obama -- whose record on racial harmony seems pretty unassailable -- but they also misunderstand religion, too. And they misunderstand religion in a way typical of smug, myopic Americans.

Let me explain.

There is, underlying all the debate about whether Obama should be held accountable for Wright's sermons, or for the "judgment" involved in being so close to such a man, a pretty stark assumption about what religion is, and how it functions in people's lives. In short, you only think Wright matters is you think that Obama attends Trinity Church because of the beliefs taught there. And while it might seem obvious that people choose a church (or synagogue, or mosque) because they agree with its teachings, that's not necessarily the case. In fact, I'd argue that for most people the beliefs of their church are a small, often insignificant part of why they attend.

They might attend because of the community there. They might attend because the church, like the evangelical congregation I hear advertised on WEHM-FM out of Long Island from time to time, offers free baby-sitting, plus a short service so you can "get home in time for the big game." They might attend because of a cultural loyalty--and this can be true of Jews or Muslims or even Norwegian Lutherans, whose church might be their last meaningful tie to the grandparents who came over from Northern Europe. They might attend because the music and ritual are powerful.

They might attend a church with offensive sermons because having a pastor whom they disagree with is more interesting than having a pastor who never says anything controversial.

Americans, however, tend to think of religion in a very Protestant way (even Jews and Catholics make this mistake). And Protestantism, especially the Calvinist kind that set the tone for so much of our history and historiography, is the religion of belief par excellence. In that mold, ritual hardly matters, culture doesn't matter -- what matters is unmediated faith in the Word.

In that American paradigm, attending a church whose pastor you disagree with is total folly. But try telling that to the millions of Catholics who see no contradiction between fidelity to Rome and selective use of its teachings (how many Catholics do you know today with ten children?). Try telling it to Muslims with modern wives and daughters who attend a mosque with an old-world imam whose own daughters cover their heads; they may be worlds away from their imam on religion, even on culture, but attending prayer at the only mosque for miles around can still be a meaningful act.

Even religious practice -- reciting certain prayers -- can be gestural rather than literal. This is not news to philosophers (Wittgenstein articulated this idea quite clearly), and in truth I don't think it's news to most religious people, who even if totally devoted to the literal teachings of their church know others, every bit as faithful in their attendance, who are not. When I hear someone like Laura Ingraham babble on about l'affaire Wright so uncomprehending of these nuances of religious practice, what it tells me is not just that she's silly, but also that she's likely not very religious.

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