WASHINGTON -- On Easter Sunday, President Barack Obama went to services at St. John's Episcopal Church, where the Rev. Luis Leon preached a 15-minute sermon on the Gospel of John, chapter 20. Leon's remarks made waves when it was reported that the pastor took a shot at the "religious right."
Leon was reported to have said the following: "It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back ... for blacks to be back in the back of the bus ... for women to be back in the kitchen ... for immigrants to be back on their side of the border."
This comment -- an apparent accusation that the religious right is animated by racism, misogyny and xenophobia -- was picked up in press accounts and quickly drew condemnation from conservative websites and Christian religious leaders. The Fox Nation website called it "another Obama pastor problem," a reference to the president's former minister in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"It's sad when clergy egregiously politicize worship," Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Christian organization Institute on Religion and Democracy, wrote in a blog post. "Is this characterization of religious conservatives as racists, chauvinists and bigots really fair and accurate?"
On Tuesday, a congregant at St. John's took issue with the way Leon's comments were reported.
"The story was basically the same -- look at this guy race baiting on Easter, pandering to the President. That's not what happened," wrote Brian Schoeneman, a Republican activist from Virginia who was a senior speechwriter for Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in the Bush administration.
In his blog post, Schoeneman called the press reports "a mischaracterization of what Luis said."
"It was certainly not what he meant. But that didn't stop people from jumping to ridiculous conclusions and vilifying him, our church, and Episcopalians in general," Schoeneman wrote.
Schoeneman's argument, which is quoted at length below, was that Leon accused the religious right of being insensitive to the wrongs of the past. The implication of his argument was that Leon did not accuse the religious right of literally wanting to bring back segregation and subjugation of women and to deport undocumented immigrants.
To understand why Schoeneman's blog post raised questions about the accuracy of the quotation, one must understand how Leon's remark was reported.
The quote came from a pool report written by a single reporter. Every time the president travels outside the White House, he is accompanied by a "protective pool," a handful of reporters including representatives from print, radio and TV outlets. The members of the pool rotate in and out by news organization. Reporters at many news organizations sign up to receive the print pool report by email and write stories based on it, but the report itself comes from a single person. So cross-checking details with other press accounts is not possible. On Sunday, Jenee Desmond-Harris, a staff writer at The Root, was the pool reporter. Her account of Leon's sermon was the only one available.
In addition, Desmond-Harris' use of ellipses left the quotation vulnerable to questions about its accuracy once Schoeneman raised his objections. The lack of other press accounts compounded this problem.
Here is what Schoeneman wrote, laying out in detail what he said Leon's real point was:
Luis was preaching on our Gospel lesson for the day, which came from John 20: 11-18, where Mary Magdalene sees Christ for the first time since he rose from the dead. She refers to him as "rabbouni" (teacher) and he tells her she must not cling to him. Luis explained that passage by talking about the dangers of nostalgia, and how Christ was explaining to Mary that she must not live in the past because we cannot go back to the past, no matter how much we may want to. Christ knew that because he came, died for our sins and was resurrected, nothing would ever be the same again. Mary and the disciples needed to understand that, and she did -- when she tells the disciples of what she saw, she tells them "I saw the Lord" not "I saw our rabbi." His sermon was a message of hope, not hate, that he was delivering to our congregation.
But it was in this discussion of the dangers of nostalgia that he made the comments that created all the conservative hate on Easter. He made the point that he is frustrated when "captains of the religious right" want to call us back to times they say were better, but that those times were also times when blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, when women were kept in the kitchen and immigrants on their side of the border. The point was simple and one I've said to many people myself -- those of us who pine for the "good old days" need to keep in mind that those good old days weren't always that great for everybody else.
Was that hatred? No. Was it an attack on the religious right? No. Was it pandering to Obama? No -- he gave the same sermon at both the 9 AM and 11 AM services and used the same line in both (I was a lay reader at the 9 AM, so I heard that version -- it was the same as the 11 AM based on the pool reporter's notes). Was it a straw man attack? I don't think so. Pat Robertson, among others, has long lamented how society is more immoral today than it was in the past, especially when talking about gay marriage and other social issues. Luis's point is that those people are living in the past and ignoring that in that past that may have been better for some, it wasn't better for all. We can't go back, no matter how much we want to. What we can do is make the future better, and through Christ, we have that opportunity.
This wasn't a political speech. One reference to the "captains of the religious right" doesn't make it a political speech any more than Barack Obama quoting scripture in a State of the Union address makes that a sermon.
I asked Desmond-Harris for audio of the sermon, and she sent it over. St. John's has also posted audio of the sermon on its web page. The tape shows that Desmond-Harris quoted Leon accurately.
Here is the full context of what Leon said, with emphasis added on the language in question:
When we dwell on the past, when we dwell on the "if only's" of life, we forget that God addresses us in the now. Jesus' response to Mary -- and I think that Jesus' response to us is gentle, but it is firm -- Jesus says, "Don't hang on to me. Don't hang on to the past. Don't hang on to the way things were." I hear all the time the expression "the good old days." Well, the good old days -- we forget they had been good for some, but they weren't good for everybody. You can't go back. You can't live in the past. It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling people back, never forward, forgetting that we are called to be a pilgrim people who have agreed never to arrive. That's true to our faith. The captains of the religious right are always calling us back, back, back, for blacks to be back in the back of the bus, for women to be back in the kitchen, for gays to be in the closet and for immigrants to be on their side of the border. But you and I understand this, that when Jesus says you can't hang on to me, he says, "You know it's not about the past, it's not about the before, it's not about the way things were, but about the way things can be in the now."
The only substantive language missing from Desmond-Harris' pool report is the clause about gays "in the closet."
Leon went on to talk about how Mary Magdalene realized, after seeing a resurrected Christ, that "life has changed and she's invited, we're invited, to see our world completely different."
"The message of Easter is the proclamation of the victory of powerful love over loveless power. And I think that what Mary has been offered on Easter Day in the story of John is Easter vision. And you and I are offered Easter vision, the ability to see things and realize reality differently," Leon said.
In an email to HuffPost, Schoeneman noted that he "never said [Leon] wasn't quoted accurately -- I said the quote was taken out of context and it was mischaracterized." And it's true that much of his criticism was of the conservative response to Leon's comments.
But Schoeneman's blog post argued that Leon was not explicitly accusing the "religious right" of wanting to bring back segregation or a misogynistic culture. Leon, Schoeneman wrote, was saying that when individuals are nostalgic for the past, they are ignoring the fact that many groups of people did not enjoy the "good old days."
"The point was simple and one I've said to many people myself -- those of us who pine for the 'good old days' need to keep in mind that those good old days weren't always that great for everybody else," Schoeneman wrote.
It's true that this was one of Leon's points. But unless he misspoke, the plain reading of his language goes beyond that. Leon's language, despite the larger context, seems to accuse the religious right of actually being in favor of segregated schools, subservient housewives, bullied gays and an immigrant-free society.
That's not the way it came across to the audience, said Schoeneman in a second email.
"As a conservative, if I thought that's what he was saying, I'd have had a conversation with him myself about it," Schoeneman wrote. "But that's just not what I heard and I don't think folks in the audience did either. I think there would have been a reaction had that been the case."
Leon himself didn't back away from his words when asked about them earlier this week.
"It's in there. People will do what they want with it," Leon told HuffPost's Jaweed Kaleem.