05/20/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

Rev. Wright Redux: A Conversation Worth Having

Four years ago this month I organized a blog series with a pastor friend on the topic of then Presidential candidate Barack Obama and his one-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For the next three years and 11 months, the Rev. Wright controversy slowly settled into the recesses of my mind. That is, until recently, when the NY Times ran a May 17, 2012 story revealing a proposed super PAC plan to connect Rev. Wright to President Obama.

After the Times published its piece, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who supposedly financed the proposal distanced himself from it. Instead, Ricketts reportedly seeks to emphasize issues of fiscal policy rather than cultural issues. I certainly do not want to rehash the prickly debate around Rev. Wright's insensitive comments and his role as President Obama's pastor. Part of me, though--the ever-hopeful, seize-the-teaching-moment part--wishes the super PAC would have run the ads because we desperately need more understanding about the religious and racial issues they would raise.

For one, the whole controversy is based upon President Obama's association with Rev. Wright, bringing up a question of congregational affiliation and discipleship. One's membership within a Christian congregation should not solely depend on words of the pastor, and certainly not the content of one sermon.

When I served as a pastor of a congregation in the Presbyterian Church USA, I emphasized to new members that the church is different from a social club. Church is not about collecting dues and giving services, but making disciples and living in a community of faith together. Members--and their pastors--will and must disagree. In most Christian traditions, pastors will come and go from congregations, but members will stay put, staying faithful to God's call for them there. I'd love to have a public discussion about what church membership means and about whether members must agree with every word they hear from the pulpit to stay committed to their church.

We also need more opportunities for dialog on race in our culture today. Candidate Obama used the Rev. Wright furor to give a fine speech on May 18, 2008 in Philadelphia, PA. In "A More Perfect Union," Obama spoke of the challenges the US still faces concerning complex questions of race, identity, family, and friendship. For a brief moment in 2008, the conversation about race and prejudice in our country was elevated. I long for more spaces to speak honestly about personal experiences with race, especially narratives and viewpoints different from my own.

Certainly, we would benefit also from learning about one another's religion. "Black liberation theology," the area Christian theology demonized by critics of Rev. Wright, has much to teach Christians of all races, whether or not we agree with its every application. The fact that 11:00 Sunday morning is still our most segregated hour deserves serious contemplation. Surely we would also benefit from an adult conversation about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith. How better to love our neighbors than by growing to understand their faith traditions more fully?

Of course, my dream of enlightened public conversation rather than shouting talking heads is unrealistic. Political debates these days tend to be races to the gutter. Elevated conversation is hard to come by. Compromise is out; sharp lines of distinction are in. But, as the political camps throw mud this week over a super PAC ad campaign that hasn't even run, close your eyes and dream for a moment about an America that rose to the occasion.