The power of the preacher is an unmeasured force in American life. Of course, now that it has become an issue in a political campaign, we are focusing on the one minister and the one candidate whose lives at church have been intertwined both in fact and in the public eye. The two men are each charismatic in their own ways, different ways, as anyone who has seen them speak (if even just on television or on syncopated and, thus, distorted YouTube clips) can attest.
Barack Obama speaks in a professorial manner in which the logic of his argument, calmly laid out, is the drama of the oration. I have my own analogy. Of course, I never heard Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. speak. But I read into his addresses and opinions the moral and legal ganglion of more than seven decades of our national history, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. And I hear in Obama's cadence not only what makes him attractive to audiences but also something very much like Holmes's disciplined thinking, and it is this that makes this presidential aspirant truly eloquent. In only a decade in public life, he has become the (oh yes, gangling) ganglion of our hopes for a post-racial country. It is ironic--isn't it?--that we should have come so quickly to the dawn of post-racialism while still lumbering clumsily through the miasma of a misnamed multi-culturalism.
We are all linked to the places from which we came, though some of us have moved very far from them. My relationship to the different rabbis whose sermons I have not just heard, but heard intently over more than 50 years, would make a very difficult narrative--not quite as difficult as a narrative about my father and me, but up there. I now attend a synagogue in New York with my children and my grandson. I love the synagogue; I do not love the rabbis for I do not really know them personally. More to the point, I do not love their sermons. Two years ago, Yom Kippur, the rabbi parsed a banal speech by Bella Abzug, the old and (if truth be told) faithful red mama, as if it were a sacred text. Feh. One of this congregation's ingenuous innovations to the routine confessional of sins ("We lie. We cheat ...") in the prayer book is the following: "We rush towards war and crawl to peace." This is a lie! Why do I still pray with this assembly? Because, aside from the offending "hip" politics of the rabbis, there is an all-embracing warmth that suffuses the fold. There is beautiful music. The service is almost all in Hebrew. Still, my then-not-quite-four year-old grandson said to me on the way out, "I have never felt closer to God." Dayenu, as we say on Passover: "It is sufficient." Or, as one of the songs of the tradition known to almost every Jew puts it, Hinay ma tov ... : "How good it is for brothers to sit together ...".
OK, Barack Obama's predicament is more complicated than mine. Remember he titled one of his books Dreams From My Father. I suspect that most of Obama's operative dreams came from his mother. After all, his father deserted him, the common nightmare of African American youth. (Increasingly also white youth.) That is a thread that connects Obama to his own generation of African Americans and to the next. His father did not inspire him to work hard at school or to become the editor of the Harvard Law Review. The supportive and yearning parent was his mother and, by extension, his maternal grandparents. They are his dreams, and his father is the absent yearning.
Obama's life was at once over-determined and under-determined. There are so many boxes he could have checked, and it is not altogether unsurprising that the one he checked most firmly was his father's box. I more than suspect that Pastor Jeremiah Wright is, in Obama's life, also his father's vagrant presence. No one should arrogate to himself counseling anybody to sever ties, even fragile ones, perhaps fragile ones especially, to one's father. Of course, it makes a difference that Obama's father was not an American but a Kenyan, not of a Christian background but a Muslim one. But the psychology of connection and separation is not an easy puzzle, and it does not fit a predictable pattern. Nonetheless, suffice it to say that it exists.
The fact is that many of us were astonished by the rhythm of the English language as it is practiced in Wright's church. Forget for the moment the content. Take a look at a service in what is now Otis Moss's church. This is a Christianity that seems to outsiders to have as much to do with break dancing as it does with the New Testament, and the culture of this one church is very much like the culture of thousands all over America. You may puzzle as to how Barack Obama, of the quiet demeanor and the Holmesian logic, can relate to this pattern of religiosity. But, if I may jog your oversensitized memory, there was more of Chicago's Trinity United Church in Martin Luther King's perorations than there was Reinhold Niebuhr. The typical black church service is not a Unitarian prayer meeting or Catholic devotions. It is something "other" that many of us have not experienced and do not know. It is not ours but theirs. And what's wrong with that?
You object: You were not caught out by Wright's rhythm or his vestments, by the congregation's hallelujahs or its songs of praise and prayer. What bothered you was his, their words. Mostly his, that is, Pastor Wright's words. You were concerned by the content. And so, at least in part, was I. Wright's content is not intellectually nuanced, and his words are in large measure crude. His content is often foul.
Of course, while one can assume that there is something in the style of Trinity's Christianity that attracts Obama, no one has even suggested that Obama agrees with any of Wright's controversial words. In fact, one knows from the senator's own words past and present that his love of country is unsurpassed--and unsurpassed in a way that will attract younger people who had lapsed into an unthinking and unrealistic internationalism.
Leaving a church is never a simple transaction. Episcopalians in America (and Anglicans elsewhere) have had all kinds of provocations. A gay bishop in New Hampshire has virtually split the communion. Some are secessionists because of Gene Robinson's elevation. Some want to stay and fight it. Others want to put the oppositionists to the fire. Some on the outs want to put themselves under the discipline of a religiously conservative African diocese. Mostly, they stay and grumble, one way or another. A similar process is underway in England, where suddenly the archbishop of Canterbury wants British Muslims to be permitted to live under Sharia law and forgo the liberties of British law. A church with leaders like that is bound to have troubles. But the church, big and small, national and local, will remain.
While pondering Obama's tribulations about his pastor, I also reflected about the far more laden crisis for Roman Catholic politicians who are for a woman's legal right to an abortion. Every so often, church authorities threaten to excommunicate them--a drastic act by a bishop or archbishop in his diocese. But it goes higher than that. On his trip to Latin America last year, for example, Pope Benedict approved a statement pronouncing that "legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist," and politicians who vote that way should "exclude themselves from communion." In 2004, Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said pro-choice politicians like John Kerry “shouldn't dare come to Communion." In any case, the position of the church is that such politicians have already excommunicated themselves. This is a far more urgent situation than the one in which Obama finds himself.
Frankly, I am relieved that the Wright convulsion has not focused on Israel and the Jews. This is not, then, what some non-Jews might think of as a "narrow" matter. But the truth is that Obama has a much clearer grasp of what the Jewish state faces than the common-place statements of support from other "pro-Israel" politicians, an erroneous view that almost ineluctably, in Obama's words, "sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." I trust Obama on this. I already know what strategic concessions Hillary's husband was ready to coerce Israel into giving to Yasir Arafat, who was dumb enough not to take them.
But there is a new game in town, and it is finding men and women for Obama to repudiate. I know about political campaigns and how they attract both fossils and novices. A new candidate lures more of both than a veteran. Indeed, if you look at Mrs. Clinton's campaign, you'll find that there are almost no fresh faces--and, thus, no fresh minds--in the coterie; and it is a coterie. It is a closed and nasty circle which learned its bad habits from Bill. That's why they are making one mistake after another. The rule is: Never be gracious if you have the chance to be vicious. The non plus ultra of this style was the still greedy ex-president suggesting that, while his wife loved her country, Obama didn't love his.
The other malignant chores can be safely left by the Clintons for the journalistic right to perform. Both The Weekly Standard and Commentary will readily comply. Of course, the fantasy that Zbigniew Brzezinski would return to power or even influence is just that, a fantasy. Zbig is too nostalgic for the old Cold War with Russia for any president to allow him to come close to big power diplomacy. He once confided to me that Saddam Hussein would be to him “what Sadat was to Henry.” Oh my. Obama might have thought him smart on Iraq (I do not) and brought him along to a speech on the subject in Iowa. But, frankly, Zbig disqualified himself from influence on the Middle East with all but poor Jimmy Carter, whom he persuaded that the Ayatollah Khomeini was a useful tool against the Soviets.
And on Monday, there emerged in The American Spectator the silly sayings of the hardly satanic figure of General Merrill A. “Tony” McPeak who has said (a) that Israel wants peace (something he's not sure about the Palestinians) and (b) that voters in Miami and New York determine American policy in the Arab world. With the latter statement, McPeak goes beyond even Walt and Mearsheimer. It is odious. And I fervently hope that his advice is limited to matters of defense, if that. But if conservatives believe that the candidates are vulnerable to the invidious influence of their supporters on Israel policy, let them ponder the sway of James Baker over John McCain, the candidate whom the "fuck the Jews" secretary of state endorsed.
My point is not to impugn McCain. I trust him on Israel, admire him hugely and could even envision casting a vote for him. But every candidate has noxious supporters and it is simply illogical and unfair to impute the views of these supporters to their favored candidate, especially when the candidate clearly disagrees.
And if we're talking about comparing the Middle East policies of the campaigns, let's dwell one last moment on the Clintons and their fortunes. By fortunes, I mean their bank account. The couple doesn't hesitate to take money from the princes and petroleum potentates of the Middle East--for the presidential library, as a fee for speeches. Unfortunately, what we know now about this is what we have deduced. They are keeping the rest secret until the last possible moment. Then we will be aware of the extent to which they are indentured.
Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic.
By Martin Peretz