NEW YORK--Do white right-wing preachers have it easier than black left-wing preachers? Is there a double standard?
The political explosion around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was inevitable, given Wright's personal closeness to Barack Obama and the outrageous rubbish the pastor has offered about AIDS, 9/11 and Louis Farrakhan.
After Wright's bizarre and narcissistic performance at the National Press Club on Monday, Obama would have looked weak and irresolute had he not denounced him. But if there was a moment of courage in this drama, it was not Obama's condemnation of Wright but his earlier and now much-criticized effort to avoid a complete break with his unapologetic pastor.
In March, Obama tried to explain the anger in the black community and insisted that "to condemn it without understanding its roots only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."
In light of this racial gap, it's worth pondering why white, right-wing preachers who make ridiculous and sometimes shameful statements usually emerge with their influence intact.
The catalogue goes back to Bailey Smith, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Speaking at a 1980 religious convention that was also addressed by Ronald Reagan, Smith declared that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew."
Reagan later asserted that he thought Jewish prayers were answered, but was less than definitive: "Everyone can make his own interpretation of the Bible," the Gipper said, "and many individuals have been making differing interpretations for a long time."
Two days after the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Falwell, appearing on Pat Robertson's "700 Club," declared: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"
Robertson replied: "Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And the top people, of course, is the court system."
To their credit, many conservatives condemned Falwell and Robertson. The ministers backed away from their words, but Falwell's retraction was, at best, partial. "When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture," Falwell insisted, "the result is not good."
What's telling is that neither preacher lost sway in Republican circles. Before Falwell's death last year, John McCain actively courted his support, and Rudy Giuliani, the hero of 9/11, welcomed Robertson's endorsement of his own candidacy. "His advice is invaluable," Giuliani said.
And, of course, there is the endorsement of McCain by the Rev. John Hagee, founder of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, who has called the Catholic Church "the great whore of Babylon" and "the anti-Christ."
It's entirely true that Wright's foolishness is a bigger deal because of his long-standing relationship with Obama. That's the view of John Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri and Episcopal priest who was here for a conference on religion and politics.
But in an interview, Danforth said that for a long time, the role of the religious right in Republican politics "did not get enough attention, "partly because so much of its activity occurred out of public view. "The way that it works is to get the people listening to you very angry," he said, "and you kind of whisper in their ears."
The Rev. William Danaher, a professor at the General Theological Seminary here, argued that left-wing preachers who are black draw more fire because their critique of American society tends to be more fundamental.
"The left black preacher is challenging the social structures that everyone lives in," Danaher said. "The white preachers on the right don't challenge these structures. Instead, they talk about issues of personal morality and individual behavior."
None of this absolves Wright. Allen Dwight Callahan, one of the nation's leading African-American scripture scholars, argued on the Web site of PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly that "prophets of old didn't announce their prophetic prerogatives at press conferences and press clubs" and that Wright "is wrong to wrap his recent media attention in the mantle of the prophetic tradition."
Exactly right. Now the question is whether we will be just as tough on false prophets who happen to be white and right wing.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.