This quote from Barack Obama’s speech today caught my attention:
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? [No, the question is why stay in for years after these remarks.] And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way…
This was neither the most politically significant nor the most moving of passages from Obama’s speech. But the question, “why not join another church,” which seems to be at the crux of the controversy, is more difficult and multifaceted than it might seem to those who have never personally confronted it.
What’s more, it’s a question that has some personal resonance to me as a devout and politically active individual. Years ago, I made clear to my childhood Rabbi that I did not care for his characterization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular what I felt was his dehumanization of Palestinian Arabs and his downplaying of their grievances. Demonization has no place in a house of worship. What’s more, I reasoned, a Rabbi has no business using his authority as a religious leader to make an essentially political point with no obvious connection to his community’s shared religious teachings and values. My objections were dismissed, so I pushed my family to find a new synagogue.
I’ll admit to being both radical and a touch hypocritical on these points. I cringe whenever Rabbis — or any religious leaders — demand political unity on from their congregants on the basis of religious values. Yet I applaud the more basic manifestations of religious values in the political sphere such as fighting poverty, creating peace, ending injustice and enhancing freedom. It’s a tricky and complicated distinction with which I still struggle.
In any case, tough customer that I am, I insisted that my family join a new synagogue that satisfies everyone. It was hardly that easy. No alternatives seemed to make sense. One synagogue lacked a substantial education program. Another was too small. Services were too long for my elderly grandmother at a third. A fourth synagogue featured no traditional music, through which my father finds connection to the community and fulfillment. And would any of us enjoy the High Holy Days without the familiar faces of our congregation to greet us?
Such is the plight of the consumer in today’s religious marketplace. It is a question of how much discomfort and discontinuity we are each willing to endure in order to find a spiritual home that may be slightly less misaligned with our values and beliefs.
I do not share this experience to excuse Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary comments or to support Obama’s continued membership in his church; in fact, I would have myself left the congregation regardless of any debt I felt to Rev. Wright or connection I had made to the congregation. I share it to suggest that we understand Obama’s tolerance of otherwise intolerable rhetoric not only in the context of race in America, as he suggests, but also in the context of his family’s pursuit of a broader set of spiritual and practical goals.
I hope readers will excuse this personal and faith-driven missive on a usually very wonky policy blog. I’ll admit that this post only touches on the periphery of issues raised by the Wright controversy and Obama’s speech today. That’s ok by me, so long as it sheds some light on one critical dimension of the nexus between faith and politics that will almost certainly be ignored by the chattering class. If it also nudges religious leaders away from demanding political conformity and injecting their personal political views — even tolerant ones — into their religious sermons, well, then so much the better.
— Scott Paul