Barack Obama gave a brilliant speech in Philadelphia last Tuesday in response to inflammatory video clips of Reverend Jeremiah Wright that flooded the airwaves over the prior weekend. His speech was remarkable for its insights on race relations which have plagued America throughout its history. Obama is uniquely qualified to expound on those troubled relations, being the product of a white American mother and a truly African-American father.
One of Obama's great strengths is that he is a post-civil rights candidate and black man, who has premised his candidacy on the promise of transcending race. He is not a victim of the injustices of segregation and Jim Crow laws; rather, he is a shining example of everything that is right and good about America, her promises and possibilities. Only in America could Obama use his formidable intelligence, skill and personality to rise to those heights where he is now perched.
It is that America which had a place for him as the first black president of The Harvard Law Review, arguably the most prestigious Law Review in the country. And it is that America, itself maturing and looking more like the mosaic of peoples and colors which it represents that is seriously considering Barack Obama as its first African-American president.
This is precisely why his close association with Reverend Wright and his refusal to sever those ties and leave Trinity Church is all the more troubling. Tuesday's speech was a landmark oratory on the painful legacy of race in America, from a man who understands racial sensitivities from both sides of the divide. He once again proved why he is uniquely equipped to lead America into the future in many important ways. Everything was on the money except for how he handled the issue that propelled him to make the speech in the first place: what to do about Reverend Wright.
It's true that the cherry-picked excerpts from Wright's now infamous sermons need to be seen and understood in a larger context. But his remarks from the pulpit five days following September 11th, even if initially uttered by Edward Peck, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq on Fox News, reflect a gross insensitivity to the newly dead victims, some of whom still lay under the smoldering rubble at Ground Zero. And some of Reverend Wright's remarks, no matter how generous an interpretation we accord them, are simply beyond the pale of civilized discourse in America. In Obama's own words during Tuesday's speech, he notes that
"the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country--a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that 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."
And yet Obama still cannot find it in himself to do what would be the truly courageous thing and say that as painful and difficult as it is, I must sever my ties with this former spiritual mentor of mine. Perhaps it is because Obama finds himself in an insuperable dilemma of his own making. He has called Wright his inspiration and as recently as January 2007, he told the Chicago Tribune:
"What I most value about Pastor Wright is not his day to day political advice. He's much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I'm not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that's involved in national politics."
That is the same man whom Obama now tells us he strongly disagrees with and whom he has publicly censured. Yet until the recent firestorm, Obama has seen Wright as a central figure in his life, a spiritual mentor and guide. And what is a spiritual advisor if not someone who imparts the totality of his worldview? And if that worldview is as tainted with bigotry and hysteria as any sober reading of many of Wright's sermons suggest, how can it not contaminate Obama's political worldview?
Obama may have initially selected Trinity Church as his place of worship for many reasons, and no doubt it has helped shore up his support and credibility within the black community of Chicago (and beyond) where he has done important work as a community activist and leader. But he is now playing on a national stage and he must assure all Americans, white, black, Muslim, and Asian of where he stands. That podium has no room for the likes of Reverend Wright, and Obama should say so unequivocally.
Obama can't continue to have it both ways. Pronouncing what is good and great about America is incompatible with maintaining an alliance with a man and a church that gave its most prestigious award last year, the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to a man it said "truly epitomized greatness," Louis Farrakhan. Without dwelling on the obvious, for most Americans, Farrakhan epitomizes racism, especially in its anti-Semitic manifestation. One only need ponder how it would be received if a Jewish presidential candidate had as his twenty-year long rabbi and spiritual mentor a religious leader who gave the synagogue's 'Man of the Year Award' to Meir Kahane.
Obama must clearly articulate to the American public where he chooses to align himself, if it is not already too late. And he must do this with more than words. He must take decisive actions, starting by severing his ties with Wright and publicly leaving Trinity to put to rest the nagging doubts that many of us still harbor. Those actions, even if largely symbolic, would truly reflect a 'profile in courage.' While words and ideas have enormous power and can inspire us to greatness, it is ultimately our actions that determine who we are and how we should be judged. Obama must still more fully answer the questions of who he is and what he stands for. Only decisive actions can accomplish that task.