When Barack Obama addressed the nation in his Philadelphia speech there was, as with a good sermon, enough in it to offend everyone. He reminded us of the flaw in our constitutional character, and hence of the fundamental flaw in our national identity. Politicians are meant to speak only of the flaws in their opponents, and when they venture away from that tried and true rhetoric they are likely to entertain trouble. In speaking to the twin toxic topics of race and religion in America, Mr. Obama was bound to cause offense; Emily Post was right when she banned those topics from polite conversation at the dinner table, and most politicians, unless otherwise compelled, tend to follow her advice in their campaigns. Presidential candidates run for office in order to run ‘America the Beautiful,’ forgetting that Katharine Lee Bates in her fourth verse asks God to “mend thine ev’ry flaw/Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law.” She was a brave woman to suggest that in the American ideal, to which her poem was in elegant dedication, there were flaws to be mended; and although ‘America the Beautiful’ did not make the cut as our country’s National Anthem, it should have.
It was in the spirit of ‘America the Beautiful’ that Mr. Obama spoke in Philadelphia, and his view of America was no less patriotic than was that of Katharine Lee Bates. Honesty is rare in public political discourse, not because it is in the nature of politicians to be untruthful but because they do not sufficiently trust the American people to believe in their capacity to handle the truth, especially when it is ambiguous and difficult. It is in this way that Obama and his Philadelphia speech stand apart from so much of our public talk. He took the considerable risk of trusting the American people to take his words seriously, to gaze into the tortured history of race in this country, and to move beyond the dividing bitterness of our time with a candor both hopeful and refreshing.
How easy and cowardly it would have been to disown the preaching of his former pastor. Those of us who preach are flattered to think that someone might believe we would have some influence on the thinking of anybody, let alone on a candidate for the highest office in the land, for most of us are tolerated, patronized, and ignored. Can anyone name the last presidential pastor whose sermonic influence affected policy in the White House? It may surprise many in white America, for whom Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only black preacher of whom they have ever heard, to learn that there are a lot of Jeremiah Wrights out there who week after week give expression to that classic definition of prophetic preaching that is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” What would one expect of a black preacher whose Christian name is Jeremiah? The surprise is that there are not more Jeremiah Wrights who, from the view of their own pulpits, indict America for the failure to live into its own heroic vision of all people.
While I could not possibly agree with everything that Jeremiah Wright says, I do know that when a preacher, especially a black urban preacher, fails to speak truth to power and refuses to speak of what is wrong in the ardent hope of making it right, that preacher is, in Milton’s words, a “blind mouth,” and a repudiation of God’s solemn call to him. Preachers, despite much evidence to the contrary, are not called to celebrate the status quo, even an American status quo, and when they do their job properly they call us all to a higher standard. Preachers are not perfect, nor are they the only people allowed to be credible critics of our time and place, but they are among the very few whose vocation it is to make us aspire to something other than the status quo. For too long we have made God an ally in the American way; the highest standards of preaching in America require that we should seek to be God’s ally, helping God and one another to create a world in which we seek to live as God would have us live. To criticize America is not a sin, but it is a sin to mistake America for God, and it is both sin and dereliction of duty to fail to note the difference.
Perhaps few of us would be comfortable sitting weekly under the preaching of Jeremiah Wright, and certainly few enjoyed the exhortations of his namesake. Perhaps, if there is good to be found in this current tempest, it is that we can listen with edification to his young parishioner who has articulated a vision that goes beyond the politics of bitterness and revenge.
An honest and ongoing conversation about religion and race in America is long overdue, and too important to be left to the talk-show hosts and political spin-doctors. While it would be nice to put behind us the rancor and anxiety that surrounds Obama’s so-called ‘pastor problem,’ I hope we can allow that genuine conversation to begin. Few other people in our public life are better poised to help us in this delicate but necessary discourse than Obama, and we all have much to learn from him and from each other. If out of all of this we become a people of thinking hearts and loving minds, seeking to appeal to the better angels of our nature, then this could be the best election season we have so far endured. If so, we will have Obama to thank for it.
Peter J. Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church, Harvard University, and a best-selling author.