Monday, March 24, 2008

Obama Is Held to Different Standard for Supporter's Offensive Comments

If you turned on CNN or Fox News in the last week, you would think that Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to get support from a wacko religious leader.

In 2004, George W. Bush accepted the endorsement of Rev. Pat Robertson, and yet CNN and Fox News didn't play endless clips of this exchange between Rev. Jerry Falwell and Robertson on the September 13, 2001 edition of the "700 Club" after the 9/11 terrorist attacks:

Falwell: "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: "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."

Falwell: "Pat, did you notice yesterday the ACLU and all the Christ-haters, People For the American Way, NOW, etc. were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress as they went out on the steps and called out onto God in prayer and sang 'God Bless America' and said 'let the ACLU be hanged.'"

Are Falwell and Robertson's words any better than what Rev. Jeremiah Wright said?

Even in 2008, Obama is not the only candidate to take the endorsement of a loony religious leader. Rev. John Hagee had this to say about Hurricane Katrina:

"All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans."

Looking for something not about homosexuals? Well, how about this Hagee gem:

"The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ."

And yet, John McCain, had no trouble accepting Hagee's endorsement, even after he was informed of Hagee's views. McCain responded, "all I can tell you is that I am very proud to have Pastor John Hagee's support."

If you believe that candidates are responsible for the statements of religious leaders from whom they accept endorsements, well, then the idea of a potential commander in chief finding common ground with a guy hell-bent on going to war with Iran because it will bring about the end of the world might just be a wee-bit cause for concern, no?

Okay, before you right wingers start sentencing me to forced viewing of Bill O'Reilly's idiotic show, I admit that, yes, you can make an argument that accepting an endorsement is less severe than joining a church and having that church's pastor become a part of your spiritual life. I get it. But I would ask this question in response: Does anyone really believe that this distinction is the reason Obama is getting pounded by the media?

Let's face it: As Obama alluded to in his brilliant speech last Tuesday (I recommend you read it in its entirety, which I reprinted here), many religious leaders make political statements that their followers may not agree with. And how many people in pews stand up to challenge the speaker or leave the church, synagogue or mosque over it?

No, if we are completely honest about this whole issue, we know what the furor over Wright's statements is all about: Playing on Americans' fears of African-American anger. It's about reminding voters of all the charged and difficult issues surrounding race, and digging into their inner fears and biases that come with the topic. The manipulation of Americans using the Wright videos is more insidious, and more damaging to the American psyche, than anything Wright himself said. I'm not supporting his words at all. On the contrary, I'm saying that as wrong-headed as Wright is, using his words as a way of intentionally playing on nearly 400 years of racial history in this country to scare white voters away from Obama is even more damaging to any hope of national unity.

The irony of the Wright flap is that Obama's campaign (and, you can even argue, his life) has stood as an antidote to the divisive approach to race taken by people like Wright, and even as proof that Wright is wrong in his bleak outlook of race in America. A friend of mine sent me an interesting Chicago Tribune article by Steve Chapman that makes the point that if Wright believes everything he says, why is he supporting a candidate like Obama who rejects Wright's pessimistic, backward-looking view of race relations in the United States?

Reduced to its basics (which is always dangerous, but, in this case, not inaccurate), Obama is seeing such a strong wave of backlash because he and Wright are black. Americans are less afraid of white religious fanatics like Hagee and Robertson. And for the media to treat the issue so inequitably is shameful.

It would seem that different parties have different agendas for keeping the Wright story in the news cycle. The campaigns of McCain and Hillary Clinton can use the issue as a way of winning votes (a McCain staffer was disciplined for publicizing a Wright video). And the news media (especially CNN) apparently believes that showing the inflammatory images is a way of getting viewers. Why else would the network seem to have Wright on an endless loop? Even this morning, as John Roberts interviewed a political pundit, the video of Wright, gesticulating wildly on the pulpit, ran side-by-side with the talking head. What is the news value of the Wright footage? I would argue it has none. But like the images of a car wreck or police chase, it attracts viewers. Or at least CNN seems to think it does.

Instead of pounding the story into the pavement, maybe it's time for the news outlets to investigate McCain's wacky religious supporters. (I would prefer that CNN publicize the issues and the records of the candidates, but we know that issues are just too boring to discuss when there is a viewer-generating faux scandal that can be fomented instead!) Maybe the American people would see that Obama isn't the only candidate with an out-of-the-mainstream religious leader backing his candidacy. And then, just maybe, we can move on from the whole Wright issue.