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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Am I my Pastor’s (Priest’s, Rabbi’s) Keeper?

I must confess that I simply do not understand the Reverend Wright “controversy,” at least as it purports to say something about Barack Obama. Maybe I’m out of touch with ordinary, mainstream media pundits and political operatives. But, since when did a candidate become responsible for all the past statements and views of others to whom he or she is, or has been, connected?

Last night’s twenty-first Democratic debate featured two sets of questions directed to Obama about his associations: first, a re-run of the Rev. Wright affair, and second questions about his tenuous connections to a University of Illinois, Chicago professor who was a former member of the Weather Underground. When a person is a member of a candidate’s campaign, then I understand having to answer for their statements to some degree. Even then, when Samantha Power in an unguarded, off-the-record, moment called Hillary a monster, that did not mean that Obama would do the same, or holds the same opinion of Hillary. Nonetheless, it is appropriate for Prof. Power to resign to signal that her gaff does not reflect the views of Obama or his campaign as a whole.

But Rev. Wright does not speak for the campaign. He speaks for himself as pastor of a church. So why is Obama being held accountable?

My best guest is that this whole affair is a mask for suspicion of the black church, and therefore suspicion of Obama as a black man. Perhaps for many whites, black churches, having nurtured the civil rights movement, retain a level of suspicion. What political views do they express, or what social movement might they initiate? So when Rev. Wright provides political commentary on his view of the state of America, some white voters, and mainstream media pundits, are suspicious. Of what? That Obama is a black man, nurtured in a black church, who may hold views, and associate with people who hold views, that may be disruptive of some image of the proper social order (which also compels candidates to wear flag lapel pins, lest their patriotism be questioned). From last night’s debate, one would have little indication that Obama had given an extended speech that attempted to address many of these suppressed issues on race in an eloquent and authentic way. Nuance and understanding are erased so that Charles Gibson can repeat the questions about, and thereby insinuate the responsibility for, another person’s views.

But what kind of principle or rule does holding Obama responsible for the statements of his Pastor create? What is the scope of a candidate’s, or a person’s, responsibility for the views and actions of others with whom he or she associates? Apparently, the scope of this rule is quite expansive, since Stephanopoulos asked Obama to answer for his tenuous association with a former member of the Weather Underground. It appears that they both sat on the board of a charity together. Do we really want to hold candidates accountable for the views and actions of others with whom they have professional contact in this manner? This strikes me as patently absurd, and politically dangerous. It also sounds eerily similar to other guilt by association questions: are you, or have you ever been, associated with a member of the X party. (Or, imagine a similar line of questioning directed towards Sen. Clinton: Senator, as we all know your husband lied to the American people and lied under oath, are you willing to distance yourself from your husband, nay are you willing to repudiate him and his dishonesty? Such a question would be equally absurd.). Of course, we do learn something about a person by the friends he or she has. So I’m not suggesting that the company a candidate keeps is entirely irrelevant. The Rev. Wright affair, however, does seem to take such considerations to an entirely new level, especially given its connection to religious belief and practice. One's religious leader probably expresses many views with which one agrees, but many with which one does not. That is often the nature of religious practice.

One further thought. The new rule also makes all of us academic types infinitely suspicious too. We tend to associate with others who hold views with which we disagree, and we even like it. That must make us an awfully suspicious lot. Though I might like our intellectual disagreements, I don't want to have to answer for the views of others. It is difficult enough answering for my own.

Posted by Tommy Crocker on April 17, 2008 at 12:20 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Tommy: My inclination is still to say that a religious follower's connection to the words of his religious leader feels qualitatively different to me than those of an academic mentor. But I am non-religious and generally biased against faith (the whole concept of faith -- following or believing without proof -- irks me), so I could certainly be off on that.

(And to clarify, I was never suggesting that Obama should be held to Wright's words -- just that, as a general matter, I think it is slightly more complicated with religious relationships [i.e., religious followers and the words of their religious leaders as religious leadership are marginally less severable than anything comparable in a non-religious context]. I certainly do not think it fair to pin Obama's pastor's words on the senator. But where do you draw the line? The Bible, the Torah, the Pope, the LDS church? That Scientology stuff that Tom Cruise does? If you adopt a religion, at some point it's fair to associate you with its tenets, isn't it?)

Posted by: joe | Apr 17, 2008 10:17:03 PM

i think because of the longstanding connection with Rev. Wright--and because of the nature of that connection (moral compass and all that)--that questions regarding Obama's thoughts on Wright's controverserial comments at the outset were appropriate. and he responded, brilliantly, i thought, in his race speech in Philly. to my knowledge, Rev. Wright doesn't campaign for Obama, or does he?

President Clinton, on the other hand, has campaigned for Senator Clinton. this makes his gaffs fair game as they relate to her positions, beliefs, moral compass. why, for example, a large contingency of women have not made more of her conflicting positions on gender (stand by your man, don't stand by your man) is a mystery to me. if the media ever was kinder to Obama than to Clinton--a specious claim to begin with--they surely have changed positions.

Posted by: adjunct whore | Apr 17, 2008 3:10:21 PM

Thanks, Joe and David. You make fair points about why the nature of the connection to Rev. Wright is relevant. One seeks guidance from religious leaders, and Obama has held out his relation to Rev. Wright as significant to his life. Thus, the Wright affair has relevance. Nonetheless, I remain unconvinced that the conclusion follows.

Let’s imagine that Obama had studied with Professors Unger and Kennedy at HLS, both critical legal studies scholars, and has held them out as intellectual influences. Let’s imagine then that they both make statements during various public lectures saying that we live in a dictatorship, especially after Bush v. Gore (something Sandy Levinson says, and something similar to what Jack Balkin says, and his actual mentor, Laurence Tribe, has been highly critical of the Court for B v. G). Further imagine that they each phrase their views in hyperbolic ways caught on tape, though Obama did not attend the lectures, which when played widely offend some Americans and media types. Now, is Obama required to repudiate his former mentors? Must he go even further and repudiate the institution that allows them to say such things, perhaps returning his law degree to HLS? Just as there are suggestions that he should have found a new church, must Obama have transferred to a new law school? Nonesense. If asked about their inflammatory comments, he should be able to say that he respects their body of work, their intellectual vigor, and the instruction they give their students, but that he does not agree with those particular statements. Shouldn’t that be the end of it (if it was ever relevant to ask Obama about the statements in the first place, which I don’t think it would have been)? Isn't this what he has already more than amply done regarding Rev. Wright?

For someone who holds himself out as having expertise in constitutional law and American government, it would seem that the views of his intellectual mentors would be even more relevant than his Pastor’s, since Obama does not hold himself out as having expertise in religious matters. Yet, I would press the point, we are not responsible for the views and statements of our teachers (especially in a political contest), even those teachers who have profoundly influenced our intellectual development. It strikes me as absurd to suggest otherwise. The only way one can get leverage here would be if over a lifetime, or a significant body of work, the mentor was revealed to be a systemic bigot, a Nazi, etc. Notice the taint that attends Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt for their Nazi sympathies and affiliations. So a student of such a person would more likely have to answer for the relation. Perhaps John Yoo’s associates and students may have to answer for their views on torture in the future. But this situation is not what’s at stake with the Wright affair or my HLS hypothetical.

Posted by: Tommy Crocker | Apr 17, 2008 3:07:48 PM

The issue with Rev. Wright is that Obama held him up for some time as a person who was important to his life, and who he respected. This isn't guilt by association in the sense of picking a random person that Obama may have encountered once or twice in his life (which is why this Weather Underground connection to me seems foolish). I don't think it is a stretch for people to question Obama's decision-making in continuing to go to a church where the Reverend made the comments he did (whether the comments themselves were all they have been made out to be is a different matter).

Posted by: David | Apr 17, 2008 1:56:11 PM

I do think that a lot of the backlash was really caused by "suspicion of the black church." I also don't even think Rev. Wright said anything worth getting so worked up about.

That said, isn't the relationship between a churchgoer and his pastor potentially different than all of those other connections you mention because, at least arguably, the relationship is largely based on believing what one's religious leader says? You argue with your colleagues, you love your spouse, but you go to temple in order to obtain your rabbi's guidance and wisdom, no?

Posted by: joe | Apr 17, 2008 12:34:17 PM

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