Everyone has been talking about Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race and religion (transcript, video). I don’t know that I have much to add to what’s already been said by others, but I will share a few thoughts.
1. Low on substance. Obama is a great speech-maker. His rhetoric is top-notch. But I don’t think the substance of the speech really amounted to much. Obama admitted that he knew about Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s extremist views, but he didn’t do much to explain why he nevertheless enlisted him as an advisor. Wright says that “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” How could Obama attend Wright’s church for 20 years and give money to support this kind of message? For me, the problem with Obama’s relationship to Wright has nothing to do with race. The problem is the specious and harmful ideology of one of Obama’s closest spiritual advisors. The speech does nothing to allay that concern.
2. Overblown reaction in the media. The talking heads of the media have been heaping praise on the speech from the moment Obama stepped away from the podium. Chris Matthews said it “the best speech ever given on race in this country.” The editors at the New York Times put the speech in the rarefied company of Abraham Lincoln’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural addresses and John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on religion. The editors at the Washington Post called the speech an “extraordinary moment of truth-telling.” I think these glowing assessments are overblown. No one can possibly know what the long-term impact of a speech will be on the day that it is given. Those who have already concluded it to be one of the “best” in American history reveal more about their political biases than they do about what the real legacy of this speech will be.
‘Obama’s excellent and important speech on race in America did little to address his strange tolerance for the anti-Americanism of his spiritual mentor.
‘Take an issue that Obama did not specifically confront yesterday. In a 2003 sermon, Wright claimed, “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”
‘This accusation does not make Wright, as Obama would have it, an “occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy.” It makes Wright a dangerous man. He has casually accused America of one of the most monstrous crimes in history, perpetrated by a conspiracy of medical Mengeles. If Wright believes what he said, he should urge the overthrow of the U.S. government, which he views as guilty of unspeakable evil. If I believed Wright were correct, I would join him in that cause.
‘But Wright’s accusation is batty, reflecting a sputtering, incoherent hatred for America. And his pastoral teaching may put lives at risk because the virus that causes AIDS spreads more readily in an atmosphere of denial, quack science and conspiracy theories.’
4. The issues. This speech does nothing to change the fact that Obama is still painfully wrong about some of the most important issues of our time. Chief in my mind is the fact that Obama continues to support the immoral regime of Roe v. Wade, a ruling that has been disproportionately destructive towards African-American babies. As John Piper has noted, “The African-American population in America is about 14% of the whole. But African American babies account for about 33% of the lives lost in abortion. 74% in Washington DC, 62% in Mississippi, 52% in New York City, 50% in Georgia.” How does Obama’s speech change these realities?
5. Theology. It is well-known that Reverend Jeremiah Wright is a proponent of what is called “Black Liberation Theology.” In my view, Liberation Theology is a dangerous aberration. The version espoused by Wright is perhaps even more dangerous. Does Senator Obama hold to Black Liberation Theology?