I HAVE known my rabbi for more than 20 years. The synagogue he serves as spiritual leader is one I have attended for a quarter-century. He officiated at my wedding and was present for the circumcision of each of my sons. Over the years, I have sought his advice on matters private and public, religious and secular. I have heard him speak from the pulpit more times than I can remember.
My relationship with my rabbi, in other words, is similar in many respects to Barack Obama's relationship with his longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright. But if my rabbi began delivering sermons as toxic, hate-filled, and anti-American as the diatribes Wright has preached at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, I wouldn't hesitate to demand that he be dismissed.
Were my rabbi to gloat that America got its just desserts on 9/11, or to claim that the US government invented AIDS as an instrument of genocide, or to urge his congregants to sing "God Damn America" instead of "God Bless America," I would know about it straightaway, even if I hadn't actually been in the sanctuary when he spoke. The news would spread rapidly through the congregation, and in short order one of two things would happen: Either the rabbi would be gone, or I and scores of others would walk out, unwilling to remain in a house of worship that tolerated such poisonous teachings. I have no doubt that the same would be true for millions of worshipers in countless houses of worship nationwide.
But it wasn't true for Obama, whose long and admiring relationship with Wright, a man he describes as his "mentor", remained intact for more than 20 years, notwithstanding the incendiary and bigoted messages the minister used his pulpit to promote.
In Philadelphia yesterday, Obama gave a graceful speech on the theme of race and unity in American life. Much of what he said was eloquent and stirring, not least his opening paean to the Founders and the Constitution - a document "stained by the nation's original sin of slavery," as he said, yet also one "that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time." There was an echo there of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who in his great "I Have a Dream" speech extolled "the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence" as "a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir."
The problem for Obama is that Wright, the spiritual leader he has so long embraced, is a devotee not of King, - who in that same speech warned against "drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred" - but of the poisonous hatemonger Louis Farrakhan, whom the church's magazine honored with a lifetime achievement award. The problem for Obama, who campaigns on a message of racial reconciliation, is that the "mentor" whose church he joined and has generously supported is a disciple not of King but of James Cone, founder of a "black liberation" theology that teaches its adherents to "accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy."
Above all, the problem for Obama is that for two decades his spiritual home has been a church in which the minister damns America to the enthusiastic approval of the congregation, and not until it threatened to scuttle his political ambitions did Obama finally find the mettle to condemn the minister's odium.
When Don Imus uttered his infamous slur on the radio last year, Obama cut him no slack. Imus should be fired, he said. "There's nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made a comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group."
When it came to Wright, however, he wasn't nearly so categorical. Oh, he's "like an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with," Obama indulgently explained to one interviewer. He's just "trying to be provocative," he told another." Far from severing his ties to Wright, Obama made him a member of his Religious Leadership Committee -- a tie he finally cut only four days ago."
Such a clanging double standard raises doubts about Obama's character and judgment, and about his fitness for the role of race-transcending healer. Yesterday's speech was finely crafted, but it leaves some troubling questions unanswered.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is [email protected].