On Guilt by Association

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Guilt by association is an integral part of presidential campaigns. Candidates hire staff and hunt for supporters far and wide. They seek to bask in whatever glow those associated with their candidacies can shed. And when a supporter casts a negative light–as will inevitably happen–they can’t pretend it’s irrelevant to the enterprise. The only question for the candidate is how to unload the burden of guilt in the quickest and least costly way. Remarks can be renounced, staffers can be fired, honorary or voluntary positions can be terminated, relatives can be kept under wraps or otherwise quieted (see Clinton, Bill).
Among those associated with presidential campaigns, religious figures are a distinct type. Over the past generation, GOP candidates have needed to make the clerical rounds, assuring evangelical pastors that they are men of faith and seeking one or another kind of clerical endorsement. So accustomed have Americans become to such maneuverings, that little criticism attaches to a presidential aspirant when a familiar culture warrior like Pat Robertson or James Dobson supplies an anointing. John Hagee’s endorsement of John McCain would have gone largely unnoticed had the Catholic League not raised its hue and cry.
On the Democratic side, there has not been the same sort of endorsement fest, even as Democratic candidates have begun to exercise their spiritual muscles on the hustings. Last fall, Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, publicly endorsed Barack Obama, and the Obama campaign in the state initially trumpeted his doing so; but it seemed to dawn on people that Robinson, a figure of international controversy, might not be the most effective poster boy for the Obama campaign, and anyway, that this business of clerical endorsements smacked too much of the hated religious right. The Democratic approach has been to make religious leaders into campaign advisers.
Which brings us to Jeremiah Wright. In the world of political associations, he is, for Barack Obama, something more like a family member than an endorser–and, indeed, Obama has spoken of him in these terms. Wright is the guy who brought Obama to Jesus, his and his family’s pastor for two decades. So his removal from the candidate’s African American Religious Leadership Committee, while helpful in terms of sending a public signal, hardly disposes of the connection between the two. (Nor did Obama, in denouncing Wright’s inflammatory remarks, claim that it did.) The underlying questions have to do with the meaning of the connection: Does Obama, despite all appearances to the contrary, share his pastor’s radical views? Or, if he does not share them, is he insufficiently troubled by them?
The answer to the first question seems to be no. The answer to the second depends on what you think a sufficiently troubled reaction should be. In both cases, a judicious determination ought to require a fuller understanding of Wright’s ministry than a few quotes and a YouTube clip can supply–as well as an appreciation of Obama’s views, as laid out in his autobiographical writings. If any other presidential candidate in American history has put his inner life on public view to the extent Obama has, I’m unaware of it.
Obama’s conservative critics will not let the Wright association disappear. For them, the pastor’s rhetorical damning of America, like Michelle Obama’s remarks about her newfound pride in America, point to an inexcusable absence of patriotism, of that civil religious embrace of the homeland that is essential for all aspirants to the presidency to manifest. It’s a cross Obama will continue to bear, gladly or otherwise. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the ancient tradition of the Jeremiad is a stock feature of American religious discourse–the criticism of America for not living up to its promise, the allocution that God is withholding His blessings because the country has, in this or that way, failed. Such denunciations issue still from across the American religious spectrum. And Wright’s Christian name, of course, is Jeremiah.