The Jeremiah Wright Factor

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I've been slow on the uptake with the Jeremiah Wright issue because I don't just have a quippy joke to make about this. I'm unsure, in general, of what the standards we're supposed to apply to the political views of politicians' favored clergy. I have no idea what the rabbis at Temple Rodef Shalom (where I've gone to synagogue the past few High Holy Days) or at The Village Temple (where I had my bar mitzvah) think about political issues, but I assume I don't agree with them about everything, and certainly it'd be odd to drag up old statements made by any of the relevant rabbis about this or that and then ask me to either endorse the statement or repudiate the entire congregation.

By the same token, we don't assume that a politician who goes to mass wants to ban birth control nor do we ask Catholics who favored preventive war with Iraq to repudiate the Pope in order to prove their hawk bona fides. In short, we generally assume that a politician's stated political views express his or her position on political topics, and that affiliating with a religious congregation does not constitute an endorsement of everything the leaders of that congregation have ever said.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I see this as a basically trumped-up issue. Obama's enemies have put this Wright stuff out there in bad faith, not because they're genuinely uncertain as to what Obama thinks, but merely because they think it can hurt him electorally.

But of course they're right that it'll hurt him electorally because Obama's going to have a hard time explaining that I take to be the truth, namely that his relationship with Trinity has been a bit cynical from the beginning. After all, before Obama was a half-black guy running in a mostly white country he was a half-white guy running in a mostly black neighborhood. At that time, associating with a very large, influential, local church with black nationalist overtones was a clear political asset (it's also clear in his book that it made him, personally, feel "blacker" to belong to a slightly kitschy black church). Since emerging onto a larger stage, it's been the reverse and Obama's consistently sought to distance himself from Wright, disinviting him from his campaign's launch, analogizing him to a crazy uncle who you love but don't listen to, etc. The closest analogy would probably be to Hillary Clinton's inconsistent accounting of where she's from (bragging about midwestern roots when trying to win in Iowa, promptly forgetting those roots when explaining away a loss in Illinois, developing a sporadic affection for New York sports teams) -- banal, mildly cynical shifts of association as context changes.

This is why I don't, as an American citizen, worry that President Obama would be objectionable. But Americans take their religion seriously and aren't going to want to hear this story. So Obama's going to have to do some awkward further distancing.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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