Why Should Jeremiah Wright Be Off-Limits for Political Attacks?

There are plenty of pragmatic reasons Romney and the GOP should steer clear of the pastor. But there's no compelling moral reason that they must.

A 2008 ad run by an independent Republican group, the National Republican Trust PAC.

The reaction was swift to news that a conservative super PAC was considering ads that attacked President Obama by tying him to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial pastor whose church Obama attended in Chicago. A consensus was reached quickly: Such attacks are out of bounds. Mitt Romney's campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, said in a statement, "It's clear President Obama's team is running a campaign of character assassination. We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so." That wasn't enough for the Obama campaign. Campaign manager Jim Messina fumed in a statement, "Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party." By early afternoon, even Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who was funding the yet-to-be-approved campaign, had disavowed it.

But why?

The argument that Wright can't be discussed seems to rest on three premises. First is the Obama campaign's version, which seems to commit the logical fallacy of begging the question: It's immoral because it's immoral. Second, the Obamans and others contend that because John McCain refused to make Wright an issue, it must inherently be wrong to do so. Third, old-school political gentlemen's agreements frown on attacks on religion (as well as families). And underlying all of this is a suggestion that Wright can't be discussed because any conversation about him is inherently racist.

Plainly, none of these is convincing. Guilt-by-association arguments are weak. But no one disputes that Obama was a member of Wright's congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ. The title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope was taken from a Wright sermon. Candidate Obama felt the connection was close enough that he had to address it, something he did in his Philadelphia speech on race in American, widely hailed as one of his finest.

That speech is also a powerful retort to the idea that discussing race is automatically racist. Wright and Obama have both -- in their own, very different ways -- called on America to discuss race more openly, without sweeping old fissures and disagreements under the carpet. There's a very real danger that conversations about Wright will culminate in racism, but it's not automatic, it's not necessary, and it's not sufficient reason to abandon all discussion of racial politics in the U.S. Furthermore, contrary to popular perceptions, Wright's most controversial statements -- "God damn America" and a claim that 9/11 represented "America's chickens ... coming home to roost" -- actually referred specifically to excessive incarceration and U.S. foreign policy, not to exclusively African-American concerns.

How about religion? Is it categorically off limits? Perhaps it was at one time. Just as the Romney campaign condemned the new proposal, the Obama campaign has ruled out any attack on Romney's religion. But just as an outside group developed this ad, other Democrats have brought up Mormonism -- most recently Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Moreover, religion has become a linchpin of campaigns over the last four decades. Since the election of evangelical Jimmy Carter and the rise of the Moral Majority, candidates have frequently dwelled on religion; if it's part of the discourse, it's part of the discourse. And the Wright-Obama link is hardly unique. In 2008, John McCain rejected the endorsement of John Hagee, a pastor described as anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

Nor is this Wright's first appearance in 2012. In February, Romney himself brought Wright up during a radio appearance with Sean Hannity. What's the difference here? And what is a legitimate attack on someone's record, and what is "character assassination," as Rhoades described the Ricketts ad? Why is it OK to suggest that Barack Obama is unpatriotic, apologizes for America, and doesn't believe in American exceptionalism -- but not acceptable to tie him to someone who is accused of being unpatriotic and not believing in American exceptionalism?

Presented by

David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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