Denominations and Double Standards
Here's Matt's take on the Jeremiah Wright controversy:
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.
This is slightly more persuasive than Ezra’s take, but it still seems like somewhat strained analysis. Obviously, nobody's going to expect a High Holy Days Jew or a Christmas-and-Easter Christian to account for their clergyman’s political opinion, since he (or she) isn’t their clergyman in any meaningful sense of the word. As for why we don't see Catholic politicians being called upon to ritually denounce the Pope, one might begin with the fact that the Pope rarely makes political statements that fall wildly outside the mainstream of American politics. John Paul II and Benedict XVI's criticisms of abortion and euthanasia and gay marriage are right-wing by American standards, sure - just as some of their comments on economics are left-wing - but for better or worse (and I think better, obviously) they simply aren't considered beyond the pale in the way that Jeremiah Wright's comments about 9/11 and sundry other topics are. Back when Popes did make statements that fell beyond the pale of American discourse (in the Syllabus of Errors era, for instance) Catholics were frequently called upon to clarify their view of the Holy See's position, and while these calls were often laced with bigotry, they also raised valid questions about Catholicism's consonance with American democracy, questions that it was entirely appropriate for Catholics to answer - just as it's appropriate for Barack Obama to answer questions about his church's view of politics today.
More importantly, though, we don't demand that Catholic politicians answer for every Papal address and encyclical because most people understand that a cradle Catholic’s relationship to the magisterium of the Catholic Church tends to be dramatically different from a convert to Protestant Christianity's relationship to the pastor of the only church he's ever attended. A Catholic's relationship to his local priest is perhaps more comparable, though again the weight that Protestantism - particularly in its evangelical strains - places on individual ministry tends to make a Protestant's choice of minister far more revealing than a Catholic's choice of parish. (Traditionally, Catholics weren't even allowed to parish-shop; where you lived determined where you want to mass.) I would also add that in the course of attending mass at dozens of Catholic parishes over the last decade, I can't say I've heard a single homily remotely like the Wright sermons that are stirring up all the controversy. And if I did attend a Catholic church whose pastor went in for, say, the occasional rant about the Freemasons, I wouldn't be surprised if that fact made waves if I ever ran for office.
Here's a thought experiment: Suppose John McCain were a member of Opus Dei. Or to push things a bit further, suppose he attended a schismatic Latin-Mass parish which had, among other things, bestowed an award on a Lefebvrite bishop given to anti-Semitic remarks. Do you think this would earn him media scrutiny, and make a difference in the Presidential race? Do you think it ought to? Your answer, I think, should go a long way toward determining how you think about the case of Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright.