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Election Draws Attention to Race, Religion in U.S.

March 27, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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The issues of race and religion have come to the forefront of Americans' minds during this election season, most recently after Sen. Barack Obama's speech last week on racial divisions in the U.S. A panel discusses how race, religion and politics are intersecting with the 2008 presidential campaign.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a discussion of some of those broader issues of race, religion and politics that have been in the air since last week. Jeffrey Brown has that conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a look at some of the issues raised now with Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Maryland. He’s founder and chairman of the conservative High Impact Leadership Coalition and co-author of the book “Personal Faith, Public Policy.”

The Very Rev. Tracey Lind of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, and author of the book, “Barbershops, Bibles and BET: Everyday Thought and Black Political Thought.”

And Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Well, Dean Lind, I want to start with you and start with what we just heard about public attitudes a week after all the talk about Reverend Wright and Barack Obama’s response. Does it jibe — what you just heard, does it jibe with what you’ve experienced in your church in the last week?

REV. TRACEY LIND, dean, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral: I think it absolutely jibes. My congregation, which is a downtown, diverse congregation, with Republicans, Democrats and independents, were very impressed with what Barack Obama had to say in his speech.

They really appreciated his honesty and his forthrightness, his speaking truth and love, and his coming true about his own story and talking about one of the most important issues in this country.

As far as their feeling…

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

REV. TRACEY LIND: As far as their feelings about Rev. Wright, I think my congregation, while we wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything he says and how he says it, has a deep and abiding appreciation for the black church preaching tradition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bishop Jackson, what about in your church? What is the sense of it? Do you sense more understanding, more confusion, more anger about these things? What?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR., High Impact Leadership Coalition: No, I think many people believe this is a problem that finally needs to be talked about, but we feel like the appropriate place to talk about it is within the church.

Ironically, the statements from a pulpit have affected a nation. And although we appreciate Barack Obama’s speech, it can’t be solved by politics. I believe it’s a heart issue, a sin issue, a moral issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Rev. Wright’s speech or sermons?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Well, I think his sermons are incendiary, and they represent an old-school approach to a common problem. I think we need a new civil rights movement.

There’s a growing dimension of integration that’s happening in the church today, churches like mine, a pastor church with 22 different nationalities in it, blacks, whites, Hispanics, predominantly African-American.

And I believe that there needs to be an aggressive decision by Bible-believing churches to end racism and end desegregation or, I should say, desegregate the churches in America, if I can say it right.

Bridging racial, religious divides

JEFFREY BROWN: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, what's your answer to where we are a week later, in terms of more confusion, more anger, more understanding, what?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL, Princeton University: Well, I'd have to say that what I find most confusing is that I actually agree a great deal with what Bishop Jackson just said, and I'm often on the opposite side from him. So in this way, I see it as being very good.

I agree with Bishop Jackson that, although the gauntlet was laid down in this case by a political leader, by a candidate for the U.S. presidency, that the conversation about race and racial healing has really got to occur in civil society.

And given that this emerged as a result of a flap about churches, why not start with religious institutions? How exciting would it be if, right now today, churches that are predominantly African-American would make a phone call to the church across town that's predominantly white.

If the Jewish synagogue would make a call to the Baptist church and say, "Well, maybe we're not going to worship together, but how about we get together on Saturday afternoon and build a house with Habitat for Humanity together? What if we find some common ground on which we could have a vocabulary in which we could talk to each other, find some common agreements?"

I agree with the bishop that there has been some movement towards interracial worship. But overall we remain an incredibly divided, racially and spiritually, nation. And so it's time for spiritual leaders to start talking about how to close that divide.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

And, Michael Cromartie, your reaction, a week later. Where are we?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE, Ethics and Public Policy Center: Well, I think it's very important that we're having this conversation and it's very important that Senator Obama made that speech.

The problem, however, with having a civil conversation about this is that Rev.Wright is in the background. Rev. Wright is a man who's very much a political extremist. He's friends with Louis Farrakhan; he brags about that. And he believes deeply in wacky conspiracy theories.

And so it's going to be difficult to have a conversation about race and injustice in America when you have in the background someone like Rev. Wright, who Senator Obama sat under for 20 years and has given a significant amount of money to. I think that's actually going to hurt the conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it play into the public attitudes? We were just listening to Andy Kohut's numbers. Do you sense it coming out in those polls or not yet, attitudes about Rev. Wright, I mean?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Andy Kohut said that it's going to be a potential problem for Senator Obama. I think it's going to be more than a potential problem for Senator Obama. This issue is not going to go away.

You'll hear more and more about it, especially in light of the more things that we're hearing about Rev. Wright's comments about various ethnic groups, about conspiracy theories, about the U.S. government. He accuses the U.S. government of starting the AIDS crisis in America.

I mean, these conspiracy theories would not be tolerated if the candidate we're talking about was, say, President Bush in the year 2000. If we found out that President Bush was in a church like that for 20 years, I think the conversation would not end, and it's not going to end on this one.

Putting theology into context

JEFFREY BROWN: Dean Lind, respond to that. You come from a progressive ministry tradition. Is there a context in which we should think about Reverend Wright and his language and rhetoric?

REV. TRACEY LIND: Yes, I think we need to consider Rev. Wright in the context of the historic black preaching tradition and in the historic tradition of the prophets. The biblical prophets, Amoz, Isaiah, Jeremiah, used harsh language.

And furthermore, I don't think we can suggest that a presidential candidate or any other person agrees with everything that their minister says. Moreover, I think we've got to be careful about taking Rev. Wright's comments out of context.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bishop Jackson?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Well, I don't like his comments. In our book, "Personal Faith, Public Policy," we talk about one of the issues we can solve as a people of faith.

The language that Rev. Wright uses will not bring people together. This is a unique opportunity we have to heal the racial divide, so I don't want to let us off the hook.

JEFFREY BROWN: But let me ask you to help people understand. Is that liberation theology tradition, black liberation theology, is that part of a mainstream tradition? How should we think about it?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Well, there's a debate over that. The liberation theology actually originated in 1967 by a Roman Catholic priest.

But I think it ties into more of a black nationalistic kind of spirit that has been prevalent in the black community for years. And I believe that there needs to be this healing tone.

I honor the fact that Rev. Wright has done great work in his community. But what I don't believe that, in this particular generation, that we need to dig up old wounds.

And I think there needs to be some healing that goes on behind closed doors. The church needs to talk with itself.

And the sin, if you will, in this situation is not Barack Obama's and, in fact, it's not even Jeremiah Wright's. The greater sin is that the church has not addressed this problem. And the American church has let this thing fester for far too many years. We need to heal ourselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Harris-Lacewell, what would you add to that?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, a couple of things. I mean, I think it's quite important that we not try to write off Jeremiah Wright by saying, "He's wacky and out of sorts and completely nuts." I think that's not going to get us at all close to having this conversation.

Part of what Obama's speech did -- and I can say, as someone who attended Jeremiah Wright's church for seven years during the years that I lived in Chicago -- is that many people, not only in Jeremiah Wright's church, but many African-Americans agree with at least some part of what Jeremiah Wright is talking about, when he's talking about his particular anger and anxiety about the U.S. state in relationship to black Americans.

Part of that is the question of the HIV-AIDS crisis. Part of that has to do with continuing poverty and racial inequality. And I think if we're going to get to a place where we can have a conversation that has to do with healing, one of the things we have to do is to take seriously one another's perspectives, even if they seem quite different from our own.

Americans' 'most segregated hour'

JEFFREY BROWN: There was, Michael Cromartie, a much-quoted line in Barack Obama's speech where he said, "The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Rev. Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday mornings."

Now, is that true? And if so, how do we even talk about religion, race, especially in a political campaign?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, unfortunately, it's still true, and that's deeply troubling that the most segregated hour in America is 11 o'clock.

However, I just want to emphasize, though, in the historic prophetic tradition, which I believe in strongly, the prophets were not conspiracy theorists. They did not blame governments for genocide by promoting the AIDS crisis.

And so I think it's a little insulting to the history of the tradition to suggest that somebody who believes in these kind of left-wing conspiracy theories that this is part of a prophetic tradition.

It's irresponsible. It encourages sloppy thinking about how to get to social justice. And I think these quotes are direct quotes from Reverend Wright that have been coming out, and they're not good quotes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dean Lind, do you want to come back on that about the prophetic tradition that you brought up?

REV. TRACEY LIND: Sure, I would love to come on that. I haven't had an opportunity to listen to all of Reverend Wright's sermons, but I did listen very carefully to his sermon post-9/11, and he was clearly speaking about the psalmist and the kings. And he was quoting the psalm, he was teaching out of the psalmic tradition, and he was doing a good job of being a pastor.

And what happened with the media is we pulled lines out of that sermon and took them completely out of context.

And the prophets used huge metaphors. I don't agree with everything Reverend Wright has said, nor would I dare say that from the pulpit. But I think that the job of the church is to talk about difficult issues.

And I think the truth is, is we've got to speak to the sin of racism and the sins that keep us apart from one another. And I think Reverend Wright is calling for that, and I think Senator Obama is calling for that and is allowing us a new moment in time.

Promoting public discourse

JEFFREY BROWN: Bishop Jackson, you started by saying that the proper place for much of this is in the church itself.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you espouse, you work for conservative values and policies. What's the proper place in the public square, you know, when you speak to the rest of America?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Well, I think there needs to be a free pulpit, so I applaud Jeremiah Wright's privilege to speak. It was a free pulpit that brought about the abolition of slavery. Free pulpits stirred on the Civil War, which actually freed us. The free pulpit was the beginning of the Martin Luther King, Jr., revolution in American thinking.

And I believe that the black pulpit and the broader Christian pulpit can be that conscience to America that guides us. But I think that we need to clean up our language.

You can't be conscience to the nation and have such incendiary, hate-filled speech that many won't listen to you. You've got to find that common ground where you become a voice from God to a culture that wants to hear you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Harris-Lacewell, how do you bring the church into the public square, or the theology, or the talk that happens on Sunday into our public life?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I mean, again, part of what's extremely important to remember here is that the separation between church and state is not only to protect the state, to protect the government from the influence of the church, but also incredibly importantly to protect the church, to protect that free and open space for dialogue.

So we can be in the public sphere without being in the electoral arena. I think that Jeremiah Wright would be a terrible choice for the U.S. presidency. I don't think anyone in America should vote for Jeremiah Wright for president.

On the other hand, I think that it is perfectly reasonable that thousands of Chicagoans make a choice to choose Jeremiah Wright as their minister, that they find under Jeremiah Wright's leadership not only sort of a political worldview that they find important, but also a moral and spiritual worldview that they find comforting.

So I think there's lots of spaces in the public arena, whether it's through, you know, 21st-century spaces like the Internet and the blogosphere, whether it's through citizen conversations.

I think we've been challenged by last week's speech and by the sort of fervor around Jeremiah Wright to engage as citizens with one another beyond our own households.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Cromartie, do you see this continuing? What should happen next?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, it will definitely continue, because the issue is going to be brought out by political consultants.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, as we go forward with the election?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: As we go forward, some of the comments that Reverend Wright has made, which are really damaging to a candidate who's calling for unity and healing in race, I think it will be a continuing part of our conversation.

Again, if this was Senator John McCain's church, you can bet if there was a right-wing conspiracy theorist pastor that Senator McCain sat under for 20 years that this issue would be kept alive. And I think this issue is going to be kept alive in this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a brief last word, Bishop Jackson. Do you see it continuing?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: I do, but the time for talk has passed. Let's do something. And I want to challenge the rest of our panelists to say, "Let's stop the segregation of the church. Let's take action." I plan to do some things immediately to begin that process.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bishop Harry Jackson, Dean Tracey Lind, Michael Cromartie, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, thank you all very much.