In a classically appropriate setting, Barack Obama gave a speech urging the nation to transcend racial friction and fears and to strive for a “more perfect union.” This speech, eloquent and wise in and of itself, was both demanded and overshadowed by the controversy about comments made by Obama’s former pastor. And while I have been avoiding that particular controversy, feeling it thoroughly distasteful, Obama’s direct address of why concerns about it should be put aside deserves discussion.
Obama’s main point in his speech is that we need to allow the positives about ourselves bring us together as people, and to not let the fears about our differences drive us apart. He specifically cites his former pastor, Rev. Wright, as falling victim to the latter ill. Yet he acknowledges that the latter exists in nearly every person – he cites his generous grandmother as an example, but hopefully anyone who listens to him will be made to think of the person they know who fits that description.
I know many: The staunch supporter of Israel who advocates ethnic cleansing against the Arabs. The libertarian who believes all of the United States should effectively secede from one another and live under their individual systems of law and economy in an “European Union” structure. The agnostic who believes that freedom from religion is not sufficient – religion should be outlawed. And many more friends – all of whom have such talents, genius and generosity of spirit that I am honored to call them my friends – I know have fears illuminated by distrust or division.
And while I anticipate that any critic of Obama’s will conveniently sneer that his failure to, in his words, “disown” Rev. Wright shows insufficient distaste for the pastor’s most venomous sermons, I believe they would be hypocritical in doing so. I am certain they have some among them who think Hispanics will lead to the USA collapsing like Ancient Rome, or who think the Jews control Washington, or who use the “N word” a bit more than is appropriate. And I am sure they laugh those eccentricities off and still go about life in the American Melting Pot without seeming like David Duke or his advocate. They do this because despite the prejudices of their friends, voiced in their extreme, they act in accordance with the kind of attitude America wants to be – the kind of America Obama embodies: A post-racial and hopeful state.
That hopeful attitude should not be discouraged by Obama’s attendance of Wright’s church. If anything, it should be encouraged. Encouraged, because without the capacity to look beyond the moments of caustic division that all people are capable of, our leadership will always be divided:
It will always be a matter of letting Health Care fail because one does not want to support a bill put forward by a legislator who wants to give condoms to middle school students and convicts. It will always be a matter of letting tax reform crumble because one does not want to work with a legislator who believes schools should be able to teach Creation, not just evolution. It will be a world where the best among us is torn down because he did not condemn another’s fears, but rather strove to focus on our common hope.