Why Rev. Wright's Comments Do Not Disqualify Senator Obama

Attention has recently focused on the incendiary comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor at Trinity for many years. In the clips -- shown repeatedly on the news and on web sites -- Rev. Wright expresses contempt and rage at rich whites who he believes control the country and at the U.S. itself. He also praises Obama as the only candidate who knows what it is like to be black in America. Predictably, questions about Senator Obama's own racial views and his own patriotism have arisen in the wake of these clips. Some talking heads have suggested, in fact, that his affiliation with a person who expressed such offensive sentiments, apparently on more than one occasion, may disqualify him from seeking office. Such claims are foolish. And if we all pause to consider them for a moment, their patent absurdity will become inescapable.

Barack Obama is a grownup, not a naive child who clings only to people who are perfect and who view the world exactly as he does. As he expresses more poignantly and eloquently than I could ever hope to do, he attended the church that he did for so many years because it was a place where he found a loving, nurturing, and kind community. It was a place where the pastor expressed religious faith in a manner that resonated with Obama's inner world; it was a place where the pastor emphasized the importance of serving the poor and of helping the sick. It was and is, as Obama describes it, a typical black church on the south-side of Chicago.

In that church worship rich and poor, welfare moms and doctors, A students and former gang-bangers. And significantly, in that church worship people of different generations -- those who grew up in the 1950's and '60's and view race relations with pessimism and bitterness, and those who grew up in the generations that followed, many of whom were able to seize opportunities of which their parents and grandparents could never have dared dream. Barack Obama is not cynical or bitter or hateful, but he understands and loves many people who are all of those things, among blacks and among whites, and that understanding is his strength, not his weakness.Barack Obama was a classmate of mine at Harvard Law School. I don't know that he could pick me out of a lineup, but I remember him well, and I remember him fondly. No matter how heated the political debates that took place in our classroom -- about race, about rape, about crime -- he always spoke with wisdom, humility, and calm resolve. He was an adult, even in his 20's, when most of us were still quite happily ensconced in the narcissism of extended adolescence. He was self-confident but not arrogant, and he did not strike me or anyone in the class as angry, dismissive, or bigoted in any way. Indeed, though his views on issues were never a secret, everyone respected Barack Obama, because he listened to what his classmates had to say -- even when what they had to say was radically and fundamentally at odds with his view of the world.

All of us now have or have in the past had people whom we have loved but who made remarks that we found alienating and offensive. Some people even marry individuals whose political views are diametrically opposed to their own. And the people we love -- often those who are much older than we are -- look at the world and see a very different place from what we see. Such people sometimes embarrass us by expressing ideas that we find repugnant. And yet other times, they fill us with pride and remind us of why we have stood by them. We can appreciate what such people offer us in friendship, mentoring, community, and connection, without signing onto every speech they give. For Barack Obama, one such person is undoubtedly Rev. Wright. Much of what he said inspired Obama as a Christian, and he offered a congregation of people whom Obama views as his church family. He officiated at Obama's wedding and baptized Obama's children.

Obama has not insulated himself from angry people or from bigotry. He has instead striven to find the good in everyone he has known, and he has overlooked people's imperfections and identified their strengths. Far from disqualifying Barack Obama from the office of President of the United States, this makes him all the more appealing. I am not sure whether I have as much faith in the American people as Barack Obama does. One test of that faith, however, will emerge as the country decides how to handle the fact that our most talented, inspiring, intelligent, and wise candidate for office has a place in his heart for an imperfect pastor.

Posted by Sherry Colb