From last night’s Bill Moyers PBS interview with Jeremiah Wright, the quote that got the most attention was this:
[Obama]’s a politician, I’m a pastor. We speak to two different audiences. And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. But they’re two different worlds. I do what I do. He does what politicians do. So that what happened in Philadelphia where he had to respond to the soundbites, he responded as a politician.
The consensus seems to be that, if this isn’t quite a case of Wright throwing Obama under the bus, it isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, either.
It all depends, of course, on what the definition of “politician” is. If it’s “a person with no ethics who says whatever needs to be said to win elections,” then Wright is suggesting that Obama spoke about Wright with a cynical “wink, wink” political expediency.
But if the definition of “politician” is “a person running for public office,” then Wright could just be referring to a particular interpretation of Jesus’s Biblical injunction “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus was talking about Jews paying taxes to Rome, but his statement has had many interpretations, including an advocacy of the separation of church and state into different spheres:
Jesus can be interpreted to be saying that his religious teachings were separate from earthly political activity. This reading finds support in John 18:36, where Jesus responds to Pontius Pilate about the nature of his kingdom, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” This reflects a traditional division in Christian thought…
Of course, if Reverend Wright meant to refer to this particular reading of Jesus’s words, he might have done better to have explicitly referred to or quoted them.
But his failure to do so might just be linked to a larger problem with his entire argument, which is that the controversial sermons in question are a perfect demonstration of the pastor himself entering into political discourse with a vengeance.
Most Wright and Obama critics have focused on the word “politician” in the passage, and tried to determine whether Wright meant something pejorative by it. This discussion has obscured the other problem with the Wright quote, which persists even if he meant to be saying something benign about Obama: Wright himself clearly crossed the line between pastoral counseling and political speech—of an incendiary nature, I might add—when he preached his sermons. So how can he hide behind the “man of the cloth” role now?
Here’s the relevant clip from the Wright/Moyers interview, so you can hear Wright’s tone, which so mild and bland it’s difficult to interpret (the passage occurs at 4:10):
[NOTE: I've no idea why the Caesar theme keeps coming up so much lately in relation to Obama, but it does.]
[ADDENDUM: Re Wright's assertion that the US government invented HIV for the purpose of committing genocide, many people have argued that this notion isn't so strange because of the government's role in the Tuskegee experiment, and the fact that the government purposely gave Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox. I wrote about Tuskegee here. But if anyone is interested in the truth behind the smallpox blanket allegation, go here.]