April 26th, 2008

The Wright-Moyers interview: Render unto Caesar?

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.]

20 Responses to “The Wright-Moyers interview: Render unto Caesar?”

  1. Vince P Says:

    I wrote a comment about this:

    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.

    in another blog.. Here are my thoughts:

    The Wrights and the Farakhans and all the rest understand all to well that for Obama to maintain mainstream support Obama must appear as if Obama “denounces” both Wright and Farakhan.

    These denounications might fool the unthinking MSM and political classes but they don’t fool me. And if you read statements by Wright regarding Obama’s distancing himself from Wright, you can see clearly that the distancing is an act.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Vince P: It may very well be true that Obama’s distancing is an act—and not a very good one at that.

    I was trying to make the point that even if it’s not an act, Wright’s defense is disingenuous. Wright may have been speaking from the pulpit, but he was certainly making political statements himself.

  3. Vanderleun Says:

    Best summation of this whole program :

    Two Old Dudes Blowing Each Other

    That headline is actually taken from an old AndrewR. poem, channeling William Carlos Williams:

    So much depends
    on a red wheelbarrow
    and two old dudes
    blowing each other

  4. John Russell Says:

    Dear Neo,
    Two points:
    1. Since Jesus was responding to a question about whom they should pay taxes to by asking whose head was on a Roman coin I think it’s clear what he was talking about, and
    2. It’s entirely possible Wright wasn’t getting the least bit theological. I think what he meant was that he did what he had to do to get the crowd all worked-up so he could have some fun and get a million dollar mansion in a gated community and a nice pension for life and what’s it to ya?

  5. Vince P Says:

    neo: I understand.

    I dont think Wright was making a theological argument at all. instead I thikn he was rationalizing.

    As a preacher, Wright believes he could say anything he wants.. and if the public doesn’t like it.. there’s no skin off his nose. He’s not accountable to them.

    However, when it comes to Obama, Wright understands that Obama must face up to certain realities and expectations. And since ultimately Wright supports Obama and wants Obama to win, Wright is prefectly willing to appear to be the “bad guy” and be denouced because as a politician Obama must denounce him if Obama wants to have any realistic chance of getting elected.

    So it’s just as you said:

    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.

  6. neo-neocon Says:


    Since I’m such a literary type, I’ll do my own riff on the William Carlos Williams poem:

    so much depends

    a red wheel

    glazed with rain

    beside the white
    coming home to roost.

    The Ace of Spades post you linked to had a discussion about how the MSM is buying Wright’s contention that some of his 9/11 remarks were “taken out of context.”

    I agree—the old context was that Obama wasn’t running for President. The new context is that he is.

  7. Vince P Says:

    Obama is a liar:

    Obama is criticizing McCain’s proposal for a summertime federal gas tax holiday.

    “This is one of John McCain’s latest schemes,” Obama said, saying it would save drivers only $25. “That’s the federal highway fund that we use to build our roads and our bridges, you remember that bridge in Minneapolis? We’re already short on money in terms of investing – and for what – for 25 bucks?”

    However back in 2000 , when Gas prices were high for their time, the State of Illinois Legislature had before it a bill which proposed the same sort of state tax holiday.

    Obama was asked if he supported the Illinois tax holiday

    Obama replied, “Well, actually there was a vote in the state senate that I opposed. I voted against a moratorium on the gas tax for the same reason that I don’t think it’s the best approach for us to take right now.”

    However, if you look at the Senate roll call vote , Obama clearly voted for the tax break.

    Here is the press release describing the bill Senate Bill 1310


    Here is the recorded vote for the bill in the IL Senate:


    This guy is such a liar and a fruad.

    There was an amendment to that bill that would require gas stations to put a sign on the pumps telling customers that the state tax was repealed.

    According to the State of Illinois General Assembly Senate Transcript, Obama asks the author of the amendment:

    “I was wondering, can I – in my district, can I have “Senator Obama reduced your gasoline prices”? Is that possible?”


    Page 81

  8. gcotharn Says:

    Preacher of darkness
    Marx in a pressed summer frock
    Who won the Cold War?

  9. japate Says:

    Well, Wright was certainly trying to be vague and avoid seriously dealing with the question. That seems very obvious. So, as to what it means, Wright does not really want to say. But if there is any meaning in his statement, the obvious one is that Obama’s quasi “denouncement” was all for show.

  10. cSimon Says:


    Thanks for the link to your previous article re: Tuskegee. In the wake of Rev. Wright’s rants (among them, accusation that U.S. govt. “invented AIDS to kill all the black people…”) I have heard many pundits, talking heads, et al. allude to Tuskegee, specifically when asserting that there may well be truth to Rev. Wright’s AIDS charges. They rely on the on the fact that though many are somewhat aware that the Tuskegee experiments are a blight on American racial history, most are unclear of what actually took place. As you rightly point out, syphilis was never introduced to a single person throughout the experiments, and there was no genocidal plan. Certainly it was shameful that the many black soldiers who thought they were receiving medical care for their illnesses when they were, in reality, receiving only placebos so that doctors and nurses could study the progression of the disease even as the condition of the men deteriorated, while white patients were given the antibiotics which easily cured them. What has irked me (to put it mildly) is all those who imply “it” ( i.e. the govt. giving disease to people with the purpose of eradicating a specific group of people) has happened in the past so why would it not be realistic to believe that the govt. acted genocidally via AIDS to target the black community.

    Certainly, in this age of the Internet and sophisticated search engines such as Google, it is relatively simple to learn the specifics of Tuskegee, but most don’t bother, thus making it all too easy to lend legitimacy to the paranoid (or calculated?) but more importantly, FALSE accusations made by Wright.

  11. Sergey Says:

    And, of course, no race-selective pathogen exists now and there are no chances it can be produced by any existing method. Basic tenets of immunology exclude this.

  12. Vanderleun Says:

    A subtle yet effective rendering of WCW, neo. Much more… “presentable.”

    As to why Caeser keeps coming up, it may have something to do with the context of this email from Instapunit yesterday:


    Mark Lardas emails:

    The best example of what happens when you criminalize political opposition is the Roman Civil War.
    Gauis Julius Caesar was a republican to the core. He believed in the Roman Republic, and its unwritten constitution. When his political opponents, the Optimates, made it clear that they were going to prosecute him and either exile or execute him, the moment Caesar set down his military command they made war inevitable. Especially since it was clear that they were not interested in following the law, except at their convenience.
    Caesar was not given a choice between going to war and destroying the republic or preserving it by going quietly to his doom. He could see that the republic was doomed no matter what his choice was. He could either start a civil war or let Rome slide into a tyranny run by the Optimates. Given that choice, let the dice fly and hope you can put the pieces back together after you win. At least, you can die trying.
    The Democrats remind me of the Optimates in many ways. William Clinton seems like a 21st century version of Pompey Magnus. That Bush has not played Caesar is a tribute to two things: George W.’s fundamental decency, and the fact that the United States is yet not in as bad a shape politically as the late Roman Republic.

  13. FredHjr Says:

    I am simply not impressed with the interviewer or with the interviewee. Neither man has a shred of honesty or decency within him, so I actually find it nauseating that they would hold forth about the words of Jesus. You know, even many years ago when I was very much hooked into Liberation Theology when I was an undergrad and then afterwards as a Jesuit seminarian, I think I would have found Rev. Wright’s bastardization of the Gospel to be an insult to my intelligence. I do remember reading a bit of James Cone back then, and thinking that as a theologian Cone was very unimpressive. That he has been given a chair of theology at Union only signifies the decadence of that institution and of the disarray in theology studies as it strives to pull out of the long funk they fell into during the 20th century.

    Now that I am no longer a cultural Marxist I find that people like Rev. Wright and Barack Obama do not represent the future. They only live in the past, as in past grievances and in romantic past mythology about socialism. Anyone who finds these people interesting or impressive needs to get a real and deep education.

  14. Nickie Says:

    I find it quite interesting that everyone is once again taking out of context what was said by Wright when he spoke of Obama as a politician. He seconds before the quote taken as an example in this article said that Good had come out of the controversy. He applauded Obama as saying that he because of the controversy, Obama was able to broaden the conversation about race during his Philadelphia speech. The fact that Obama is a politician is not relevant, it only means that Obama has to speak to a broader constituency than the one that Wright has to speak to. Obama isn’t a preacher. He is a State Senator. For goodness sakes, stop doing the same thing that got us into this mess in the first place, taking stuff out of context and spinning a single sentence for your own political gain.

  15. Vince P Says:

    I agree with Nickie, a lot of good has come from the Wright revelations… it’s been revealed to all that Obama’s rhetoric is just meaningless pap. That the man will say anything he thinks his base wants to hear no matter if it has any truthfull basis or not.

  16. Harry Says:

    I live in a Moyers-free zone. If 40 years from now sanctimonious softball interviews are being conducted on PBS by James Carville, that would be the equivalent of watching Bill Moyers today.

    Moyers is a bigger chameleon than the Clintons.

  17. Shrinkurmudgeon Says:

    Another point of view to consider re: Tuskegee

    Not only were the residents not inoculated with the bacteria, the ‘cure” of antibiotic was withheld because while it might have killed (some of) the bacteria currently surviving, it would have had no effect on the severe brain damage already done by the bacteria. All of the Tuskegee residents were severely brain damaged, which was why they were institutionalized at Tuskegee.

    At least that’s what they taught us in med school, some forty years ago.

    By the way, Al Capone was discharged from the slammer with the dementia of syphilis from which he died. He was quite loony towards his end.

  18. Kevin Says:

    BTW, does anyone ever mention how white Wright seems to be? Seems to me the guy’s not that much more of a brother than, say, Conan O’Brien.

  19. Truth Says:

    If Iraqis could elect America’s next president, chances are good that the next occupant of the Oval Office would be Gen. David Petraeus.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    Kevin: no one is whiter than Conan O’Brien, except perhaps an albino.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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