I have to admit that I’m officially baffled by why whatever it is Jeremiah Wright thinks — and not what John Hagee thinks — is a big stinking deal.
Because my churchgoing experience — and one I think I share with most other churchgoers — is that the church community has always been more important than the pastor, and is the reason we have chosen to attend a given church. The pastors do their thing, and we usually agree, but sometimes disagree. But we attend because of the church, not the pastor. And it has been that way for me since I was young.
I belonged to a small Methodist church in Idaho Falls when I was a kid. One of our more memorable pastors was a fellow named Willis Ludlow, a very liberal man who even in the mid-1960s railed against the Vietnam War from the pulpit. This infuriated my father, the Goldwater Republican, and the rides home from church were often dominated by his grumbling. But we still attended every Sunday because it was our church.
I realize that things are different at a number of churches, especially those that specialize in charismatic fundamentalist rhetoric (and it’s particularly so at churches that revolve around a narrow theological center, such as Christian Identity). But I don’t think that fits the description of Trinity United Church of Christ. It’s a huge church representing a significant mainstream black community. And leading pastors like Wright are significant figures within those communities, but they typically are not the reasons people like Obama attend them. They attend because of the community.
Maybe Hillary Clinton and John McCain would have walked out if they had heard incendiary rhetoric from the pulpit, as they claim. But a lot of people in fact stay put in such situations, because they understand that they’re not always going to agree with their pastor. For many churchgoers, the pastor is up there to make them think, not necessarily to say things they agree with.
Of course, some folks seem to believe a pastor is there to tell them what to think. But that probably reveals more about them than anything that might be said about people who believe otherwise.
So it’s one thing to sit still in the pews while the pastor says disagreeable things, because people have a range of good reasons for doing so. People do often change churches because they disagree with their pastors; but many don’t, and they have a range of legitimate reasons for not doing so.
It’s quite another thing, on the other hand, to actively pursue as a political candidate the endorsement of a religious leader who says extremist things — because that pursuit clearly indicates full agreement with that preacher’s beliefs. It’s an all-out embrace.
Which, of course, is what John McCain did with Pastor John Hagee. And even after Hagee repeats his charge that Katrina was God’s wrath directed at New Orleans, McCain not only blows off the connection — observing only that Hagee endorsed him — but the media continue to give him a free ride on the fact that McCain actively sought it. He admits it was a mistake, but still says he’s "glad to have his endorsement."
And no one bats an eye.
Because, you know, black preachers who bring up things Americans don’t like to talk about are much, much, scarier and much more important than influential white fundamentalists who want to help the Middle East blow up in a big mushroom cloud.
Bruce Wilson at Talk2Action has more on Pastor Hagee’s extremism and America-hating rhetoric.