Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Speech

The speech that Obama will give today on race will likely be the most crucial one of his political career. Up until the questions raised about Wright, Obama had instilled a powerful and resilient enthusiasm in the American electorate, standing fast against virtually every line of attack from the Clinton camp. It was only the vivid clips of Wright's impassioned statements from the pulpit, and a line of questions that have arisen in association with those remarks, that has caused some of those who had been most supportive of Obama campaign some pause and reconsideration.

The questions are of two types. The group of explicit questions are now well-known. Given Obama's 20 year membership at the church, does he endorse the views of Wright? If not, why did he remain a member, or did he not raise objections to Wright's more inflammatory positions before this date?

The implicit and unspoken questions are themselves more inflammatory, and uncover more deep-seated discomforts and fissures that many Americans still experience regarding race. Those who have embraced a new message of change are vulnerable to triggers of fear and doubt. The most primitive triggers, as we have seen throughout history, move electorates most effectively, despite the intellectual justifications that may ride along the top of such reactions.

Those who hear the Wright clips have a chain of unspoken associations that can be described as follows: Obama brought a message of change and hope to American politics that was embodied by his calm, measured and honest judgment, juxtaposed with the distortions of the previous Administration. Obama offered not only a new view of American politics, but a new paradigm of race--of post-racial politics--as a part of this message of change.

Wright now evokes the inchoate fears associated with the old political paradigm--of incendiary conflict rather than unity. In this case, in an odd and uncanny echo of the self-restricting responses that occurred in the run up to the Iraq war, many now hear in Wright's statements a warning that support of Obama may lead them to be viewed as unpatriotic; deeper still is the unspoken fear that Obama may be like the "old" rather than the "new"--with all of the unstated uneasiness that Obama supporters have celebrated the divestment of as a part of his message of transformation and change.

These underlying emotional doubts, precisely because they are impulsive rather than fully considered, can have considerable power--unless they are themselves calmly, clearly, and fully addressed at both the explicit and implicit levels.

One, of course, may attend a house of worship of any denomination, often for a lifetime, in which they do not fully embrace all of the enthusiasms of the Pastor, Reverend, or other religious leader of the church. Such intense enthusiasms are often issued from the pulpit among many denominations--think of your own house of worship, for example--and are often viewed by the congregation as the specific preoccupations of the Pastor, products of differing generations of life experience, those of one who has been fully immersed in the work, issues and expressions of that time.

Congregants do not typically attend a chruch simply because of a specific attachment to these particular preoccupations of the Pastor--they seek the spiritual and communal fellowship of others, and recognize the difference between generations in the experience of spirituality, struggle, and life, much as many congregants do in making distinctions between the positions of church elders, often steeped in an earlier set of issues, and their own spiritual positions, values and needs. A house of worship is a community, and as in any community, members vary and understand that they vary by differing life experiences, and recognize that these generational variations do not reflect the core issues of theological belief shared by congregants.

You can probably see this in your own religious community--or, indeed, in any community of belief. The hard core adherents. The old fighters. The blind followers. Those who come for largely social reasons. We understand such variance in a community, and yet often continue to attend because it *is* a community that represents the variants of time and humanity, yet brings us together because of, and to discuss, a set of shared beliefs and commitments.

To succeed in his speech today, Obama will need to make clear those principles of shared belief. He will have to help those who are new to understanding the generational struggles of those who fought for spirit in the face of intense racial hatred, how the product of such struggle differs from those who have emerged today, from different experiences--that, just as the spirituality of the Protestants who arrived in fervid protest on our shores to escape religious tyranny differs in rhetoric and form from that of today's Protestants, all forms of belief are reflective of such struggles and change.

He will need to do so in the manner that has brought so many in enthusiasm to his campaign--and that both signifies and heralds such change--with the unifying clarity and honesty that will allow him to describe this spiritual world, etched and co-existing, like all such worlds, like the rings of a tree, with a history of struggle, growth and change--and his place within it.

With such a presentation, that his own views should differ from those of Wright should not be surprising to any member of a thinking community.

-Dr. Alan J. Lipman