Saturday, May 03, 2008

Why didn’t Obama walk out

Hillary Clinton asks why Barack Obama didn't walk out of the church, never to return, when he heard Rev. Wright say things with which he did not agree, and apparently that question resonates with a lot of people. I wonder why. It certainly is not because people normally walk out of church or synagogue when they hear the minister, priest or rabbi say something with which they do not agree. Think about it. Have you ever been in a house of worship and heard someone say something from the pulpit with which you did not agree? How many times? How many of those times did you walk out?

No, the question must really be why does Barack Obama attend a black church where things are said that sound foreign and strange to me as a white person. Barack Obama was raised by a white mother and white grandparents and we can easily imagine him as an adult attending a white church similar to the ones with which we are familiar. Why does he attend a black church? Obviously he attends a black church because he self-identifies as black, but why is that? To answer that question would require an in-depth discussion of the history of race in America. I don't have the time or inclination to try to tackle that.

Instead, I will talk about ministers who say outrageous things, not the famous Rev. Wright, Haage or Falwell, but my greatgreatgrandfather – Rev. Newton Barrett. The following is an excerpt of a letter I found in my grandfather's papers after his death. The letter is from a cousin of his talking about their mutual grandfather.

You mention that Grandfather was a strict man. We have always been brought up to regard him as a sort of paragon. True he was a gentleman and a scholar, but he had his shortcomings. He was very domineering, an autocrat and a dictator – impatient with those who did not agree with him. He was no diplomat and sometimes did and said things in his capacity as a minister that antagonized his congregation. It took a great deal of tact and diplomacy on the part of Grandmother to get him out of some of the jams he got himself into.

For instance he took a very positive stand against Masonry and I believe even preached against it, perhaps in Elkhorn (Wisconsin). I wonder if some of his feeling against Uncle Alfred stemmed from the fact that he was a Mason. (Allan was a 32d degree Mason, I think.) He also made a religious issue of insurance, which he thought and preached was acting in the face of providence. Ministers today would not be concerned with these particular issues. They have another entirely new set of problems to cope with.

Do you suppose the insurance salesmen and customers in his congregation got up and walked out when he preached against insurance? If they had simply left the church there would have been no need for my gggrandmother to play diplomat.

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