AS I WAS SAYING….Good lord. I always forget there’s no presumption of good faith (no pun intended) in the blogosphere. I should know better than to throw up a quick post, but let’s all take a deep breath and start over.
I believe one of the reasons so many white Americans were surprised/shocked by the snippets of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons that have been circulating is because they’ve largely ignored the black church. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’ve formed in their minds an image of what African-American religion is like and filtered out anything that doesn’t match.
For decades, the Democratic Party has ghettoized religion, outsourcing it to African-Americans within the party. Democrats who give high-minded explanations for why they consider it inappropriate to mix religion and politics and why they don’t approve of wearing religion on their sleeve don’t bat an eye at politicians visiting black churches. Religion in black churches, they seem to think, isn’t really religion. It’s an ethnic characteristic of an important voting bloc.
Of course that’s not true. If any of those Democrats were surprised by Wright’s comments, they must not have ever really listened in those churches they visit. There’s more to black churches than gospel music. Black sermons are often described as “musical” or “rhythmic,” but there are words being spoken, words that matter.
In 2004, just to take one example, most of John Kerry’s religious references came in speeches to African-American audiences (particularly before the convention). His advisers must have considered it good strategy to limit religious rhetoric to “safe” crowds, but the decision was problematic in two ways. First, by speaking about religion only when it could be politically advantageous, Kerry seemed to confirm the criticism that he was pandering and insincere. If religion was really important to him, voters might think, he would talk about it in other settings. But it was also insulting to African-Americans, leaving the impression that white politicians were at best humoring their silly religion habit and at worst using them for cover.
Keep reading after the jump for one of my favorite stories about Democrats and black clergy.
A week before the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004, a convention planner called an organizer with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization named Ari Lipman. As Lipman later wrote in an article for the Boston Review, the staffer wanted his help finding a religious leader to open a Sunday caucus meeting with prayer. When Lipman asked whether the organizers were looking for someone from a particular denomination, the caller answered, “We want a minister of color.” Lipman explained that most ministers of color were likely to be in church on Sunday morning. Were they interested in a rabbi? “We really want a black minister,” said the staffer.
Lipman suggested they contact Eddly Benoit, the senior elder of a twelve-hundred-member Haitian congregation in Dorchester and a Seventh-Day Adventist. Because Seventh-Day Adventists observe their Sabbath on Saturday, Benoit would likely be available on a Sunday morning. Lipman passed along the elder’s information and hung up the phone.
On Friday evening, Lipman got another call, this time from a different, frantic convention staffer. They had forgotten to call the elder during the week and now they couldn’t reach him. Lipman explained that because Benoit’s Sabbath had already startd, he wouldn’t be answering the phone until Saturday evening. But Lipman did agree to show up at Benoit’s church the next morning and assure the confused clergyman that the Democrats did indeed still want his services.
Benoit arrived at the Democratic meeting on Sunday morning with Lipman by his side, only to find that his name had been rendered “Elder Erdy Dinot” on the caucus program. Although Lipman flagged down a convention staffer to point out the error, the emcee for the event mispronounced Benoit’s name three times throughout the morning. To Lipman, there was no doubt why there were there: “Elder Benoit’s role had been ornamental–a prayerful black face for a photo opportunity.”