I am struck with the absence of commentary on Bill Moyers’ interview of Jeremiah Wright. Yes, the thing aired Friday evening, and there’s a tendency for topical bloggers as well as MSM opinion writers to take the weekend off. But even so, this man spent weeks at the center of the national presidential campaign, and during the entire time said not one public word. What this looks like is nothing so much as embarrassed silence at the revelation that Wright is a soft-spoken, well informed, highly intelligent, astute and even reasonable guy–to be sure, with a radical idea or two, but whose conversational mode with an interlocutor like Moyers is–surprise!–not remotely like the viral sound bytes of an African-American preacher at full throttle.
The one interview byte that has elicited attention is what has been taken as Wright’s put-down of Obama for being a politician. Actually there were two such bytes. First, referring to Obama’s Philadelphia speech, Wright said:

And so here at a political event, he goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician. I continue to be a pastor who speaks to the people of god about the things of God.

Then, in response to a question by Moyers about Obama’s criticism of him in that speech, Wright answered:

It went down very simply. He’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. Those are 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.

Is there a little edge in that response? Sure. But Wright is plainly alluding to Jesus’ response in the synoptic gospels, when he tells his questioners from the religious establishment that it is lawful for Jews to pay taxes: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26. Yes, there’s also an allusion here to I Cor. xiii. 11–”When I was a child, I spoke like a child…”)
That Wright, like Jesus, recognizes the importance of operating as a politician in the political realm–rendering unto Caesar–is clear from his earlier statement to Moyers, about the import of Obama’s speech:

BILL MOYERS: So what blues are you singing right now?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Don’t know why they treat me so bad. I’m singing the sacred blues. The songs of our gospel tradition. That I’m so glad trouble don’t last always. That, what man meant for evil, God meant for good. That what–
BILL MOYERS: What man meant for evil God meant for good.
REVEREND WRIGHT: That’s a quote from Joseph, in the bible, the Book of Genesis.
BILL MOYERS: And what do you take that to mean?
REVEREND WRIGHT: That Human beings, many times, do things for nefarious purposes. And God can take that and turn something- make something good out of it. That, for instance, using that Joseph passage, when his brother sold him into slavery, and they thought, after daddy’s gone, he’s gonna get us. And Joseph reassured them by saying, “No, no, what you meant for evil, God has turned into something good. I’m not trying to do revenge or payback. In fact, restoration is what God is. And I restore you. As brothers, we’re all brothers.” That those sound bytes, those snippets were taken for nefarious purposes. That God can take that and do something very positive for it- with it. That, in Philadelphia, in response to the sound bytes, in response to the snippets, in Philadelphia Senator Obama made a very powerful speech in terms of our need as a nation to address the whole issue of race. That’s something good that’s already starting. That because of you guys playing these sound bytes now what’s getting ready to happen as something very positive, and something very powerful that God can take what you meant to try to hurt somebody to help the nation come to grips with truth. To help a nation come to grips with miseducation. To help a nation come to grips with things we don’t like to talk about.

So who says it was wrong for Obama to speak as a politician?

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

2 Comments

  1. I was very impressed with Rev. Wright – both in terms of his biography as presented by Moyers and the conversation itself. And I think Wright’s critique of the “corporate media” is right on (i.e., it decontextualizes, strategizes rather than seeking to understand).
    The silence about the interview might be a reflection of the tendency to ignore or downplay PBS, and/or the tendency to dismiss Bill Moyers. Do you think?
    Also, while Moyers’ conversational style is exactly the kind of discourse we need (i.e., that it is actually discourse instead of mere debate) that might be precisely why it’s being ignored: serious discussion takes time and space, and is harder to reduce to sound bites. Moyers doesn’t serve up sound bites on a plate. You have to actually watch it all the way through if you want to extract some tid-bit that you want to employ strategically.

  2. I don’t think liberal opinion writers, bloggy or otherwise, ignore PBS or Moyers. These days, everything’s grist for the mill. The question is, why isn’t this grist being ground? Maybe the commentariat will start to weigh in once it sits down at its desk Monday morning. But if not, I’d say it has something to do with an inability to deal with evidence so at odds with the crystallized image of Wright as crazy man.

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