President Obama exits St. John's Episcopal Church with the Rev. Luis… (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)
It was a sad moment for many Republicans during the 2008 presidential contest when Arizona Sen. John McCain refused to let his staff use the fiery left-wing sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright against Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
Yoking Obama to his Chicago pastor’s unforgiving views on American imperialism and racism was so tempting that four years later, a Republican strategist came up with a plan to use the material against Obama “to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do.” The plan, criticized as blatantly racist, was scuttled and the strategist later apologized.
But Obama’s political enemies still pine for another “Rev. Wright” to exploit. The list is long, and includes the living and the dead: Bill Ayers, Van Jones, the New Black Panthers, Saul Alinsky, Derrick Bell, who was described by the late Andrew Breitbart as “the Jeremiah Wright of academia.”
Nothing has stuck.
I can imagine the delight some Obama haters felt on Sunday, when their eyes landed upon this in the White House pool report about the president’s Easter morning worship at St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House on Lafayette Square.
According to the pool report, the Rev. Luis Leon opened with a joke about “people who came to church just so they could tell their parents or people they’re having lunch with later that they did.”
The report said that Leon quoted Jesus, who told Mary, “You cannot go back.”
Then, Leon said: “It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back, for blacks to be back in the back of the bus, for women to be back in the kitchen, for immigrants to be back on their side of the border.” (An audio of the sermon is to be available on the church’s website later today, according to an associate pastor.)
Quotes like these, to use a religious term, are manna from heaven for the partisan minded.
“Another Obama pastor problem,” declared one conservative site.
“Obama Pastor: Happy Easter Unless You’re a Conservative Christian,” said another.
“Obama’s presence inspires this guy to go all divisive, all racist,” Rush Limbaugh opined Monday, adding that “it may well be the case" that Obama “inspires racism.”
(It’s an indisputable fact that Obama inspires racism, Rush. Just look in the mirror.)
Here’s the silly thing: Leon cannot be said to be “Obama’s pastor” anymore than he can be said to be “George W. Bush’s pastor.” Leon did deliver the benediction at Obama’s second inaugural in January, but he was friends with George W. Bush first. He gave the invocation at the second Bush inaugural, and has been described as a friend of Bush.
White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to comment Monday on whether the Leon’s sermon was appropriate. “He is not a politician. This is not a senator, a member of Congress, or the president. This is a sermon at a church here that has been visited by presidents of both parties for many years.”
That is true. Presidents simply cannot avoid St. John’s, which is often called the “church of the presidents” and even has a dedicated pew – not in the front row – for the commander-in-chief.
Leon did not respond to my request for clarification about what he meant by “the back of the bus” or “back in the kitchen.” He told the Huffington Post Monday, “It’s in there. People will do what they want with it.”
I have an idea what he meant, though. And far from finding his metaphor strident, it struck me as pretty mild.
Anyone who was paying attention during the 2012 presidential campaign -- to the fights over voting rights, the interminable scapegoating of illegal immigrants, controversies over abortion rights and women’s magical abilities to fend off pregnancies during rape -- would have a hard time saying he was plucking accusations out of thin air.
Was this an offensive politicization of the pulpit on Easter Sunday?
Please. Outside of the Sunday morning talk shows, the pulpit is often the most political place in the country.
If the president was sitting in your church during Sunday services -- that’s what I call a true captive listener -- any pastor who failed to connect the dots between spirituality and reality would be guilty of dereliction of duty.
Much as some would love it to be so, the president does not have a pastor problem.
Also, just for the record, there are a lot of people in this country who still believe that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, controversial as he is, was not wrong.