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President Obama doesn't have a 'pastor problem'

Ever since the Rev. Jeremiah Wright issue in 2008, Republicans have been looking for another figure to exploit. They can keep on looking.

April 03, 2013|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • The Rev. Luis Leon, right, looks on as President Obama leaves St. John's Episcopal Church after an Easter service in Washington, D.C.
The Rev. Luis Leon, right, looks on as President Obama leaves St. John's… (Drew Angerer / Pool Photo )

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 President 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 conservative agitator Andrew Breitbart as "the Jeremiah Wright of academia."

Nothing has stuck.

I can imagine the delight some Obama haters felt Sunday when their eyes landed upon 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. (When the president is out in public, a rotating pool of reporters chronicles his every move.)

According to the report, the Rev. Luis 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."

Quotes like these are, to use a religious term, manna from heaven for the partisan-minded. And of course, no one's going to wait around for context when it's so much easier to blast away.

"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.)

I listened to Leon's sermon, which was posted on the church website Wednesday. He was funny, and his tone was conversational throughout. He opened with a joke: "If you're here because your parents made you come to church today, that's all right. It's good to build up political capital because you're going to need it somewhere along the line." He talked smack about the Yankees because, he said, he couldn't help it.

He took his Easter homily from the Gospel of John, an account of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb of Jesus, finding it empty and feeling disconsolate. Two angels appear, as does a man holding a tool of some sort. She takes him to be a gardener, but it is Jesus. "Don't hold on to me," he tells her.

"We understand Mary well," Leon says. "We want to cling to things the way they used to be.... I hear all the time the expression 'the good old days.' Well, the 'good old days' we forget may have been good for some but they weren't good for everybody. You can't go back, you can't live in the past."

Then came the passage about "captains of the religious right" and their desire to turn back the clock.

Leon did not respond to my request for clarification about what he meant by "the back of the bus" or "back in the kitchen." I have an idea what he meant, though. Far from finding his metaphor strident, it struck me as pretty mild.

Anyone 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.

But 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 were sitting in your church during Sunday services — that's what I call a true captive listener — any pastor failing to connect the dots between spirituality and reality would be guilty of dereliction of duty.

Also, 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.

White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to comment Monday on whether 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.

Much as some would love it to be so, the president does not have a pastor problem.

Also, just for the record, a lot of people in this country still believe that the Rev. Wright, outrageous as he is, was not entirely wrong.

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