May 01, 2008

"I tremble for my country..."

The Jeremiah Wright controversy has revealed -- or rather, to be accurate, confirmed -- our "national discourse" as an indescribably petty, unremittingly superficial and stupid, insultingly trivial exercise in national denial. Some thoughts about the general nature of our "national discourse" will be found in "'Regrettable Misjudgments': The Shocking Immorality of Our Constricted Thought"; my latest posts about various aspects of the Wright controversy are here and here.

So I am exceedingly grateful to find that unusual instance of commentary that approaches this subject in an informed and thoughtful manner. John Nichols is not as forceful as I would prefer, and he makes a few regrettable concessions to the conventional demands of the day. But much of this piece is excellent. You should read it in its entirety, but these excerpts are the main argument:
[T]his former Marine who became an remarkably successful and widely-respected religious leader is in possession of the balm that has frequently proven to be the cure for what ails America -- an eyes-wide-open faith in the prospect that this country can and will put aside the sins of the past and forge a future that is as just as it is righteous.

As Wright has illustrated over the past several days, in a remarkable appearance Friday on PBS' Bill Moyers Journal and in speeches to the Detroit NAACP and the National Press Club in Washington, he is the opposite of the caricature of an angry, America-hating false prophet that has been so crudely attached to him. Deeply grounded in biblical tradition, nuanced in his understanding of race relations and historically experienced in his assessments of America's strengths and weaknesses, he has much to say to this country at this time.

Not all of what Wright says is comforting.

His views are not universally appealing, nor are they or should they be seen as unassailable.

But, for the most part, they are well [...] within the mainstream of American religious and political discourse.

The problem is not Jeremiah Wright.

The problem is a contemporary political culture that has come to rely on character assassination as an easy tool for reversing electoral misfortune -- and a media that willingly invites manipulation.


In more ways than Republican and now Democratic critics seem prepared to admit, Wright is the embodiment of an American religious and political tradition of challenging the country's sins while calling it to the higher ground that extends from the founding of the republic. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson -- who constructed that wall of separation between church and state but who worried a good deal about questions of the divine -- worried openly about the retribution that would befall a nation that permitted slavery.

"The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other," wrote Jefferson in 1781's Notes on the State of Virginia, where he asked, "(Can) the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever."

The wrath of God brought down on a country that permits slavery? A nation damned by its original sin? God damn America?

America has been blessed from its beginnings by champions of liberty, by abolitionists and civil rights marchers, by suffragists and union organizers, by anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and challengers of the military-industrial complex like Dwight Eisenhower. Necessarily, these patriots have said some tough things about American leaders and policies. They have acknowledged flaws that are self-evident. Yet, they have not done so out of hatred. Rather, they have loved America sufficiently to believe it can be as good and as just as figures so diverse and yet in some very important ways so similar as Thomas Jefferson and Jeremiah Wright have taught us.
Most of the commentary about Wright is not fit for wrapping fish, or even dog droppings. Although they are flawed in certain ways, Nichols' observations are as rare as rubies.