Barack Obama Needs the Wright Stuff To Win—Don’t Disown, Embrace Him!

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not your perfect, textbook pastor. He doesn’t just stand at the back of the church with innocuous and uninvolved welcomes and goodbyes.

But the perfect is the enemy of the good. Barack Obama’s campaign has been all about showing us how to do good in an imperfect world. How to accept each other as we are, not how we would like each other to be.

Personally, I don’t believe U.S. government is killing my African-American brothers by spreading a virulent disease. Nor would I characterize the actions of the United States in Iraq, which I think deeply flawed, as terrorist. But then, I have never felt entirely comfortable with any of the explanations for the murders of John F. Kennedy or Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. Some things are unexplained in life, and sometimes, despite all evidence, we indulge our own narratives to see us through. In her thoughtful column in the Los Angeles Times , Rosa Brooks reminds us that there are significant numbers of black Americans who, because of the Tuskegee experiments where largely black sharecroppers served as human guinea pigs in public health experimentation, do not immediately see the Rev. Wright’s comments about AIDS as paranoia.

Even if Sen. Obama is not prepared to rationalize the Rev. Wright’s suspicions, he should forgive him. Yes, it’s important to talk about the economy and health care and ending the war, but without reconciliation with the Rev. Wright, the campaign will be off-kilter. The Obama campaign has always been more about the Christian ethic of love of neighbor than wonkish policy. Whatever voice Jeremiah Wright used in his sermons, he successfully strengthened that aspect of Barack Obama’s gifted personality. To disown or to separate from Jeremiah Wright is to distance himself from himself. It can’t be done, and in any event, it’s politically unwise.

Some have written that Jeremiah Wright is the missing father figure in Sen. Obama’s life. I’m no psychologist, but that makes sense. I know at times I have embarrassed my sons. My father, who is nearing 86 and has all the endearing and frustrating qualities of that age, at times has embarrassed me. It is what fathers and sons do. Barack Obama might have known that if his Kenyan father had not left too soon. More importantly, it would have been easier for him to recognize that only the mean-spirited or small-minded seeking political advantage would insist upon a division between father and son.

No, Sen. Obama, you don’t have to distance yourself from your lifelong friend to be elected president of the United States. It is wrong for any of us to ask you to do so, and it would be a mistake for you to yield. So, call him up. Invite him out to Indiana. Kick back together with the Hoosiers, and if you have the time, stop in to see another Father— Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C ., Notre Dame’s president emeritus and inspirational civil rights leader.  The three of you are sharing a historic journey, and there’s no good reason for anyone to sit at the back of the bus or be thrown under it.