Bill Moyers plays Whiffleball with the Rev. Wright [Karl]
Not that anyone should expect that Bill Moyers Journal will involve journalism, but the former LBJ flack’s “interview” with Barack Obama’s longtime spiritual adviser, Rev. Jeremiah Wright cannot be fairly called a softball game. It would be more apt to compare it to whiffleball.
At the very outset of the program, in which Moyers made the following disclosure:
I joined a UCC church on Long Island 40 years ago and attend Riverside Church in New York City, which is affiliated with American Baptists and the UCC. But I couldn’t remember ever having met Reverend Wright. So I wanted to know more about the man, the ministry, and the church.
This disclosure by Moyers (who it turns out had met Wright, while working for LBJ) is perhaps the only moment of journalistic integrity in the program as this bias turns out to be relevant at the end of the “interview.” The program went entirely downhill from there, either because Moyers failed to do much research beforehand, or did the research and decided to hide it from his viewers.
Thus, Moyers allowed Wright to deny that the “unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian” TUCC embraces a race-based theology and even framed the discussion of Black Liberation Theology this way:
BILL MOYERS: Lots of controversy about black liberation theology. As I understand it, black liberation theology reads the bible through the experience of people who have suffered, and who then are able to say to themselves that we read the bible differently, because we have struggled, than those do who have not struggled. Is that a fair bumper sticker of liberation theology?
REVEREND WRIGHT: I think that’s a fair bumper sticker. I think that the terms “liberation theology” or “black liberation theology” cause more problems and red flags for people who don’t understand it.
BILL MOYERS: When I hear the word “black liberation theology” being the interpretation of scripture from the oppressed, I think well, that’s the Jewish story–
REVEREND WRIGHT: Exactly, exactly. From Genesis to Revelation. These are people who wrote the word of God that we honor and love under Egyptian oppression, Syrian oppression, Babylonian oppression, Persian oppression, Greek oppression, Roman oppression. So that their understanding of what God is saying is very different from the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians. And that’s what prophetic theology of the African-American church is.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. But talk a little bit about that. The prophets loved Israel. But they hated the waywardness of Israel. And they were calling Israel out of love back to justice, not damning–
REVEREND WRIGHT: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Not damning Israel. Right?
All of which nicely sets up Wright’s spin on his “G-d Damn America” sermon following the 9/11 attacks.
If Moyers had any journalistic integrity he might have gone beyond a bumper-sticker understanding of Black Liberation Theology and asked about the underlying Marxist frame work of liberation theologies in general. Given Wright’s denial of a race based-theology, he might have confronted him with material from the man whom Wright acknowledges as the person who systematized it:
It is fair to say that there is no one so identified with Black Liberation Theology than Dr. James H. Cone.
The concept of Ã¢â‚¬Å“blacknessÃ¢â‚¬Â is central to ConeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s work. In his groundbreaking 1969 book, Black Theology and Black Power, Cone wrote: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The fact that I am black is my ultimate reality,Ã¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬ÂBlack Theology knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself. This alone must be the ultimate authority in religious matters.Ã¢â‚¬Â Cone has been ambiguous about the concept of blackness, sometimes referring to Ã¢â‚¬Å“a particular black-skinned people in America,Ã¢â‚¬Â at other times asserting it is Ã¢â‚¬Å“an ontological symbol for all people who participate in the liberation of man from oppression.Ã¢â‚¬Â People familiar with the past writing of our host, Jeff Goldstein will recognize the latter as the substitution of one pernicious fiction for another.
…Indeed, in a paper titled Ã¢â‚¬Å“Black Power, Black Theology,Ã¢â‚¬Â Cone wrote, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Black Theology is the theological arm of Black Power, and Black Power is the political arm of Black Theology.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Moyers could have followed that up with the fact that when Cone is asked where his theology is institutionally embodied, he always mentions TUCC.
That Moyers equates Black Liberation Theology with the Jewish story also reveals his shallowness or duplicity. As I have previously noted:
In liberation theology, the Exodus story is a central paradigm for various revolutionary social movements. However, the point of the Exodus was not only liberation from slavery under Pharaoh, but also service and obedience to God. If liberation was the only point, God might have been just fine with the Exodus afterparty featuring Edward G. Robinson and the Golden Calf, but the Bible clearly says otherwise.
The same shallowness or duplicity is present in comparing Wright’s prophetic theology to the traditional prophetic voice. Richard Landes — a historian specializing in Millenialism also known for debunking Palestinian propaganda — has already dissected this defense of Wright’s sermons:
As someone who has read the prophetic texts, and thought a good deal about them in the context of the tradition of self-criticism, I think these characterizations of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“prophetic streamÃ¢â‚¬Â represent a profound misunderstanding. The prophets are ferocious in their criticism of their own people; they have relatively little to say about the real oppressive forces in the world of their day in the 8-7th centuries BCE. When the people of Israel get smashed by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the prophets donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t go into a rant about how evil these vicious imperialists are; they invoke them as GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s agents in punishing Israel for their sins. When, under more normative conditions, when they chastize rulers and aristocracy for their treatment of the poor, they do so again with vigorous, even violent rhetoric, but they do so in the hopes of changing their people. The prophets, however rough they may be, love the people they chastize, and rebuke them for the sake of their transformation.
All this is very far from what is here invoked as Ã¢â‚¬Å“Black Liberation TheologyÃ¢â‚¬Â or the Ã¢â‚¬Å“prophetic streamÃ¢â‚¬Â of African-American churches. There, although Reverend Wright repeatedly speaks about Ã¢â‚¬Å“we,Ã¢â‚¬Â he really means the white ruling class who, in his mind, deliberately conspire to destroy, even wipe out the blacks, the innocent victims of that malevolence.
The two then segue into the bogus claim that Wright was being quoted out of context in the video clips on TV and the Internet. This was what PBS rolled out as the teaser, so I will only add that this part of the “interview,” is all the more shameless in context, given that the two have just been ripping the Exodus and the prophetic tradition completely out of context.
Next, Moyers tries to generate some sympathy for Wright by asking about alleged threats made against Wright and TUCC, followed by questions about the blues. Great questions. Compelling, and rich.
Then the air cover for Obama:
BILL MOYERS: You know, you mentioned Senator Obama. In the 20 years that you’ve been your pastor, have you ever heard him repeat any of your controversial statements as his opinion?
REVEREND WRIGHT: No. No. No. Absolutely not. I don’t talk to him about politics. 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.
Some have already noted that Wright characterizing what Obama does and says “as a politician” may itself damage Obama, who positions himself as a new kind of politician. I would add that Wright’s characterization is essentially false, given that Black Liberation Theology — and liberation theology generally — is at its core a religious casting of Leftist political activism, and that this is precisely what appealed to Obama about Wright and TUCC.
Moyers then joins Wright in some dissembling regarding Louis Farrakhan:
BILL MOYERS: But even some of your admirers say it would be wrong to gloss over what Martin Marty himself called- who loves you- called your “abrasive edges.” For example, you know, Louis Farrakhan lives in the south part of Chicago, doesn’t he? You’ve had a long complicated relationship with him, right?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And he, you know, he’s expressed racist and anti-Semitic remarks. And, yet, last year-
REVEREND WRIGHT: Twenty years ago.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty years ago, but that’s indefensible.
REVEREND WRIGHT: The Nation of Islam and Mr. Farrakhan have more African-American men off of drugs. More African-American men respecting themselves. More African-American men working for a living. Not gang banging. Not trying to get by. That’s not indefensible in terms of how you make a difference in the prisons? Turning people’s lives around. Giving people hope. Getting people off drugs. That we don’t believe the same things in terms of our specific faiths. He’s Muslim, I’m Christian. We don’t believe the same things he said years ago. But that has nothing to do with what he has done in terms of helping people change their lives for the better. I said direct quote was what? “Louis Farrakhan is like E.F. Hutton. When Lewis Farrakhan speaks, black America listens. They may not agree with him, but they’re listening.
That’s part of what Wright wrote and said about Farrakhan. The “Lifetime Achievement Award” bestowed on Farrakhan by TUCCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s magazine, run by Mr. WrightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s daughter, quotes Wright further:
Ã¢â‚¬Å“When Minister Farrakhan speaks, Black America listens,Ã¢â‚¬Â says the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, likening the MinisterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s influence to the E. F. Hutton commercials of old. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Everybody may not agree with him, but they listenÃ¢â‚¬Â¦His depth on analysis when it comes to the racial ills of this nation is astounding and eye opening. He brings a perspective that is helpful and honest.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Minister Farrakhan will be remembered as one of the 20th and 21st century giants of the African American religious experience,Ã¢â‚¬Â continues Wright. Ã¢â‚¬Å“His integrity and honesty have secured him a place in history as one of the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most powerful critics. His love for Africa and African American people has made him an unforgettable force, a catalyst for change and a religious leader who is sincere about his faith and his purpose.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The accompanying video shown at the award’s gala dinner (taken offline now) referred to Farrakhan as “misunderstood.” But Wright is flat-out lying in claiming that Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic remarks were 20 years ago. Moyers either did not know that or did not want to bother calling Wright on it.
Moyers then tosses in another whiffleball:
BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that millions Americans, according to polls, still think Barack Obama is a Muslim?
Obviously, it says that there are misinformed people in America, though this is one of the few points in the program where Moyers is not helping Wright misinform his viewers.
The wind-up question?
BILL MOYERS: Our denomination, the United Church of Christ has called for a sacred conversation on race in America. What are the steps that you think from all of your experience can be taken to move race relations forward?
That “sacred conversation” is the UCC’s effort at playing the race card to dodge the criticism Wright has brought on the denomination through his stewardship of the Trinity UCC in Chicago — a point acknowledged by some UCC members. That Moyers does not acknowledge it as such makes his prior disclosure one of his few valuable contibutions to the set piece.
As pw favorite happyfeet correctly predicted:
[T]his has nothing to do with Wright saying anything at all but just an opportunity for Moyers and Wright to speak in calm really quite reasonable and respectful tones and generate some clips for fellow travelers to disseminate. Duh.
The whiffleballs Moyers tosssed to Wright bear that out, especially when compared with how Moyers wanted John McCain grilled about the theology of John Hagee last month. Ironically, even some Democratic consultants think Wright’s current media blitz is ill-timed, reviving a story damaging to Obama just as it was dying out again.
Thus, Moyers proves himself more hack than flack. Maybe next week, Moyers can have Bill Ayers explain how he was never convicted for the Weather Underground bombings. “Convicted? No, never convicted.”
update: additional thoughts courtesy Jeff, here.
Update x2: Insta-lanche!