Political Hay

Obama Refused to Fire Wright

A deer in the headlights gets a pass from the media.

By 5.6.08

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Barack Obama could have gotten Jeremiah Wright fired.

Lost in all the furor over Senator Barack Obama and his Trinity United Church of Christ pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is the fact of life in UCC churches that the members of each individual church have the power to hire and fire their own minister. Specifically, Article 5, Section 18 of the denomination's Constitution of the United Church of Christ specifies that each individual congregation has the right "to call or dismiss its pastor or pastors by such procedure as it shall determine." If one is a member of any UCC church, in this case Trinity UCC, this fact is well known. The minister of the church is hired by the members themselves.

Fired, too.

The Obama translation: For twenty years Obama sat in the pews, and as friends of Wright's told the New York Post's Fred Dicker, there was no question that Obama knew Wright's views. In an explosive new revelation in last Sunday's New York Post, the paper says Wright "stole" his wife by derailing the marriage of a church member when the member sought marriage counseling from Pastor Wright in the 1980s. Instead, says the Post, Wright used the opportunity to wreck the member's marriage and take the wife as his own. The member in question, Delmer Reed, "told The Post he and his ex-wife went to Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ for counseling when their marriage hit the skids over his demanding work schedule." It also reports how Wright managed this:

"Jeremiah knew all the weaknesses of the couple, and he started focusing on the wife, her vulnerabilities, and started doing things she wanted Delmer to do -- spending time with her, taking her to the movies, that sort of thing," said [Harold] Davis, who heads the Chicago branch of football great Jim Brown's Amer-I-can youth program. "Everybody knew Jeremiah took the man's wife," said Davis. "It was common knowledge."

Wright's actions, if true, could easily be a firing offense in a church. As a member in good standing of Trinity, Obama had the real time ability to lead a move to get his pastor dismissed for both the content of his sermons and his actions with the married couple. He did not do so.

Instead, in a classic deer-in-the-headlights moment, Obama froze.

What clearly seems to have happened is one of two things: Obama heard Wright's sermons over and over and found nothing that was a firing offense. Ditto with Wright making a move on a fellow parishioner's marriage, a marriage Wright was supposedly trying to salvage with counseling. Or, Obama looked around at all the people jumping to their feet and applauding at Wright's sermons -- and decided he just didn't want to make the fight to fire the guy, whether over the issue of his sermons or his conduct as a pastoral marriage counselor. Why do the unpopular thing?

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a member wants a minister dismissed? Well, just about every minister in every pulpit has friends and admirers in the congregation. As a UCC church council president myself and a lifelong denomination member, I can say with certainty that UCC ministers frequently have a shelf life. Over time they develop non-admirers in the congregation. People who for whatever reason -- the minister's sermons, his or her visitation skills, administrative abilities, personnel decisions, political beliefs or more -- feel its time for the pastor to be replaced. In Wright's case, if the Post is accurate, Wright had even moved on a member's wife, broke up the marriage and married her himself. Thus making the wife of the angry member the pastor's wife, a position that is nothing if not highly visible in any community. There's no way something like that, a serious ethical problem in a church, could be missed by Trinity member Obama. Indeed, Harold Davis says flatly that what Wright did "was common knowledge."

Sometimes questions are raised by members after a pastor has been in the same pulpit for decades, sometimes for as little as a few years. But come these questions quite frequently do. When this moment is reached, the minister's opponents let the church council know that they have a problem, and the issue is placed on the council's agenda. In one fashion or another, if the unhappy members can get a majority -- the minister is, well, toast. Done. Fired.

Did Obama ever do this? Did he ever say to himself what he said, at long last, in public the other day? That what Jeremiah Wright was preaching was simply unacceptable? Did he understand that the new Mrs. Wright was now the minister's wife because, again according to the Post, one member's marriage had been targeted by the pastor under guise of counseling? Did Obama ever believe Jeremiah Wright's conduct was beyond the pale and as someone in a leadership role in the community he, Obama, would have to do something? Did he go to his fellow members and say, this is wrong, I can't agree with this, Reverend Wright has to go? Obviously, the answer is no.

Instead, at a minimum, Obama froze. He acted by not acting. The three o'clock in the morning moment of those Hillary Clinton commercials was at hand right in his own church and Barack Obama rolled over and went back to sleep while the phone rang and rang and rang for -- twenty years.

THE PATTERN DEMONSTRATED here is something we now understand he has exhibited in Washington. While Obama talks a great game about a new politics, the hard fact is, as has been noted in other quarters, it is John McCain with the reputation for reaching across the aisle to solve problems. This is, of course, precisely what has caused McCain so many headaches with his conservative base. McCain-Kennedy. McCain-Feingold. McCain-Lieberman. And so on -- and on. But where is Obama in this equation? The answer is he is nowhere. Just as he did at Trinity UCC, when there was a time to act, Obama was nowhere to be seen. He froze. He sat there in his seat in the United States Senate just as he sat in the pews of Trinity UCC -- and went along with Majority Leader Harry Reid and the crowd.

The pattern is seen yet again in Obama's relationship with the Weather Underground's William Ayers, Obama's friend, fellow Wood Foundation board member and campaign supporter. Contrary to Obama's assertion that Ayers' actions weren't relevant because he did them when Obama was "eight" (his words), the fact that Obama saw nothing wrong with Ayers' presence at all these occasions says exactly what the same thing it does about Obama's do-nothing role at Trinity and in the Senate. For Obama to protest Ayers' presence on the Wood Board, or in his own campaign for the Illinois state senate would require Obama to disagree and feel a need to speak up. Whether he agreed or not, Obama, in what appears to be a pattern, chose to do nothing.

Knowing he had the ability to get Wright fired, Obama did nothing. Knowing he could have easily refused to have anything to do with Ayers, Obama did nothing. Preaching change in Washington, Obama did nothing.

The media, still in full Obama-swoon mode, is giving him a pass. Unwilling to even look into the polity of the church to which Obama famously belongs, they have simply shrugged their collective shoulders and looked the other way. Even some conservatives have contented themselves with asking why Obama didn't leave Trinity UCC over Wright's behavior, which is completely the wrong question. It ignores the power equation in the relationship of church member to pastor.

In a UCC church, as clearly outlined in the denomination's Constitution, the members rule. In Trinity UCC, Barack Obama the member had the ability to get Jeremiah Wright fired for his behavior.

He didn't. So the real question here is:

Why?

Jeffrey Lord is the creator, co-founder and CEO of QubeTV, an online conservative video site. A Reagan White House political director and author, he writes from Pennsylvania, where he is a member of the United Church of Christ.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.