Over the last couple of days, I’ve seen and heard a number of explanations, or attempts at explanations, regarding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright having proclaimed, "God Damn America."
Most of them have been along the lines of the old cliche, "It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand," although no one has used those precise words. Well, I accept that on one level or another, I can never fully understand where any other human being is coming from. My own brother has the same genetic background that I do and grew up in the same household, but each of us has had a separate experience of life that has shaped us differently and causes us to express ourselves differently. The farther you get from being my biological brother — or, to describe someone I’ve spent a lot more time with than my brother, my wife — the wider that gap will get. The more different our experiences, the more different our perceptions of the world, and the more different our ways of speaking of the world.
But I’ve got to tell you, "God Damn America" is not a statement that is fraught with nuance. It’s very clear, uncompromising and all-encompassing. In all the explanations I’ve heard for that statement, no one has suggested that the words mean anything different. In English, they can only mean one thing. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says "God Damn America," I know what he means, even though he and I probably have a lot fewer reference points in common than the Rev. Wright and I have.
And if the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, speaking from his pulpit, deliberately and clearly calls upon God to damn America, and urges his congregation to send forth the same prayer, I know what he means. It means asking God to send America to hell forever. Damnation, under any sense of the word that I have every heard of (and no one has offered an alternative definition in response to this issue), and within any theology I have heard of (and again, no one has offered a different theological meaning of the word), means that and nothing else.
It doesn’t say, "America has a lot to answer for." It does not say, "America is guilty of terrible crimes." It does not say, "America has treated you and me and millions of others horribly and inexcusably, and we can never forgive that." It means to curse America beyond redemption, beyond improvement, beyond a second or third or billionth chance. "Damn" means "damn." It goes infinitely beyond any other obscenity you might utter in expressing your displeasure with America. If you say — and pardon my implied language — "F— America," that is at least something from which the object of your anger might recover. If you say "Kill America," you have at least described something from which it might be redeemed. But the Rev. Wright did not say those things. He said "God Damn America."
I understand hyperbole. I know all about exaggeration for effect. I know that many people have profound, complex reasons for being angrier about the way the world is and has been than I ever will. But this is not about exaggeration. This word is not a matter of degree. It is not about merely using a word that goes quantitatively too far.
I also understand that black homilitic and worship traditions are very, very different from that of, say, my own church, or any that I regularly attended growing up. I’ve been in this country most of my life (like Obama, I’ve lived abroad), and I took in that fact long ago.
And I’ve read the news stories — here’s one that was in our paper today, and another I saw in The Wall Street Journal — that quote experts explaining that it’s different when Jeremiah Wright says it. But it isn’t different. There is no moral context, no separate historical grounding, no cultural style, no emotional framework that gives the words "God Damn America" a different meaning. When, in The State‘s story, the Rev. Joe Darby — whom I have known and respected for years, and to the best of my knowledge would never say "God damn America" — speaks of "the role of the historical black church in ‘speaking truth to power’," I know what he means. I agree that has been the role of the black church, and it has played that role well, and employed hyperbole in the course of doing so. But the point seems to me irrelevant. In what way, shape or form does "God Damn America" constitute speaking truth to anyone?
I also get it that I’m the clueless white guy. I’ve pled guilty to that before. But again, I remain unconvinced that I am too clueless to understand what "God Damn America" means.
Now — does what I am saying here change the fact that I respect and admire Barack Obama, and think he should get the Democratic nomination for president? No, it does not. To the contrary, I was very much impressed by the speech he gave on the subject yesterday, which in so many ways spoke to the qualities that I respect in Sen. Obama. And note that he strongly repudiates his former pastor’s message.
Am I saying he absolved himself from his connection — his extended, deliberate, close association — with a preacher who would say, "God Damn America?" No. He did not do that. And after all the years he has been going to that church, I can’t imagine any words he could say that would accomplish that feat. And if he did, he would be rightly criticized for politically convenient timing.
As a voter, and as a writer who comments upon politics in this country, I am deeply impressed by the transcendent way in which Barack Obama addresses the intensely, damnably pervasive issue of race in America. He says just what I want a presidential candidate to say on the subject, and he says it better than any politician I have heard. He reaffirmed that for me Tuesday.
But I do have to set all that alongside the fact that he has deliberately associated with the man who said — and apparently meant, since I’ve heard about no repudiation from the preacher himself — "God Damn America." That will be something that Barack Obama as a candidate will just have to live with. It can’t be changed, any more than John McCain can change the fact that he would be 72 years old if inaugurated (a very different sort of problem, but just as immutable).
Those are both inescapable facts, and voters will have to decide what weight to give them if these are the two nominees in the fall.