The Rev. Jesse Jackson apologized for “crude remarks” that he made about Sen. Barack Obama on a television show when he thought his microphone was off. Jackson’s remarks were certainly crude: He said he wanted to cut off part of Obama’s anatomy. But, there seemed to me to be something worse at issue in Rev. Jackson’s comments. They reeked of hubris.
Rev. Jackson, like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and like Rev. Al Sharpton have taken complicated, even tortured stances towards the emergence of Obama. When Wright went before the National Press Club to trash his former parishioner Obama, it was like watching a father smother his child with a pillow. But, America, and especially the black community, got a whiff of what motivates these men of the cloth in Jackson’s revealing mistake. They feel entitled to pronounce judgment on Obama. Jackson did not say that he hopes the American electorate cuts anything off Obama. He said that he wanted to do so.
For decades, the pastorate was the path to social and political leadership in the black community. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands out as a shining example of how a pastor did attain leadership within the black community and translate that into an undeniable betterment of the entire nation.
But, there has been a decline since Dr. King. For starters, Rev. Sharpton and Rev. Jackson, while claiming the mantle of King, lacked his intellectual heft because they lack his education. King was gifted by nature with eloquence, but he refined that gift earning his doctorate at Boston University. Sharpton dropped out of college. The younger generation of pastors also led the black community in a different direction. King knew that he had to appeal to what Lincoln had called “the better angels of our nature,” that his quest for justice had to work its way through the slow processes of democracy, and that embracing the creative, redemptive power of suffering imposed by his commitment to non-violence was the best way to so change the nation. Jackson and Sharpton have always been more confrontational, less concerned with persuasion, certainly less committed to non-violence.
In 2006, while running for the governorship of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick also had trouble with the black pastors in Boston. Patrick, like Obama, came to political prominence through Harvard Law, not through First Baptist. Obama has drawn the same suspicions and resentments nationally as Patrick did, and Rev. Jackson was merely giving voice to a more common sense of entitlement that is now deeply threatened in its hold on the black community.
One of the happiest developments of the 2008 election cycle is that the pastorate is no longer protection from the standards that apply to others. Rev. Wright was thrown under the bus for saying crazy things, as was Rev. John Hagee. Rev. Sharpton, whose presence on the debate stage during the 2004 primaries was an obvious and ridiculous example of self-promotion, has been largely neglected. And now Rev. Jesse Jackson is getting his comeuppance. Only when religion is reasonable and its leaders held to the same standards of conduct expected of others will it cease to play a divisive role in our politics. Rev. Jackson should expand his apology to include his hubris and then do the country the favor of retiring from public life.
Michael Sean Winters