Here’s a thought experiment: Suppose John McCain were a member of Opus Dei….Do you think this would earn him media scrutiny, and make a difference in the Presidential race? Do you think it ought to? Your answer, I think, should go a long way toward determining how you think about the case of Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright.
Without pushing the experiment as far as Ross goes in his post, the Opus Dei question seems fairly easy to address. Sam Brownback was and is a member of Opus Dei, and as far as I know few raised this as a problem or controversy that he needed to address. It certainly did not become a major controversy. Granted, Brownback was out of the race before the Iowa caucuses, and I can imagine that his membership might have become the subject of some greater attention had he continued in the race and if he stood a chance of being the nominee, but does Ross think that a candidate’s Opus Dei membership would have actually merited similarly intense media scrutiny? The people who would have found his membership offensive would have been inveterate anti-Catholics and Dan Brown afficionadoes anyway, and I am going to guess that Ross would have found their objections to Opus Dei unreasonable and overwrought.
Ross’ other comparison is a bit trickier: “suppose he attended a schismatic Latin-Mass parish which had, among other things, bestowed an award on a Lefebvrite bishop given to anti-Semitic remarks.” Yes, there would be a media firestorm in that case, but instead of making the candidate politically radioactive it would solidify his support with the people who already identified with him and the things that they think the media are actually trying to attack by going after the candidate. What I think you would see in that case would be a rallying of Christian conservatives around such a person, just as there was a significant rallying of Christian conservatives around Mel Gibson around the time of the release of The Passion to much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the left. Many Christian conservatives took criticism of The Passion as an open attack on their religion, and so overlooked anything that might give them pause about Gibson and viewed his demonisation by much of the mainstream press as a broader assault on them.
Don’t be surprised if the Christian left and progressives respond with the same siege mentality, some of which we are already seeing. What this means is that when Wright is connected to extreme statements of black liberation theology, people on the left will tend to filter out the most extreme elements and see any criticism of liberation theology as the typical response of the privileged and the majority, while the critics will see the refusal to take account of the militancy as evidence of bad faith and will regard the militancy as proof of the basic craziness of the people who believe these things. Rod Dreher, who was initially one of the relatively more pro-Obama voices on the right, has become deeply disillusioned on account of how the entire Wright business has unfolded, and it seems that black liberation theology has had some significant role in that disillusionment.
This becomes a major obstacle between the two sides of the political spectrum, as both reciprocally accuse one another of “hijacking” Christianity for their own ends (and this may be true in certain cases). Under the best of circumstances and without the inflammatory rhetoric of Wright, most everyone on the right would view liberation theology as deeply distorted by secular ideological preoccupations and would regard it as an exaggerated form of the worst kinds of Social Gospel-inspired political activism, while it is just the opposite for people on the Christian left who see Social Gospel-inspired activism as evidence of a living faith, and who see liberation theology as an identification of Christ with the least among us to the point of identifying His suffering with theirs and effectively imputing some element of divinity to the oppressed. Because the people of God were often delivered from the hands of their enemies by means of violence or divinely-willed destruction, some of which echoes through Orthodox hymnography when commemorating the slaughter of the Amalekites or the destruction of the Egyptians, any theology that emphasises (or, as I see it, overemphasises) God’s will with the cause of any particular oppressed group is going to express itself in militant language.
There is a vast and yawning chasm between these two understandings of how the Gospel relates to political life, and the association of a candidate from the Christian left with some of the most radical expressions of liberation theology (which will always strike orthodox and traditionalist Christians as bordering on, if not crossing over into, madness) only exacerbates the divisions between different kinds of Christians. The use of religious rhetoric by Democratic candidates suggests that we will have more direct political clashes between two broad rival interpretations of Christianity, which will intensify and deepen the existing political divisions by making campaigns into contests over what kind of Christianity in public debates we are going to have prevail.
All of this reminds me that E.J. Dionne’s thesis that the culture wars are over and religion and culture will be taking a backseat to secular issues this cycle is looking worse and worse all the time, and it seems to be confirming my guess that this presidential race is going to be far more polarising and divisive than those we have had in the recent past. Consider: who would have thought a year ago that black liberation theology would become a significant point of debate in the presidential race? What we are seeing growing out of this controversy is a culture clash between the Christian left that is not only accustomed to the militant tone of liberation theology, but which regards radicalism in these matters to be not just admirable but also vitally important, and the Christian and secular right that find either the theology or the politics of the Christian far left deeply inimical to their worldviews. Secular progressives seem to regard the entire controversy as a manufactured one or as evidence of double standards, but are not as deeply invested in the theological underpinnings of the dispute (and this dispute is assuredly about theological assumptions as much as it is about intemperate political rhetoric). None of this is really surprising, but it is somewhat remarkable that once again specifically religious questions are dominating the presidential campaign.