Wright caused political trouble for Obama because of his no-holds-barred, racially charged denunciations of America and its government for what the pastor saw as its lies, abuses, and cruelties. Wright even angrily called on God to “damn America” for its deeds. I recall feeling outraged by Wright’s words, and criticized him strongly in my columns. Obama publicly distanced himself from his pastor’s views.
Later, though, I had a change of heart. It’s not that I found Wright’s sentiments – for which he did not apologize -- any less offensive. It’s that I found it possible, even necessary, to give the 66-year-old black man grace in the matter.
Jeremiah Wright was born into an America where black people in much of the country suffered as second-class citizens under the law, and in which blacks endured hatred and social discrimination everywhere. He was 22 years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, and 25 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
Wright turned to political and theological radicalism, much of it racially informed. Today, many Americans, including President Obama, see Wright’s views as harsh, extreme, and morally objectionable. But if you consider the world that formed the moral imagination of a 66-year-old black American, it’s not hard to understand how he came to hold the views he does.
It doesn’t make it right, but it does make it understandable. And, to my mind, forgivable.
I thought about that when the white Southerner Paula Deen, who was born five years after Wright, saw her career implode after admitting to at least once using the N-word in private, and fantasizing about a plantation-themed wedding.
Using the N-word is immoral, and the plantation wedding idea is at least racially and historically insensitive, and in poor taste. Yet I found it easier to excuse this in a Southerner of Deen’s age, given the culture in which she was raised.
The Georgia of Deen’s childhood was a place of deep racial hatred and legal segregation. It was very difficult for white Southerners to grasp the evils of racism, because they were immersed in a culture that denied it. I was born 30 years after Paula Deen, and I can testify that the experience of race for white Southerners of my generation – the first to go to integrated schools, the first to be raised after the Civil Rights era -- was enormously different.
As a younger man, I used to judge older white Southerners harshly for holding on to vestiges of racism. When I got older, though, I imagined how well I would have done had I been raised in the South during segregation. Would I have found the moral courage to stand up against the evil of racism, even if it meant going against everything my culture taught me?
I hope I would have. But I doubt it. It is hard to resist the power of culture to condition one’s views of right and wrong. Growing up in the South in the 1970s, the only place white kids of my generation received a strong anti-racism message was not, alas, through the church, but through television. Paula Deen didn’t even have that to counter what she was told by her culture.
We see a similar cultural divide between younger and older Americans today on homosexuality. Polls show that it’s difficult for people under 30 to understand why anybody looks on gay marriage with moral disapproval – this, even though disapproval of homosexuality was common until about 20 years ago. People who believe Deen deserves to be professionally destroyed for her casual racism should imagine how younger generations will judge them for believing and saying things about homosexuality that were well within the bounds of normal discourse today.
Who can forecast what moral norms today will be seen as moral outrages tomorrow? I do not know what my children will believe when they are adults, but I hope that when they look at their father, they will not judge me harshly, but rather with grace and understanding. I hope they see me as we all are: flawed, broken humans, sinners in need of redemption, bearing all the scars of the times and places that made us.
Rod Dreher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org