Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What Can Jeremiah Wright and Joseph Smith Teach Us about the American Presidency?

Last Tuesday, Andrew Sullivan’s post at The Daily Beast highlighted what he believes to be the double standard the American media has applied to the racially charged sermons delivered by President Obama’s former Pastor Jeremiah Wright—replayed in a constant loop in 2008—and the relatively scant coverage the history of racial exclusion Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has received in 2012.
“It is a fact,” Sullivan writes, “that Mitt Romney belonged to a white supremacist church for 31 years of his life … which retained white supremacy as a doctrine until 1978.” With this in mind, Sullivan asks his readers to engage in a thought experiment: “[C]an you imagine the outrage if Obama had actually been a part of a black supremacist church?”
Sullivan intended to provoke. And provoke he did. At Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks noted that while he got many details wrong about race and Mormonism, “Sullivan is right to point out that there is a tremendous double standard at play” when it comes to linking Wright to Obama and Mormonism to Romney. Yet in private, other Mormons—even those sympathetic to Sullivan’s analysis of their church’s troubling past—thought the timing of the piece was more provocative than its content. Sullivan’s post was more a manufactured “October surprise,” or even “blatant political demagoguery,” as one Mormon politico told me, than serious media criticism. At The American Conservative, this was more or less Rod Dreher’s assessment. While sharing Sullivan’s “disgust for the legacy of the anti-black theology [of] the Mormon church,” Dreher asserted that Sullivan “raises this because the election is very, very close, and his candidate, Obama, is in trouble.”  
I too found Sullivan’s piece to be provocative. But unlike Dreher, and some of my Mormon friends, the lessons I take from the questions that Sullivan raises have less to do with the last two weeks of this presidential campaign, and more to do with the past four years of the Obama era.  
 Here are three such lessons.
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