McCain's account of Wright's statements was widely reported in the media, but was it accurate? It was a long sermon Wright gave on April 13, 2003, one made famous for his saying "God damn America." For us, the relevant part, on which McCain based his statement, was this:
"These people had ... an occupying army living in their country. Jesus ... calls them their enemies."
"Their enemies had all the political power," Wright said. "Remember, they had to send Jesus to a court presided over by the enemy. A provisional governor appointed by the enemies ran the civic and the political affairs of their capital. He had backing him up an occupying army with superior soldiers. They were commandos trained in urban combat and trained to kill on command.
"Remember, it was soldiers of the 3rd Marine Regiment of Rome who had fun with Jesus, who was mistreated as a prisoner of war, an enemy of the occupying army stationed in Jerusalem to ensure the mopping up action of Operation Israeli Freedom. These people were blinded by the culture of war."
It should be noted that there was no 3rd Marine Regiment of the Roman army. The 3rd Marine Regiment is an infantry regiment of the United States Marine Corps.
One could argue Wright was simply putting a modern analogy on a biblical account — that he was saying it was the Roman version of our 3rd Marine Regiment.
One could also argue that the Rev. Wright, a former Marine, was subtly drawing parallels between those Roman soldiers and the modern American military.
Parsing the words of a preacher is tricky business.
Bill J. Leonard, dean of the Divinity School and professor of church history at Wake Forest University, said the sermon is an illustration of a rhetorical device — common to many African-American and Southern preachers, and used by Wright extensively — called a "Jeremiad." Webster's defines it as "a prolonged lamentation or complaint" or "a cautionary or angry harangue."
Said Leonard: "If you start making it literal and pressing it on public issues, you are missing some of the point."
Leonard believes Wright is making reference to Abu Ghraib, where some U.S. Army military police abused and humiliated Iraqi prisoners.
The whole point of such a sermon is to be provocative, Leonard said. And good preachers hold their parishioners — and nations — accountable, he said.
In a speech before the National Press Club on April 28, Wright said much of the criticism of his sermons amounted to an attack on the black church.
"Black preaching is different from European and European-American preaching," Wright said. "It is not deficient; it is just different. It is not bombastic; it is not controversial; it's different."
Since we're parsing Wright's words, let's parse McCain's too. He said Wright "compared" the Marines to Roman soldiers who persecuted Christ. One could certainly argue whether it is fair or appropriate to draw any parallels between U.S. soldiers and those Roman soldiers, or to what degree Wright was suggesting that they similar.
McCain's recounting of Wright's statement seems an attempt to maximize the issue for sensational effect, but it certainly seems to us, based on Wright's interchanging modern language with the biblical tale, that he at least wanted his parishioners to consider a comparison of the two. We give it a Mostly True.