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For months, Sen. John McCain had largely steered clear of the controversy surrounding some of the controversial comments made by Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He even chastised the North Carolina GOP for political ads that featured Wright.
But after Obama acknowledged to Fox News that "the fact he's my former pastor I think makes it a legitimate political issue," McCain seized the opening.
While in Coral Gables, Fla., on April 27, McCain took his own swipe at the political pinata known as the Rev. Wright.
"I saw yesterday some additional comments that have been revealed by Pastor Wright, one of them comparing the United States Marine Corps with Roman legionnaires who were responsible for the death of our Savior. I mean being involved in that — it's beyond belief. And then of course saying that al-Qaida and the American flag were the same flags.
"I can understand that Americans viewing these kinds of comments are angry and upset."
McCain is referring here to the now famous April 13, 2003, homily often referred to as Wright's "God damn America!" sermon.
Let's take the two items separately, as they come in different parts of the sermon. Here's a snippet on which McCain based his first comment:
"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 U.S. 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 in a larger context, the Rev. Wright 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." No, it's not named after Wright. 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.
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 are 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.
The same appears to be true for McCain's claim that Wright said the "al-Qaida and the American flag were the same flags."
Wright was making a point about Americans — and President Bush in particular — invoking God's name to justify the war in Iraq.
"We can see clearly the confusion in the mind of a few Muslims, and please notice I did not say all Muslims, I said a few Muslims, who see Allah as condoning killing and killing any and all who don't believe what they don't believe. They call it jihad. We can see clearly the confusion in their minds, but we cannot see clearly what it is that we do. We call it crusade when we turn right around and say that our God condones the killing of innocent civilians as a necessary means to an end. We say that God understands collateral damage. We say that God knows how to forgive friendly fire."
"We say that God will bless the shock and awe as we take over unilaterally another country, calling it a coalition because we've got three guys from Australia, going against the United Nations, going against the majority of Christians, Muslims and Jews throughout the world, making a pre-emptive strike in the name of God. We cannot see how what we are doing is the same thing that al-Qaida is doing under a different color flag — calling on the name of a different God to sanction and approve our murder and our mayhem."
Wright never said the two flags are the same. His point was that the two are the same inasmuch as some from both sides use God to justify their cause.
Now, that fuller context may not make people any more comfortable. But McCain's simplification of Wright's statement distorts its meaning.
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."
ABC News' Political Punch, "McCain Tries to Have It Both Ways on Rev. Wright," by Jake Tapper, April 28, 2008
AndersonCooper360 blog, "The full story behind Wright's 'God Damn America' sermon," by Anderson Cooper for CNN.com, March 21, 2008
New York Times, Transcript of Reverend Wright at the National Press Club, April 28, 2008
The Caucus, New York Times Political Blog, "The Early Word: McCain Takes Up Wright Issue," by Ariel Alexovich, April 28, 2008
Political Waves, "Transcript of the 'God Damn America' sermon," by Judith Gayle, April 24, 2008
Interview with Bill J. Leonard, Dean of the Divinity School and professor of church history at Wake Forest University, April 29, 2008