When he said “God damn America,” the Rev. Jeremiah Wright mostly performed an over-the-top Mark Twain.
“Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it,” Twain is credited with saying.
That is to say that America is always great, just not always good.
Our country's principles, its values, its very essence, its pursuit of freedom and economic opportunity and international aid and understanding — all of that is uncommonly and unceasingly noble. But sometimes our temporal government has acted badly.
It has mistreated native Americans, enslaved black people, imprisoned innocent Japanese-Americans, invaded Iraq and produced a misnamed Justice Department that put out a memorandum asserting that it's all right for Americans to torture people so long as we're only seeking information and not seeking to humiliate.
Bill Moyers did the thoughtful and fair-minded among us a favor Friday night on PBS. A brother of Wright in the United Church of Christ, Moyers invited Barack Obama's demonized pastor for an extended, tame and enlightening conversation.
Wright acquitted himself well theologically, intellectually and temperamentally.
When Moyers presented Wright's infamous sound-bytes, he did so by airing more of Wright's warm-up to them, thus providing vital context.
Doing what's called prophetic preaching by tying Christian principles to real contemporary issues and advocacy, like Martin Luther King, Wright led up to shouting “God damn America” this way: Scriptures teach that it's wrong to kill the innocents, yet great governments throughout history have repeatedly done so. He cited the Greeks, the Romans, the British, the Soviets, the Germans — even, yes, the Americans.
Working himself to a rolling boil, Wright climaxed by saying he doesn't say “God bless America,” but, in reference to our country's moral failings through history, “God damn America.” Then he finished that thought with this key phrase — “as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme.”
Moyers asked Wright what he had meant. Wright said it was plain that he was saying that God demands that our first loyalty must be to Him, not a government, which will inevitably fail. “My country right or wrong” is not a biblically sound premise, he said.
That doesn't make him un-American. It makes him Christian. It doesn't make him unpatriotic. It makes him secondarily patriotic. Anyway, as Wright put it Monday at the National Press Club, he did six more years than Dick Cheney in patriotic military service to the country.
Wright explained to Moyers that he was using “damn” not in a way that meant he wanted America destroyed or sent to Hell, but as a synonym for “condemn.”
His other most incendiary preaching had him seeming to suggest that America deserved the attack of 9/11 because of its own terrorism. Again, the full context showed something somewhat less offensive and more thoughtful.
Wright was saying that America was hardly innocent of mistreating people through its history in a way that might be compared to terrorist acts. He was lamenting that the prevailing American instinct was for vengeance, which is not God's way.
That's straight out of the instruction to turn the other cheek.
Wright was saying that the Bible teaches that we reap what we sow. That's different from actually saying that anyone deserves another's violent vengeance. But, admittedly, that's a pretty fine distinction, perhaps, alas, too fine, requiring too much difficult and honest introspection, for contemporary American political dialogue.
Wright no doubt will continue to be criticized from the right. He surely will remain a drag on Obama.
The lingering criticism from the left is that Wright offers no positive view of our country to counterbalance his angry condemnation. But “audacity of hope,” a phrase Obama said he got from Wright, sounds rather positive.
A postscript: Wright also once preached that our government had lied about inflicting the HIV virus on black people. That one is just nuts.
A second postscript: Generally, political pundits have been unwilling to consider Wright's substantive context. They tend to delve no further than the politically superficial judgment that, for Obama's campaign, it would be better for Wright to shut up. Indeed, politically speaking, Jeremiah is to Barack what Bill is to Hillary.