The Obamas ended up attending Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood (and three blocks from my house–thanks for the wake-up via low-flying security helicopters, Mr. President) for Easter services on Sunday. Obama himself has said that the First Family doesn’t plan on joining a Washington-area church, so this was just a one-off visit for Easter, but Shiloh was an interesting, if obvious, holiday choice.
The church was founded by slaves in the 1860s, and its senior pastor, the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, has been a well-respected leader in the local religious community. If a visitor to the city wanted to hear a good sermon on Sunday morning, you directed them to Shiloh. The church also has a White House connection: Adam Taylor, who is an associate minister at Shiloh, is also the senior political director at Jim Wallis’ Sojourners and was in the 2009-2010 class of White House fellows.
Sunday’s service was a fairly typical Easter celebration–rousing renditions of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Victory is Mine,” accompanied by trumpets and Shiloh’s 120-person choir. Smith indulged in a little rhetorical excess in his sermon, veering off to chastise “DaVinci Code” writer Dan Brown for depicting Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ girlfriend, and alluding to historical racism by noting that his newborn grandson will be able to say: “They tried to write me off as 3/5 a person in the Constitution, but I am here.”
The Obamas weren’t able to make it through all two and a half hours of the service. They left after the sermon. But their presence in the pews was enough to draw the attention of conservatives, who quickly scoured available records of Smith’s public remarks. Sure enough, on his radio show the next day, Rush Limbaugh went after Smith, calling him “Jeremiah Wright Jr.” and Sean Hannity used his Fox News program to compare Smith to Wright as well.
What got these two conservative media giants atwitter was a speech Smith gave last year at Eastern University in Pennsylvania–the school where evangelical pastor and speaker Tony Campolo is based. He was asked to speak about racism and offered some thoughts that included the assertion that racism still exists in the United States. There were two important details about the speech: 1) It was taped; and 2) Smith singled out Fox News and Limbaugh by name.
“It may not be Jim Crow anymore,” Smith said in the speech. “Now, Jim Crow wears blue pinstripes, goes to law school and carries fancy briefs in cases….[H]e doesn’t have to wear white robes anymore because now he can wear the protective cover of talk radio or can get a regular news program on Fox.” Of Limbaugh, Smith said that the conservative radio host can get away with making “statements that were once the purview of Robert Shelton and members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizen’s Council.”
Harsh? Yes. Hyperbolic? Possibly. The same as Jeremiah Wright’s most controversial statements? No.
Wright, remember, was criticized most seriously for sounding anti-American, saying that the 9/11 attacks were “America’s chickens…coming home to roost” and arguing that instead of proclaiming “God bless America,” it should be “God damn America” because of the country’s institutional racism. There’s a significant difference between saying that U.S. should be blamed and punished for racism, and arguing that racist statements are now acceptable in some quarters because they’re couched as political speech. Limbaugh and Hannity understandably don’t like either sentiment, but that doesn’t mean the two should be conflated.
Since Monday, Shiloh has received more than 100 threats, including a fax featuring the image of a monkey with a target on its face.